Shifting political ground pushes Georgia candidates away from center
Posted May 14, 2018 3:36 p.m. EDT
ATLANTA -- The gulf between the top Democrats and Republicans in Georgia is as wide as it has been in decades.
Georgia Democrats are scuffling over how loudly they'll fight for gun control, expand health care coverage and boost the HOPE scholarship. Republicans scrap over how aggressively they'll push for looser gun restrictions, deeper tax cuts and new abortion restrictions.
No matter who emerges in the May 22 race, Democrats will nominate someone who pledges to adopt broad new firearm restrictions, oppose socially conservative legislation, pump tens of millions of dollars into a Medicaid expansion and take steps to decriminalize marijuana.
And a Republican victor is poised to push for looser gun laws, "religious liberty" legislation and tougher restrictions on immigrants who came to to the country illegally.
Candidates always race to their base in primaries, but the maneuvering toward the flanks in this contest is far more pronounced than in other recent state elections. And it will make it more difficult for whoever emerges from the fray to dart back toward the center in November.
Contenders from both parties are relying on attention-grabbing proposals to fuel their run: One Republican pledged to use his own pickup truck to round up people in the country without authorization, while a Democrat wants to remove the Confederate faces from Stone Mountain.
Republicans have long gravitated toward conservative issues, driven by the tea party and religious conservatives. It's why the GOP primary so far has revolved around issues such as gun rights and tough-on-crime initiatives that resonate with the party's primary electorate.
But to Georgia Democrats, the leftward lurch at the top of their ticket is more dramatic.
After decades of running more moderate or conservative candidates for the state's top jobs, the party has aggressively taken on progressive issues to try to energize Democrats already frustrated by President Donald Trump. And more competition for those spots has only intensified the push.
Take it from DeKalb County Chief Executive Michael Thurmond, who was the state's Democratic labor commissioner. He ran as a moderate in each of his statewide contests and hasn't taken sides in the race between former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and ex-state Rep. Stacey Evans.
"But one thing I do know -- not only will the winner of the primary be the first Democratic woman or African-American nominated for governor," he said, "she'll be the first liberal in a long time."
'Ground is shifting'
That's partly because the party has avoided bruising primary battles this decade.
Roy Barnes, a former governor, steamrolled over Democratic opponents in 2010 in a comeback bid. Jason Carter had no Democratic challenger in his bid for governor in 2014, while Michelle Nunn faced only lightly funded opponents in her run for U.S. Senate.
That allowed them to stick to the traditional centrist strategy. Carter based his campaign on significantly boosting public education funding and backing a broad gun rights expansion. Nunn tried to paint herself as a moderate in the same strain as her father, former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn.
Spurred by Trump's presidency, state Democrats have thrown that playbook out the window.
Not since 2004 have Georgia Democrats mustered so many candidates for legislative races and statewide contests -- including an unprecedented number of women running for state offices.
Some Republican incumbents in the state Legislature or U.S. Congress who have rarely if ever faced a credible Democratic opponent are now competing against well-funded challengers. Many of the 19 GOP state legislators not seeking re-election are in increasingly competitive districts.
The new burst of Democratic energy has created internal friction, pitting ideological purity against more mainstream Democratic views, just as it has nationally. And newly energized voters are demanding that candidates run on more progressive issues, such as gun control and free college tuition.
"Running as a liberal is important," said Jennifer Freeman, a middle school teacher. "Growing up, I thought it was just Democrats or Republicans. But now I realize there are more shades. And I want someone more liberal."
That dynamic is shaping races even in the most conservative territories in Georgia. U.S. Rep. Jody Hice's northeast Georgia district is considered so safe that he didn't even face token Democratic opposition in 2016. This year, several Democrats are trying to outflank each other on the left for the right to run against him.
Health care advocate Chalis Montgomery entered the race months ago after trying to confront Hice at a town hall meeting over his refusal to support the Affordable Care Act. Her platform is a progressive one: She backs a minimum wage of $15, a surge of infrastructure investment and a "Medicare for all" plan.
Montgomery's main opponent, University of Georgia philosophy professor Richard Dien Winfield, is trying to one-up her. He insists on a $20 minimum wage and a federal job guarantee to put millions to work on building new schools and affordable housing, expanding public transit and laying broadband lines.
"A strong Democratic turnout isn't enough in a district like mine right now," Winfield said after a recent campaign event in Covington. "We need to win over more voters with an economic rights agenda. The ground is shifting now under our feet."
