ATLANTA – Amid a supernova of criticism over Georgia’s new voting law, Republicans are still trying to appeal to swing voters in a state where Democrats have now proved they can win.
As the last minutes of the 2021 General Assembly ticked away Wednesday, a bill making it easier for visitors to carry guns in Georgia and mandating protections for gun-related businesses was dying. It needed one quick House vote to reach Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for signature into law. However, the bill never came up. House Speaker David Ralston told reporters it was too soon after the shooting deaths of eight people at massage businesses in metro Atlanta.
“We needed to be very, very sensitive to any gun legislation,” said Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican. “You know we’re less than two weeks out from two major mass killings and so, you know, that heightens my level of sensitivity to that.”
State Rep. Shea Roberts, an Atlanta Democrat who narrowly unseated a Republican opponent in 2020, said Ralston shied away from the gun bill to avoid political fallout.
“I’m glad we didn’t expand gun rights. I think that was just one more thing they knew they would take a hit on if they did it,” Roberts said.
Georgia Republicans are trying to be conservative — but not too conservative — as they work to retain moderate suburban voters while Democrats led by 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams challenge once-secure Republican rule. Candidates for 2022 are already announcing, and redistricting looms for congressional and state lawmakers. So Kemp and other Republicans are walking a narrow line, seeking to continue to rule the state and prevent Democratic U.S. Sen Raphael Warnock's reelection next year.
“It’s marginal, but right now Georgia is living on the margins. As long as Georgia is living on the margins, this balance is working,” Republican political consultant Brian Robinson said. He said Republican leaders strived to govern “from the center right, not from the far right,” even when they were winning easily.
It's unclear if Republican gestures toward moderation will matter amid the overwhelming reaction to the voting law, including Major League Baseball pulling its All-Star Game from the Atlanta Braves stadium Friday.
“I think that’s probably going to be the single biggest thing remembered from the session,” said Republican Sen. Clint Dixon, who represents a competitive district in suburban Gwinnett County.
There's also a push for stronger action, like the vote the House took to strip Delta Air Lines of a jet fuel tax break after CEO Ed Bastian sharpened criticism of the voting law. That measure was never likely to pass, but some Republicans relished expressing displeasure against metro Atlanta's largest private employer.
“You don’t feed a dog that bites your hand," Ralston said.
University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said tension exists between what devoted Republicans desire and what the party needs to win.
“A party or its members can get caught in a vise between what some of the core members of the party want, or even demand, and where the broader electorate is," Bullock said.
It’s also unclear if Republicans can differentiate themselves at the state level in a polarized national environment.
“They do not operate in a bubble,” Robinson said. “State parties cannot exist outside of their national parties as far as public perception today.”
Ralston has taken a go-slow approach on many socially conservative proposals after a bruising 2016 debate over whether religious freedom legislation would legalize discrimination against gay and lesbian people. That caution was rewarded in 2020, when Republicans maintained majorities in the General Assembly even as Joe Biden won Georgia's electoral votes and Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeated Republicans in January runoffs to give Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.
Republican lawmakers did ban cities and counties from sharply cutting police funding this year, blocking “defund the police” movements. That was paired with a nearly unanimous repeal of Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law after the 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man pursued and shot by white men who claimed they believed he had committed a crime.
“Some of what we have done, we can call progress," Senate Democratic Minority Leader Gloria Butler of Stone Mountain said.
Republicans abandoned a bill banning transgender girls from playing on girls sports teams in high schools as similar bills sailed into law in other Republican-controlled states. Dixon cited that failure and the gun bill as disappointments, but said, “There is a balance you’ve got to strike.”
Kemp has welcomed partisan combat over the voting law since signing it, fortifying himself among Republicans after withering attacks from President Donald Trump for Kemp's refusal to overturn Biden's victory in Georgia. But the governor is also planning partial expansion of Medicaid, although the Biden administration is rejecting Kemp's insistence on work requirements.
That's one of a series of small-bore policies, including paid parental leave for state employees, extended Medicaid for mothers after childbirth and easier children's health insurance enrollment. All undermine Democratic pushes for broader changes.
“They do these other things so they can say ‘Look, we care,'" Roberts said. “They do these incremental things, but there’s so much more we could be doing.”
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