Political Insider

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At 100-day mark, gauging Trump's impact on Georgia

One hundred days into the tenure of the most mold-shattering administration in modern history and President Donald Trump has moved at breakneck pace to try and strip away federal regulations, reset the country’s economic relationships abroad and dismantle the biggest pieces of his predecessor’s legacy.

Georgians now log on to Twitter to gauge the state of mind of the most powerful man in the world. Decades of custom on everything from foreign policy to trade — even the standard photo-op — have been upended.

The early days of Trump’s presidency have galvanized some in Georgia. Many conservatives, populists and rural Republicans who felt ignored in the old political world order see a no-nonsense ally in the White House who will cut through special interests and usher their ideas into law.

Democrats, who were licking their wounds after last year’s losses at the ballot box, are now re-energized in their resistance. Many have organized, protesting regularly on streets and sidewalks, flooding town hall events and propelling a 30-year-old political novice to the edge of an upset victory in the Republican-leaning 6th Congressional District.

Georgia’s clout in Washington has increased significantly under Trump’s short tenure. He promoted Roswell Congressman Tom Price and former Gov. Sonny Perdue to Cabinet-level posts and hired several of their aides, as well as other Georgians who backed his campaign, for plum White House posts.

A trio of Georgia Democrats — U.S. Rep. John Lewis, former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates and 6th District candidate Jon Ossoff — have emerged as national symbols of the left’s opposition to the administration and its agenda.

Meanwhile, the state’s more business-oriented Republicans have been forced to reckon with whether to embrace some of Trump’s more divisive policies or risk running afoul of the president’s committed supporters in Georgia. He won the state by 5 points, racking up huge margins in much of rural Georgia.

Some of the uncertainty that swirled as Trump prepared to take the oath of office hasn’t gone away. Gridlock persists in Washington, and Republican leaders have struggled to make much progress on Trump’s top priorities such as health care, the border wall and tax cuts.

The standstill has trickled down more than 600 miles south to Georgia, where most GOP leaders are waiting for more signals from Washington before deciding how to act on health care, tax policy or other daunting divides.

Limited policy impact

Had Hillary Clinton swept the election, a raft of legislation aimed at curtailing her executive actions and legislative priorities would surely be pending on Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk.

For one, it would have ensured the survival of the Affordable Care Act and reignited debate about whether the state should expand the Medicaid program. Instead, Trump’s victory has for now extinguished serious talk of enlarging the program.

Deal urged Georgians to “caution against taking giant leaps on health care policy” until Trump and Congress hash out what they’ll do. And he warned against making vast changes to the tax code that he said could “jeopardize” the state’s fiscal health.

With one health overhaul already on the trash heap and only an outline for sweeping tax changes, there’s no telling when that would be.

White House officials say that Trump has been one of the most productive presidents of the modern era, and they point to the roughly 30 executive orders he’s signed to date. Those actions have touched on everything from Chinese steel dumping to national monument designations.

The pace has been dizzying, and supporters say it’s prompted a new sense of optimism in Georgia and beyond. U.S. Sen. David Perdue, one of Trump’s top allies in the state, said residents “are beginning to see a president who is moving at a business pace and not a bureaucratic pace, not a Washington pace.”

Those executive orders, though, have largely had a limited impact in Georgia, since most are targeted at the business conducted by federal agencies. The legislation Congress has sent to Trump’s desk has also been relatively narrow in scope since Senate Democrats have stonewalled the GOP’s most sweeping proposals.

That’s led to a muted Trump impact on Georgia policy.

A bill Trump signed earlier this month would allow states to block funding for Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers; Georgia has long withheld state funding for the groups.

Trump’s administration has threatened to restrict federal funding for cities that declare themselves “sanctuaries” and don’t report immigrants living here illegally; the mayors of Atlanta and other Democratic-led cities have refused such a designation. A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked the order from going into effect.

That’s also been the legal fate of one of Trump’s signature policy proposals — a pause in admitting Middle Eastern refugees. Thousands congregated outside Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to protest the president’s move to institute the ban in January, and it’s since been blocked in court.

