Political Insider

An AJC blog about Atlanta politics, Georgia politics, Georgia and metro Atlanta election campaigns. Because all politics is local.

An early look at the legacy of Donald Trump

Seventy-two hours before the campaign ends isn’t too early to begin an examination of Donald Trump’s legacy.

Win or lose, he’ll leave a permanent mark on the Republican party. In Georgia, one could say that the New York businessman already has.

If Trumpism is defined as a populist revolt against a party elite that thinks it knows best, that certainly explains why — after luring the Atlanta Braves across the Chattahoochee River — Tim Lee lost his bid for re-election this summer as chairman of the Cobb County Commission.

On Tuesday, even after voters make their choice for president of these United States, Trumpism could make at least one more statement on the Georgia ballot. Voters will be asked to pass judgment on Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed constitutional suggestion for saving schools that fail their students.

Deal would have the state take a limited number of schools into a kind of temporary, protective custody to shield students from inept or corrupt school boards. The initiative requires voters to believe that the governor’s office can do a better job than the locals they see at church or in the grocery store.

Polls indicate that this has become a losing argument. Amendment 1 is on the downswing. The only question may be whether it prompts a cascade of negativity down the ballot.

Amendment 3, for instance, would put an end to the independence of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, a small watchdog agency that serves as a check on the behavior of judges. This is another “trust me” proposal. Control of a new JQC would fall to the Legislature.

By Wednesday, God willing, we’ll know who will occupy the White House for the next four years. But already, many Trump supporters are honing their bitterness.

Alex Johnson is a Georgia GOP activist of the libertarian mold. He has been a candidate for state chairman, and likely will be again next year. On Thursday, he sent a note out to party members.

“If there is an unfortunate loss, it will be because the national GOP and the connected paid political industry, failed to be interested in, ready to, or effective at turning the millions of angry, disaffected ‘anti-establishment’ voters supporting Trump into hundreds of thousands of involved activists and volunteers,” he wrote.

In Georgia, a first post-Trump battle between traditionalists and the pitchfork crowd could begin with the January session of the Legislature. Populist demands for legislation to shout down the U.S. Supreme Court on gay marriage will again be opposed by the GOP business class. That will be followed in the spring by the contest to replace the exiting state GOP chairman, John Padgett of Athens.

At each stage, two Georgia GOP stalwarts could find themselves on opposite sides of some intense battles.

One is Leo Smith, who is in charge of “minority engagement” for the state party. He is African-American, and served as a surrogate for the Trump presidential campaign.

Smith is not too far from Johnson in his criticism of a Republican National Committee captured by entrenched interests. “The RNC did not have a groundswell of leaders that were strong enough, in the professional consulting class,” Smith said. There wasn’t enough diversity.

“What [Trump] saw was, they’re all losers, they’re all failures — because they’re all blue-blazer, khaki pants guys. He wanted something different. He wanted some edge,” Smith said.

While many think that Trump has hurt the GOP when it comes to reaching out to African-Americans and other minorities, Smith does not.

“As I worked to grow the party across race, I realized the biggest division is class,” he said. “We see that class division in some of the Trump base.”

One of the biggest demographic shifts accomplished by the Trump campaign, purposely or not: Democrats, in this race, have become the party of those with college degrees. The Republican party has become the home for those without higher education. In other words, the blue collar crowd.

“It appears that that is a segment that we weren’t giving enough attention to. But most black Americans also fit that description of not being college-educated,” Smith said. “So I’ve got some commonality in two segments of Georgia that we need to do a better job targeting. They have a lot of commonality, except for their skin color. They both feel marginalized.”

But to Smith’s point. This isn’t just about race. It’s about class. “How do we take care of the bundlers who might have worked with Jeb Bush, but at the same time deal with the tree-cutting guy who has a second job as a cleaner at night, lives in North Georgia and has a pick-up truck?” he asked.

Which brings us to the other side of the coin.

Eric Tanenblatt has been a fixture in Republican politics in Georgia for decades. He was Gov. Sonny Perdue’s chief of staff. He is a confidante of the Bush family at all three levels: George H.W., George W. and Jeb. He was a top fundraiser in both of Mitt Romney’s campaigns for the presidency.

Win or lose, part of the Trump legacy will be the need to repair the party’s damaged finances, he said.

“You have a lot of donors that have just stayed on the sidelines. There’s going to need to be an effort to bring them back,” Tanenblatt said. “They’re not pleased with what they’ve experienced and witnessed this past year. They’re going to need to be convinced that this is going to be a worthwhile investment.”

This year’s session of the Legislature will be part of that discussion. “If [party funders] see legislative leaders in Georgia talk about transgender bathrooms, that’s not going to bring those people back to the table,” Tanenblatt said.

A Trump loss on Tuesday would be an opportunity for Republicans to focus on younger voters. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that there’s a growing minority population and a growing group of millennials. Republican leaders are going to have to be much more attuned to that,” Tanenblatt said.

He cites Evan McMullin as “a good example.” The former House staffer, 40 years old, has pitched himself as a presidential alternative in Utah, and could outpoll Trump in that traditionally Republican state. McMullin is a small government conservative who has accepted his generation’s judgment on social issues such as gay rights.

But in the face of a Trump loss, the Republican party has an even more delicate task ahead of it. After Romney’s loss in 2012, RNC chair Reince Priebus conducted an “autopsy” that advised the GOP to open itself more to women and minorities.

Trump tossed it in the trash. And won the nomination. But sometimes party leaders do know best.

After their debacle in 1972, when they nominated U.S. Sen. George McGovern, who proved far too liberal even for members of their own party, Democrats instituted a system of “super-delegates” to provide ballast and give party veterans a greater say in the nomination process.

Tanenblatt doesn’t think Republicans will go in that direction. But if Trump loses, it is likely to be because he found a way to alienate several minorities — and white Republican women. This would be the third defeat for the GOP in a row.

Republicans will somehow have to deal with the problem that Trump has personified: The ideal candidate for a GOP primary is at a demographic disadvantage in November.

Both Smith and Tanenblatt agree that this will have to be done with Trump still in the spotlight, even if he loses Tuesday. “It’s hard to get off the stage,” Tanenblatt said. “There’s no doubt that he has a very strong, passionate following. There’s going to be an expectation that he continues on in some capacity.”

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.