Political Insider

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

The nine burning Georgia political questions of 2017, answered

Before the start of 2017, your AJC Political Insiders laid out the nine questions in Georgia politics that we'd be watching this year.

We're reprinting that column in full below, with answers attached beneath each question. Take a trip down memory lane with us:

So, what exactly will President Donald Trump do? Yes, it’s the obvious question. And it’s also the one that will dominate the year. There’s much uncertainty about what a Trump White House will actually set out to accomplish, and how quickly he will do so. He’s promised to renegotiate free deals, scrap the Affordable Care Act, toughen immigration laws, dramatically lower taxes, push a sweeping new infrastructure spending plan and, more generally, “drain the swamp” in Washington. His decisions over the next year could bring sweeping change to Georgia, starting with a new debate over rising healthcare costs.

Answer: Within hours of Trump's inauguration in January, he and his staff began moving at breakneck pace to implement his agenda. With the help of congressional Republicans, he was able to accomplish several key campaign promises: he overhauled the tax code, installed conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and froze or reversed scores of Obama-era regulations. There are other key aspects of his agenda, however, that appear indefinitely blocked, including repealing Obamacare, building a wall on the Southern border, advancing a tough new national immigration law and passing a massive infrastructure bill. With Democrats growing increasingly confident about next year's midterm elections and the Russia probe heating up, it could be much harder for Trump to operate politically in 2018.

Will Gov. Nathan Deal get his education overhaul? The Republican governor made overhauling the school funding formula the centerpiece of his 2014 re-election campaign before pivoting to a divisive plan to allow the state to take control of failing schools. With that education initiative in tatters – it was soundly defeated at the polls in November – he is preparing a “Plan B” and could also revisit his plans to remake how K-12 schools are funded. But he could face an even tougher road than before, after a pair of controversial vetoes deepened the divide between him and GOP leaders, and a developing 2018 race for governor that could complicate his agenda.

Answer: Yes, and it was adopted by big margins. But it took an understated approach from the governor, who let House lawmakers take the lead. While not as far reaching as Deal's failed constitutional amendment, the "First Priority Act" creates a chief turnaround officer with authority to appoint “coaches” to help schools improve. Those that don’t after three years could be turned over to private managers.

Is the “religious liberty” debate going to make a comeback? Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto of the “religious liberty” legislation last year was one of the defining moments in the Governor’s Mansion, and seems destined to shape his remaining years in office. This year, though, there are signs that the contentious legislation won’t hog the spotlight. House Speaker David Ralston said it should be left up to federal lawmakers, while Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle – who last year was one of the fiercest supporters of the initiative – has said little about the plan.

Answer: Yes, and it remains a boomerang issue that continues to return every legislative session. This year, there was no concerted effort to adopt legislation modeled after the Religious Freedom and Restoration. But a late push to inject a “religious liberty” element to an adoption bill that would allow some private agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples led to a legislative standstill and infuriated Deal and House Speaker David Ralston. Meanwhile, four of the five top Republican candidates for governor signed a pledge to ink a religious liberty bill if elected. The lone GOP holdout, businessman Clay Tippins, aims to appeal to corporate powers and moderates with his stance.

Can Georgia Democrats regroup after an electoral disaster? Georgia Democrats spent the month after Hillary Clinton’s defeat licking their wounds. Sidelined for more than a decade, they were no closer to regaining control of the Georgia Legislature than they were two years ago. There’s no clear leader or unified direction. And warring factions in the fractious party are competing against each other for limited resources. Partisans note several silver linings – notably, Clinton’s flip of Cobb and Gwinnett counties – as they try to carve a path forward in the era of Trump.

Answer: Yes and no. Town halls and rallies throughout the year were packed with energized voters, and Democrats had little problem recruiting candidates to run for offices around the state. Translating that into electoral victories proved more of a challenge. Jon Ossoff, the political newcomer whose name we had never heard when writing these questions last year, became a bona fide Democratic star in his 6th District race - and then he lost the most expensive U.S. House election ever to Republican Karen Handel. But Democrats picked up a sweep of legitimate victories in November and December's races, flipping three legislative seats - two considered so conservative that Republican incumbents had never faced a challenger. And they ended the year by holding Atlanta City Hall. Which brings us to our next question ...

Who will be Atlanta’s next mayor? The race to replace Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed may end up being one of the most-watched political contests in the nation in 2017, and it’s shaping up to be a free-for-all. About a dozen contenders are in the race, ranging from state Sen. Vincent Fort running as a Bernie Sanders liberal to Councilwoman Mary Norwood positioning herself as a business-minded conservative. In between are a range of former lawmakers, business leaders and councilmembers hoping to fight their way to a place in a runoff. Depending on how it shakes out, the city could have its first openly gay mayor, its first white mayor in a generation, a mayor who wants to extend Reed’s legacy – or one who openly reviles him.

