OPINION: How David Ralston’s 2021 agenda set Republicans up for 2022

Georgia Speaker of the House Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, makes remarks after SB 202 passed the House Chambers in a legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. The Georgia state House has passed legislation brought by Republicans that could lead to a sweeping overhaul of state election law. Proposed changes include provisions adding new requirements and restrictions on absentee voting and giving the GOP-led legislature greater control over the administration of elections. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Georgia Speaker of the House Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, makes remarks after SB 202 passed the House Chambers in a legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. The Georgia state House has passed legislation brought by Republicans that could lead to a sweeping overhaul of state election law. Proposed changes include provisions adding new requirements and restrictions on absentee voting and giving the GOP-led legislature greater control over the administration of elections. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Speaker David Ralston presided above the Georgia House of Representatives Wednesday as it unanimously moved to overhaul Georgia’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law, which local prosecutors wrongly used to defend the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in 2020.

Moments earlier, Ralston and Republicans also passed a base-pleasing “anti-Defund Police Bill” to prevent Georgia cities from cutting police department budgets.

As the clock struck midnight, it was clear that Ralston had also torpedoed an NRA-backed measure that would have loosened gun restrictions, worried about passing the measure just two weeks after a mass shooting in Atlanta.

To understand how the GOP-led Georgia state House can stop a gun rights bill one day and pass an election overhaul so broad that Major League Baseball pulled the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest, you have to also understand that David Ralston’s job, along with being the Speaker of the House, is to get his members reelected in 2022.  

Faced with a shrinking caucus in a rapidly changing state, he needed it’s his job to produce results in the House that keep his moderate suburban members safe and his conservative exurban and rural members happy.

He has managed to stay on as House Speaker for 11 years because he’s managed to meet that challenge better than nearly any other Republican in the Capitol. Heading into 2020, Democrats needed to pick up 16 seats to win the majority, but picked up just two, leaving Republicans with a 103-76 majority.

“When you visualize Ralston, you don’t think of an acrobat who navigates a high wire without a net, but that’s what he’s done,” said Brian Robinson, a GOP veteran who worked at the Capitol for years for former Gov. Nathan Deal.

In an interview in the Speaker’s office just before the end of the session, Ralston said he was most proud of simply keeping the session going during COVID after he mandated mask-wearing, testing, and social distancing.

“For the most part the members have been healthy,” he said of both Republicans and Democrats. “I hope their mental health is intact, too. It’s been a challenging session.”

Challenging is an understatement.

Although Ralston was able to pass his priorities of repealing citizen’s arrest, adding funding to the state budget for rural broadband and mental health, and passing the state’s first paid parental leave for government employees, the session itself has been dominated by Republicans’ moves to overhaul elections following Donald Trump’s false accusations that Georgia 2020 votes were rigged against him.

“I’ll be the first to tell you that Republican voters were being fed a lot of misinformation. And I said that back as early as a week after the election,” Ralston said.

But Trump’s relentless insistence that Georgia’s elections were fraudulent whipped many GOP voters into a near frenzy. The State House and Senate held hearings to examine the 2020 process and introduced dozens of bills to change the way Georgians will vote in 2022.

Out of more than 80 election bills introduced, the end result was Senate Bill 202. The new law requires additional ID for absentee voting, limits drop boxes, strips Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of much of his authority and gives it to the Legislature, and famously bans outside groups from distributing food and water at polling locations.

But Ralston said what SB 202 does not include is important, too.

“I insisted upon Sunday voting, writing those limits out of the law,” he said of an early Republican proposal to ban Sunday voting. “It was a non-starter for me. Repealing no-excuse absentee voting was a non-starter, too.”

The more narrow end result has made GOP activists happy enough. The state GOP, which was instrumental in pushing Trump’s fake challenge to his Georgia loss, held a press conference Wednesday to “thank the General Assembly” for passing the bill.

But the price of Republicans pushing the legislation has also been high inside the chamber, where Republicans and Democrats typically exchange pleasantries and often even form close friendships.

One of Ralston’s closest friends in the chamber is Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the longest serving member and a veteran of plenty of contentious sessions.

“SB 202 just sucked all the oxygen out of the session,” Smyre said of the legislation, which he said was unwarranted.

“The narrative that created it was false,” Smyre said. “And now, this bill is egregious.”

The arrest of Rep. Park Cannon as she knocked on Gov. Kemp’s door after he signed SB 202, has also left House Democrats infuriated and damaged trust between the two parties even further.

Ralston has not spoken with Cannon since her arrest.

“I’m being respectful when I say this,” he said. “Some people go to the legislative body, not to legislate. Marjorie Taylor Green is a good example. And on the other side Park Cannon is a good example.”

With 2021 legislating done, Ralston knows Republicans have a serious challenge heading into 2022, where Stacey Abrams and ascendent Democrats are expected to mount serious challenges up and down the ticket.

“I respect Stacey Abrams as a political adversary,” he said. “She is smart. She’s organized. She is someone that you don’t take lightly.”

He said his party’s choice is to either fight amongst themselves “and open wide the door for her” or move on.

“I hope the state Republican Party will focus its energy on how we grow and build the party rather than how we shrink it even more.”

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