OPINION: Can Republicans resist jumping down the FBI rabbit hole with Trump?

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The AJC’s latest poll showed a number we don’t often see in political surveys — 96%. That was the portion of likely Georgia voters who said the rising cost of gas and groceries will play a role in their decision of who to vote for this November. No other issue even came close.

With that information, it’s easy to see why Democrats in Washington are making the choices they’ve made recently. That includes taking their gargantuan “Build Back Better” legislation, lopping off its arms and legs, and renaming it, “The Inflation Reduction Act.”

The bill combined progressive must-haves on climate change and Obamacare subsidies with broadly popular efforts to cut the cost of prescription drugs for seniors, something that Georgia’s U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock worked to include specifically. But it left out Democrats’ most expensive pipe-dream programs like paid parental leave and universal child care.

The result was a Senate-passed bill about one-tenth the size of Build Back Better, but with an economic tagline that Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff can take credit for at events around the state later this month.

The slimmed-down, revamped package squeezed by the Senate on a 51-50 tie-breaking vote over the weekend and House Democrats will vote on the package on Friday.

Along with a bill to speed U.S. microchip production that Georgia companies have pushed for, and help for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, the likely passage of the legislation means Democrats will have had a surprisingly productive last few weeks in Washington, despite President Joe Biden’s listing approval ratings.

Republicans have been on an economic roll in Georgia, too, where GOP Gov. Brian Kemp has practically welded himself and his campaign message to the state’s galloping economy. Events this week are designed to roll out additional good financial news for Georgians, such as a second planned $1 billion tax rebate from the state’s flush coffers, and a possible rebate for homeowners down the road, too.

Throughout the summer, Kemp has made only nodding mention of the newly activated abortion restrictions that he signed in 2019, which a majority of Georgia voters oppose, nor the even more unpopular gun law he signed to great fanfare during the GOP primary.

For Kemp, just as it was with James Carville’s famous winning message in the 1992 presidential campaign, it’s the economy.

Even Herschel Walker enjoyed a disciplined moment last week as his campaign seemed to finally get its legs underneath it.

After spending months on the defensive over debates and bad headlines, Walker finally said yes, he would debate Warnock. And in a bit of political jujitsu, the Walker campaign picked a debate that was not one of the three the senator has already accepted.

Walker also stayed focused on a tight economic message, blaming Biden for the cost of gas and groceries and framing the Democrats’ climate and health bill as nothing more than a gigantic tax increase. That the tax hikes apply to corporate stock buybacks and corporations with $1 billion in yearly profits wasn’t especially important.

Warnock had voted for the bill and Walker had his message.

But on Tuesday morning, on the day after the FBI executed a search warrant at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, Walker followed Trump’s closest Georgia allies, including GOP U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Andrew Clyde, in jumping to his defense.

“If they can do this to a former President they can do it to any one of us,” Walker said in a statement. “Merrick Garland must resign or be impeached. This isn’t a partisan issue, it’s a matter of right and wrong.”

Echoing Donald Trump, Jr., Eric Trump, and far-right Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, Walker also accused Biden of “weaponizing” the Justice Department and compared the move to something that would only happen “in a banana republic.”

What did Kemp have to say about the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago action? Nothing.

True to the message discipline that helped him win his GOP primary in May by more than 50 points, Kemp’s team pushed news of his plans for the tax refund out to reporters Tuesday, while the governor delivered a taped message to the Georgia Chamber on job growth in the state.

Reaction to Mar-a-Lago, Trump, the FBI or banana republics is not forthcoming.

Why did Kemp stay mum, while Walker jumped down the FBI rabbit hole with MTG and Andrew Clyde?

Walker, is, of course, a longtime ally of the former president’s, having played for Trump’s New Jersey Generals and remaining so close over the years that their families vacationed together. And Trump was the first to call for Walker to get into the Georgia Senate race, even while Walker was still living in Texas.

But as Trump faded out of the Georgia political headlines over the summer, Walker’s Trump-free brand began to establish itself, too. That was incredibly helpful for a candidate in a state the former president lost in 2020, Trump-aligned GOP senators lost in 2021, and Trump’s GOP primary picks mostly went down in flames in 2022.

The only thing that’s changed in Georgia since then, other than Trump becoming even less popular, has been the rising cost of groceries, the still-high cost of gas, and voters’ anxieties about it all.

Kemp understands that and is acting accordingly. Warnock’s focus, too, is on targeting specific costs of medicine and gas, even as inflation pushes other costs higher.

Kemp’s Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams has even worked to wrap key social issues like abortion in an economic framework and she rolled out her own economic message on Tuesday night.

The former president’s legal problems, real or perceived, have never been a top issue for Georgia voters. The candidates who spent time more focused on Trump’s grievances than Georgians’ concerns have had the losses to show for it in the end.

There has rarely been a campaign win at the bottom of the Trump rabbit hole.