'A new playbook?'
The liberal tilt is most visible at the top of the ticket, where Abrams and Evans each claim to be the biggest progressive.
Abrams pitches herself as the state's most aggressive champion of liberal ideals while serving as the state House's Democratic leader -- even if it meant occasionally working with Republicans to stave off deeper cuts.
Evans counters that her opponent wasn't aggressive enough on the party's top priorities, particularly Republican-backed cuts to the HOPE scholarship and changes to district lines that helped two vulnerable GOP incumbents.
But they have also embraced a range of other issues that would have been afterthoughts in previous state Democratic campaigns. Both vow to take steps to decriminalize marijuana, champion LGBTQ rights and combat climate change.
Abrams also calls for the removal of the Confederate figures from state-owned Stone Mountain, ending capital punishment and reversing income tax cuts adopted by Georgia lawmakers this year. Evans wants to extend the early voting period from 21 days to 45 days and cut ties with for-profit private prisons.
They have tried to outdo each other over how adamantly they oppose gun rights expansions, a dramatic departure from decades of conventional Democratic strategy that included cozying up to the National Rifle Association.
"If Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans look like their politics are farther to the left of a Michelle Nunn, it's because they are," said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist. "There are fewer conservative Democrats in their base, and they don't have to moderate their opinions anymore to attempt to try to win more votes."
Barnes, the former governor, campaigned in 1998 and 2002 with the NRA's blessing. He still doesn't believe in "strict" firearms regulations, but he also said the protest ignited by students after the mass shooting at a Florida high school has changed the political dynamic.
"These kids are moving public opinion," he said.
Surrounded by hundreds of cheering supporters at an Atlanta rally earlier this month, Abrams put the question of running as a liberal to her supporters.
"Do we run on messages that don't tell us anything or do anything -- and promise us nothing?" she asked, her voice rising. "Or do we run on a new playbook?"
The roar of the crowd let her know they preferred the latter.
A 'Goldilocks' dilemma
The five GOP candidates face the same question Republicans have grappled with for years: Will the rightward lean alienate the independents and moderates they need to win in November?
This time, though, they also must contend with a president who is wildly popular among rural voters but still struggles in the suburbs. Trump lost both Cobb and Gwinnett counties, two former GOP strongholds rich in votes that flipped for the first time since Jimmy Carter's presidency.
The candidates have responded by emphasizing support for Trump while largely trying to shift toward state issues that appeal to conservatives who dominate the primary vote.
In a bus tour that crisscrossed the state, former state Sen. Hunter Hill touted his plan to eliminate the state income tax and then rolled out an endorsement from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a former presidential candidate who is popular with evangelical voters.
And Secretary of State Brian Kemp has earned national attention -- and sparked outrage from critics -- for a pair of ads that featured him cleaning a shotgun beside a young man courting his daughter and another pledging to "round up criminal illegals and take 'em home myself" from his pickup truck.
All but one candidate, executive Clay Tippins, has pledged to sign a "religious liberty" measure. And each supported the state's decision to nix a tax break for Delta Air Lines after it ended a discount program for the NRA.
Only Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who has a commanding lead in public polling, has staked out positions with an eye toward the general election. Though he's taken conservative stances on guns and illegal immigration, he's also rejected calls by his rivals to support deeper tax breaks and the nation's toughest abortion restrictions.
"As Republicans, we believe in a safety net," he told a crowd in Monroe, describing his support for some social services. "But we don't believe in a safety net that becomes a hammock. We believe in a safety net that becomes a trampoline."
Whether the race to the flanks will turn off voters in the general election won't be known for some time. But Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist, said voters looking for a happy medium probably won't find a home in November.
"Some of those who turn out in November may have a Goldilocks dilemma as they find the GOP nominee too conservative and the Democrat too liberal," Bullock said. "Unlike Goldilocks, there is no alternative in between."
Still, veteran politicos said the widening partisan gap in Georgia boiled down to shrewd strategy.
Brandon Phillips, who once led Trump's Georgia campaign, said Republicans who don't take up hard-right positions in the primary will be branded as squishy moderates. And Thurmond chuckled when asked about the maneuvering on his side of the aisle.
"If you don't win the primary," he said, "it doesn't matter."
Greg Bluestein writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: gbluestein(at)ajc.com.
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