Where Congress’ Republican majority has been able to make its voice heard the most is through special legislation nullifying leftover Obama-era regulations. Trump has signed a record 13 of them since January.

Junior Republican lawmakers, including several from Georgia, said they feel more included and part of the White House’s decision-making process than ever before; one of the first bills Trump signed into law was authored by U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter of Pooler.

And Republicans cheered Trump’s quick response to a pair of disasters that struck Georgia after his inauguration. Trump called Deal and secured a federal disaster declaration after a deadly wave of tornadoes struck the state in January. And he approved $10 million in emergency funding to help repair a portion of the I-85 bridge that collapsed in March.

But many of the regulatory overhauls Trump has pushed, such as scaling back an Environmental Protection Agency rule that expands federal oversight of the nation’s wetlands and waterways, could take years of court battles and public hearings to implement.

‘Stand up to Trump’

On the ground, though, Trump’s first 100 days have sparked a different sort of reaction.

Democratic meetings that were once nearly empty now regularly attract hundreds. A raft of first-time candidates are lining up to challenge GOP incumbents. And Republican lawmakers are now the target of frequent protests from demonstrators demanding they hold public town hall meetings.

Betty Merriman of Tucker is one of the regulars who lines up outside David Perdue’s downtown Atlanta office on most Tuesdays, waving signs that encourage him to defy Trump.

“The environment, climate change — I just want him to stand up to Trump’s terrible policies,” she said. “I want him to speak up and fight Trump.”

In the 6th Congressional District, Ossoff has been able to capitalize on that tide of anti-Trump frustration to almost swipe the Republican-leaning district in Atlanta’s northern suburbs. His June 20 runoff against Republican Karen Handel is cast as an early referendum on Trump’s popularity.

Democrats are banking on the enthusiasm to echo through next year’s statewide elections, when the governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state offices will all be wide open.

“If Trump has done one thing, he’s energized Democrats,” said Jeff DiSantis, a longtime Democratic strategist. “He’s been his own worst enemy. There’s a much more plausible path to a Democratic governor and a bigger Democratic caucus in the statehouse thanks to Trump.”

Antsy conservatives hope Trump and a Republican-led Congress don’t squander the opportunity to accomplish their goals. Midterm elections typically spell trouble for the party in control, and the party’s special election struggles in Georgia and Kansas have unnerved many Republicans.

“Make no mistake about it, Georgia’s 6th is a huge bellwether,” said Chip Lake, a Republican operative.

The Trump effect has many traditional Republican candidates wondering how aggressively they should embrace the president. Not doing so could risk alienating Trump’s most ardent GOP supporters — or even incurring the wrath of the White House. No Republican candidate in Georgia wants to be on the wrong side of a Trump Twitter barrage.

“I think mainstream Republican candidates are having to focus on supporting the Trump administration’s policies and actions while distancing themselves from the antics or the distracting tweets,” said Heath Garrett, a confidante of U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

Isakson is a prime example of a Republican who has tried to walk that narrow line. An establishment-friendly Republican who is known for cutting deals with Democrats, Isakson endorsed Trump last summer but then kept him at arm’s length.

In an interview, Isakson said he has grown comfortable with the president and found ways to work with him when he disagrees. One example: He dialed the White House when he broke with Trump to voice concerns about Andy Puzder, his first nominee to lead the U.S. Labor Department.

“There are lots of ways to be effective without being on the front page of the newspaper,” Isakson said.

Many plead for more patience for an anti-establishment candidate who staked out an ambitious agenda.

“I’m so used to hearing politicians say one thing during the campaign and then do the other. But Trump has come through,” said B.J. Van Gundy, a Gwinnett management consultant.

“He’s stuck to his wish list. Trump promised to repeal and replace Obamacare and he tried to do it. He promised to cut taxes, and he’s coming up with his plan now,” he added. “He’s a dealmaker, and I’ve got confidence that he’ll work with Congress to get it done.”

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.