Political Insider

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The November advantages that come with Nathan Deal's veto of 'religious liberty' bill

Last weekend, Republicans in several Georgia congressional districts, though consumed by the battle royal between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz forces, were able to distract themselves from the bloody business by thumbing their noses at Gov. Nathan Deal.

A majority of Republican conventions that assembled on Saturday, in various spare moments, expressed their disapproval of the governor’s veto of House Bill 757, the “religious liberty” measure intended to shield opponents of gay marriage from the consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized it.

“Be it further resolved that the delegates of the Third District Republican convention convey our deep disappointment with the governor of Georgia,” read one of them.

The state GOP convention in Augusta, to be held in early June, offers many reasons for a trip to Savannah or just about anywhere else on a world map. The remaining 34 of 76 delegates to the Republican National Convention are to be chosen. Tempers will be foul, and bystanders could be caught in a withering crossfire.

But for Deal, it is the prospect of formal condemnation by his own party that is likely to cause him to skip Augusta. You’ll recall that the state GOP pointedly congratulated the Legislature when it sent HB 757 to the governor. Party headquarters has been silent on the topic ever since.

For the moment, Nathan Deal may be a prophet without honor within his own base. But only for the moment. Revisionist Republicans could recast their opinion of the governor as early as November.

Whether Trump or Cruz emerges from Cleveland at the top of the GOP ticket, current polls forecast that, nationwide, Republicans will spend this fall in a defensive crouch.

Should a White House victory by Hillary Clinton become an early given, Democratic attention will turn to flipping a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, targeting a few vulnerable governors, and running up the score on the electoral college tote board.

One could argue that when he vetoed HB 757, the governor of Georgia may have insulated his state from any such Democratic landslide.

Yes, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson is probably as unassailable as any Republican running for re-election this year. And businessman and philanthropist Jim Barksdale, the hand-picked Democrat chosen to challenge Isakson, has barely gotten his campaign off the ground.

But when he vetoed Georgia’s “religious liberty” bill, Deal doused an emotional spark that might have served Barksdale well over the summer. (Isakson is one of the few Republican elected officials who has pronounced himself satisfied with Deal’s decision.)

That is, admittedly, a weak argument — given the current state of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

A stronger case can be made at the electoral college level. That the Tarheel State and Georgia are economic rivals is no secret. Even now, worker bees at our state Department of Economic Development are attempting to lure corporate recruits made uncomfortable by the debate in North Carolina over its new anti-LGBT law.

But there is another long-standing competition between the two states — on the political side. More specifically, the Democratic side.

Democrats in both Georgia and North Carolina have long pitched themselves as the next Southern state to shift from red to a noticeable shade of purple. Such advertisements are designed to attract the loose millions of dollars that float around during presidential election seasons.

When they’re lucky enough to get it, state parties use that national cash to register voters, to drive turnout, and to otherwise speed up the demographic shifts that play to Democratic strength, but haven’t yet taken effect.

When Nathan Deal vetoed HB 757, he increased the likelihood that a Democratic nominee for president would look elsewhere for an electoral college pick-up. Likewise, when Pat McCrory of North Carolina signed HB 2, he placed a target on his own state. Not to mention his own re-election.

Jared Leopold, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association, said his organization had already marked Indiana and North Carolina as possible Democratic pick-ups. But until March, only one of those Republican incumbents, Mike Pence of Indiana, had issues created by “religious liberty” legislation.

“North Carolina always was a target. But then HB 2 proved to us that McCrory is even more vulnerable,” Leopold said. “This really is about business investment and jobs. In both instances, you’ve got a governor who has taken his eyes off the ball.”

An Elon University poll released Tuesday showed Democrat Roy Cooper, the state attorney general, leading McCrory among Republican voters, 48 to 42 percent. McCrory’s 37 percent job approval rating is his lowest.

In that state’s U.S. Senate race, Republican incumbent Richard Burr leads Democratic challenger Deborah Ross, 37 to 33 percent.

This is not 2004. Support for the portion of HB 2 that requires transgender people to use bathrooms that conform with their biological sex at birth evenly splits the North Carolina electorate, according to the Elon poll. Support is strongest among “born again” Christians. Catholics and “other Christians” are divided.

More than corporations are running away from HB 2 in North Carolina.

We told you earlier that Deal may very well skip Georgia’s state GOP convention in June. North Carolina has its state GOP convention next month. Already a governor has decided to take a pass on the Greensboro, N.C., gathering. Not McCrory.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, head of the Republican Governors Association, had planned to speak at the event. She has found something else to do that day. In New Mexico.

All in all, HB 2 has helped create a climate in North Carolina that a Democratic presidential campaign may be unable to resist in August. It’s a climate that doesn’t exist in Georgia. If you’re a Republican, that might be a rare bright spot come November.

“This issue divides the party and ostracizes several wings of our coalition, not to mention the independents we need to win in statewide elections,” said Brian Robinson, former spokesman for Deal. “If the Republican governors in Indiana and North Carolina lose their re-elections — they’re both running neck to neck with Democratic challengers — Republicans in Georgia might give thanks that our governor’s wisdom spared us that blowback.”

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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.