OPINION: 2023 was the calm before the storm for Georgia politics

In a handout provided by the Fulton County Sheriff's Office, former President Donald Trump poses for his booking photo at the Fulton County Jail on Aug. 24, 2023, in Atlanta. (Fulton County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

In a handout provided by the Fulton County Sheriff's Office, former President Donald Trump poses for his booking photo at the Fulton County Jail on Aug. 24, 2023, in Atlanta. (Fulton County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images/TNS)

It’s hard to call a year like 2023 “calm” when we saw former President Donald Trump indicted in Georgia, a beloved former First Lady put to rest, and Georgia’s legislative maps tossed out by a federal judge. But compared to what’s ahead in the next 12 months, we may look back at 2023 as a sleepy preview of what came next.

The year kicked off quietly enough in January, with Gov. Brian Kemp newly elected and Republicans coming off of victories in all but one statewide contest in 2022.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock made history when he was sworn into his first full term as Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator. And the General Assembly gaveled into session with two new Republican leaders as House Speaker Jon Burns and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones took over the state House and Senate.

But Georgia politics in 2023 didn’t stay quiet or predictable for long. Several major events and themes dominated the year.

1. Donald Trump indicted. The most indelible image of 2023 came in late August when Donald Trump arrived at the Fulton County jail to be booked on racketeering and election interference charges.

Indicted by a Fulton County grand jury two weeks earlier, the former president roared through the Rice Street gates that evening in a motorcade so gargantuan, he seemed more like a conquering hero than an accused felon. And that was the goal, of course. News crews from all over the world jockeyed for position in front of the gates to capture the moment, but Trump released his own mugshot later that night with the slogan “NEVER SURRENDER” on t-shirts, koozies and, of course, mugs.

Since then four of Trump’s 18 co-defendants have pled guilty to charges in Georgia, but none to the biggest charge of all — rackateering. That’s what Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis will be trying to prove in the trial that’s expected to start later this year. The timing of that trial and what it could do to Trump’s electoral chances now becomes one of the biggest questions in politics heading into 2024.

2. Democrats’ Georgia struggles. As bad as the headlines were for Donald Trump in Georgia this year, it was President Joe Biden who struggled the most with Georgia voters. Chalk it up to the state’s still racing inflation rate at the beginning of the year or Biden’s own stumbles, but an AJC poll of Georgia voters in February showed him with just a 35% approval rating in the state, with 60% disapproving of the job he’d done in the White House so far.

The months that followed brought more bad news for Democratic politicos here. The national party awarded the Democratic National Convention to Chicago over Atlanta in April. And a plan from Biden to move Georgia’s Democratic presidential primary up to be one of the first in the country ran into a buzzsaw when Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger refused to make the change.

By November, another AJC poll showed Biden with a slightly improved 40% approval rating in the state. But it also showed him statistically tied with Trump in a potential head-to-head match-up, even after Trump was indicted in Fulton County. Democrats I spoke with after the poll said Biden is in real trouble in their minority communities.

Biden says voters don’t need to pick between him and “the Almighty,” just between him and “the Alternative.” But the alternative, likely Donald Trump, hasn’t finished the year as expected.

3. Trump’s enduring strength. 2023 has reminded us of just how wrong assumptions can be, especially when it comes to Trump. If you thought the former president would be damaged by his mugshot spectacle or by being indicted for alleged election fraud in the state, think again.

Just days after his booking at the jail, another AJC poll showed he was still the runaway favorite for Republican voters in the GOP presidential primary, with 57% of likely Republican voters for Trump and just 15% for second-place Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Instead of hurting Trump’s presidential campaign, the indictments became its beating heart. Trump pointed to Willis and the charges against him as proof that he’s the biggest threat to Biden and the only one who can defeat the president in November. So far, 70% of Georgia Republicans agree and say he’s the most electable candidate they’ve got.

Can Trump appeal beyond the base of his base? Plenty of veteran Republicans have told me they won’t vote in 2024 if he’s the nominee. Whether he can win over anyone other than the people who voted for him when he ran and lost to Biden three years ago is the question.

4. Unfinished fights at the General Assembly. With a Republican governor and Republicans in the majority in the state House and Senate, you’d think it would be easier for the two chambers to agree. But the last day of the 2023 session of the General Assembly left plenty of unfinished battles to resume in 2024.

A Senate-passed school voucher bill, which Kemp had suddenly thrown his weight behind, failed on the messy last day of the session, as did a hospital bill that the lieutenant governor wanted, and a mental health measure that the Speaker and governor had pushed for.

Look for those fights to resume, along with the ongoing question of which chamber, and which Republican leader, has the real power at the Capitol.

In the drama of Georgia politics, 2023 leaves us with plenty of cliffhangers. We will find out how it all ends in 2024.