Answer: Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, after a tumultuous and divisive election. Bottoms and Norwood, the runner-up in the 2009 contest, emerged from a crowded field of about a dozen candidates in a race clouded by a federal probe into corruption at City Hall. Norwood cobbled together a diverse coalition that included many of her former rivals and ex-Mayor Shirley Franklin. Bottoms countered with Reed's full-throated support - and a deluge of Democratic support from high-profile figures painting Norwood as a closet Republican.

How will the governor’s race shake out? It’s so far been a quiet start to the race to replace Gov. Nathan Deal, thanks to Donald Trump’s surprise victory. That shook up the race, with potential contenders like Rep. Tom Price and U.S. Sen. David Perdue (likely) opting to stay in Washington. Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is all but assured to jump in, but less certain are the other GOP contenders. On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams is gearing up for a run – and she’ll soon find out whether fellow Democrats clear the way for her.

Answer: It's still shaking. Cagle is the presumed Republican frontrunner - and leading fundraiser - but there's no telling how the GOP electorate will decide next year. Secretary of State Brian Kemp is trying to carve out space as the anti-Cagle alternative, and he's focused his campaign on rural votes. Former state Sen. Hunter Hill emphasizes his military background and conservative voting record, and state Sen. Michael Williams reminds everyone of his early support for Trump and his anti-establishment streak. Businessman Clay Tippins is something of a wildcard, and some Republicans expect another candidate to jump in. The Democratic side of the ticket is equally fascinating: Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, both former state legislators, have sharply divergent strategies and electoral approaches that have already erupted to the surface.

What will Donald Trump’s healthcare policy mean for Georgia? Almost as soon as Trump’s victory, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle hoping to force a debate this year on Medicaid expansion were ready to concede defeat. How Trump and Georgia Rep. Tom Price – his pick for health secretary – plan to replace Barack Obama’s healthcare policy will affect Georgia’s fiscal bottom line, and lawmakers face a tremendous amount of uncertainty. As state Rep. Terry England, who heads the House’s budget-writing committee, said of what to expect from Trump: “We really have no clue.”

Answer: This was the year of zombie health care policies on Capitol Hill. Republicans would float proposals to repeal and replace Obamacare that would fizzle out, see renewed life and pass one chamber of Congress, only to quickly die in the Senate. There were so many health care proposals floating around Capitol Hill we had to start a list just to keep track. Federal Republicans were ultimately unable to come to an agreement on a repeal-replace plan -- which put most health care action on the state level on ice -- but they were able to repeal one of Obamacare's central tenets, the individual mandate, as part of their tax overhaul. That policy change won't go into effect until 2019, but analysts predict that will lead to higher premiums and millions more uninsured people, including hundreds of thousands of Georgians. Tom Price, meanwhile, is out of the picture after Trump fired him for a charter jet scandal that made headlines nationwide.

Who will replace Tom Price and run for the other down-ticket races? There’s an outside chance that every statewide office, except for the newly-installed Attorney General, is up for grabs in 2018. And there’s an ever-growing list of lawmakers, former politicians and self-proclaimed outsiders looking to fill them. But first, north Atlanta voters have to decide who replaces Rep. Tom Price in a conservative suburban district – a vote that will be among the first special elections after Trump’s victory.

Answer: It's hard to throw a rock without hitting a candidate. Republicans field multiple candidates for every open statewide office, and brutal primaries for several of them are underway already. Democrats have so far offered a mix of political newcomers (Sarah Riggs Amico for lieutenant governor) and veterans (ex-U.S. Rep. John Barrow for secretary of state) and could be primed to put forward a slate of nearly all women on the statewide ballot. Democrats have also circled about two dozen state legislative races - many of them suburban districts carried by Hillary Clinton - in next year's votes. And Republican Reps. Karen Handel and Rob Woodall are bracing for significant challenges from energized Democrats - though it’s unclear if Jon Ossoff will launch a comeback bid.

Will gun advocates get their “campus carry” legislation? Gov. Nathan Deal was pretty unequivocal in his opposition to the “religious liberty” legislation, but he left the door a crack open for another bill he vetoed that would legalize firearms at all public colleges in Georgia. He nixed that proposal only after lawmakers defied his personal request for changes that would carve out a few exceptions to the expansion, and has yet to stake out any firm opposition to its revival. He could dangle it is a bargaining chip for his priorities – namely his education plan.

Answer: Yep, but maybe not the measure they wanted. Deal signed this year's measure after lawmakers acceded to the demands to carve-outs Deal demanded last year. They include exemptions for on-campus child care facilities, faculty or administrative office space, disciplinary meetings and - maybe the biggest one - classrooms that could be used for high school students in joint enrollment programs.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.