OPINION: House Speaker David Ralston is considering a run against Sen. Raphael Warnock. Really.

01/07/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, makes remarks during a pre legislative session media availability at the Georgia State Capitol building in downtown Atlanta, Thursday, January 7, 2021. The Georgia legislative session will begin January 11, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
01/07/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, makes remarks during a pre legislative session media availability at the Georgia State Capitol building in downtown Atlanta, Thursday, January 7, 2021. The Georgia legislative session will begin January 11, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

When The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported two weeks ago that House Speaker David Ralston was considering a challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the idea was greeted with a collective, “Wait, what?” among Georgia political watchers.

The widespread skepticism came not from doubts that Ralston could win, but from disbelief that he would even bother.

“Why in the world would he want to do that?” the conversations went.

Although Ralston may not be a household name in Georgia, he is easily one of the most powerful leaders in the state. On some days, he’s the most powerful.

So why would the Republican from Blue Ridge give that up to join the U.S. Senate, which has devolved from the world’s greatest deliberative body to what looks like a cesspool of dysfunction?

Ralston explained his thinking Friday on GPB’s “Political Rewind” with Bill Nigut. I was a guest on the program, too, so had a front-row seat to the most unexpected show in town.

“Well, I think anyone who serves in the legislative process is intrigued by new challenges and this certainly would be a new challenge,” Ralston said.

He called a decision on a possible run “a process not an event,” so don’t look for an announcement any time in the immediate future. But do take seriously the idea that he is taking this seriously.

“I’m not looking for a job. I’ve got a good job,” he said. “By the same token, I am troubled, probably more than any time from a policy standpoint at least in my memory, about the direction of the country.”

He cited the dysfunction in the Senate, the very thing that turns most people off of the idea of running, as the part that intrigues him most.

“There are a lot of role models of senators that have served in that body from Georgia,” he said, pointing to Johnny Isakson, Sam Nunn, Saxby Chambliss, and Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander as lawmakers he admired. “They were looking to solve problems and build consensus and that’s the path I’ve always tried to follow,” he said.

Along with legislating, Ralston would put a premium on something else-- winning. After a trip to D.C. in May to see Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Speaker called the Warnock match-up against former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, one “we never should have lost” that also represents the “best opportunity for a Republican pick up in the nation next year.”

The idea that Ralston could leave the top spot in the House to mount a Senate run would not just shake up the Senate field, which so far has failed to draw the high-profile names against Warnock that many expected by now.

It would also rock the membership of the state House where Ralston presides. While the power centers on the Senate side of the Capitol seem to get shuffled more than a deck of cards, Ralston has kept a steady rein on his own troops since 2010.

In 2020, he was re-elected Speaker 90 to 2. The Republican who ran against him, Rep. David Clark, announced his retirement Tuesday.

Much of Ralston’s success inside the chamber has come from his ability to grow and then mostly hold the Republican majority around the state with his House members. Even as Georgia Republicans took historic hits in 2020 up and down the ticket, state legislators emerged mostly unscathed, losing a net of just two House seats when Democrats needed 16 to win control of the chamber and half expected to pull it off.

Rank and file Republicans chalked their 2020 wins up to a blend of base-pleasing legislation like a strict anti-abortion measure, coupled with broadly popular bills to cut taxes, increase teacher pay, address maternal mortality and pass the state’s new anti-hate crimes law after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.

Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, one of the suburban Republicans who has held his seat during the Ralston years, said Friday that he’s convinced that Ralston would win the race if he gets in.

“There’s no doubt that his statewide network, and the fact that he could be an effective senator for the state of Georgia on day one, makes him the frontrunner in the race if he decides to run,” Efstration said.

To his point, Ralston’s leadership PAC, the House Republican Trust, raised roughly $5 million in the 2020 cycle, on top of the $1.2 million that Ralston raised for his own race, even as he ran unopposed.

But that’s not to say Democrats wouldn’t have plenty to work with were the Speaker to mount a Senate run. For starters, he presided over the passage of Senate Bill 202, the state’s controversial new election law that has been a hit with Republican voters, but Democrats called “Jim Crow 2.0.”

And it’s easy to imagine the attack ads that would flow from an AJC investigation in 2019 that found Ralston, a defense attorney, repeatedly delayed court dates in criminal cases for his clients when they interfered with his legislative duties, sometimes delaying trials for years.

Finally, while Warnock will be part of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic progressive slate of Democratic candidates for a fast-changing Georgia, a 67-year-old white man from the North Georgia mountains may not seem like a natural counteroffer for voters.

But Ralston’s courtly demeanor and grown-up brand of politics could appeal to the crucial suburban voters that Republicans lost in 2020 and cannot afford to lose again in 2022.

Add to that a progressive streak on mental health issues and paid family leave for all families, including gay parents, along with Ralston’s decision this year to torpedo an NRA-backed gun bill in the wake of the mass shootings in Atlanta, and you’ve got a potential candidate who long ago ditched the playbook that failed for Republicans in 2020.

It’s entirely possible that after kicking the tires on a Senate run, Ralston decides that being the king of his House kingdom is enough for him.

But in the meantime, we know the Speaker is thinking about running for Senate, really, and that in Georgia politics, we should have learned by now to expect only the unexpected.

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