FEW THINGS more dramatically show the nature of modern U.S. politics than the upcoming battle for the Georgia governor’s mansion between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp.
I find the race hugely fascinating, not only because of the importance of the position, but because of what its dynamics say about Georgia, about our two major parties, and about America itself.
Democrats in Georgia have become accustomed to seeing highly touted candidates, fawned over by the national media, come up embarrassingly short when it comes time for an actual statewide election.
To name just two examples, the much-touted dynastic campaigns in 2014 of Jimmy Carter’s grandson Jason Carter for governor and Sam Nunn’s daughter Michelle Nunn for senator were notable flameouts, after months of glowing press.
Stacey Abrams appears ready to break that mold. Not only because she’s notably not a member of an established political family, but because among other positive qualities, she likes campaigning, and she’s really good at it.
And candidates matter.
Carter and Nunn’s problem was not only that they were Democrats in a Republican-heavy state, but they were — simply put — bad at campaigning. They didn’t seem to really enjoy being around other people all that much. Voters sense that, and respond accordingly.
However, it’s just as true that Abrams represents, by design, a move by state Democrats away from the center and more to the left. This is what the party’s progressive base demands, in Georgia as well as around the country.
It remains to be seen how effective that strategy will be in a state which gave Donald Trump 51 percent of the vote in 2016.
Meanwhile, Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp has tied himself directly to Trump in his bid, crediting a late Trump endorsement to a surge in support which catapulted him to a devastating 40-point annihilation of his opponent in the primary runoff, Casey Cagle — who had been considered a stone-cold lock for the nomination just a few weeks before.
Cagle’s troubles with his own party arguably began when he was caught on tape describing the primary as “who could be the craziest.”
They say that in politics a gaffe is when you’re caught telling the truth. And Cagle’s gaffe seems emblematic when you consider the absurdly cartoonish ad that Kemp became known for, in which he brags about knowing how to use a gun, a chainsaw — and a pickup truck to, in his words, “round up criminal illegals.”
Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, one of the last of the so-called Blue Dog Democrats, recently told the New York Times that Georgia was once governed very effectively from the middle.
“We were all very much in favor of public education. We kept really controversial issues down by an unwritten agreement. But the middle has gone, and it has gone to the extremes unfortunately. It is a microcosm of what is happening in the country,” Barnes said.
He went on to tell the Times that neither he nor his late predecessor Zell Miller could make it through a Democratic primary in 2018, nor could current Senator Johnny Isakson win a GOP primary today.
Regardless of whether Abrams or Kemp wins in November, our outgoing governor, Nathan Deal, is likely to be the last Georgia governor for quite awhile to govern from the middle, or something close to it.
Deal — a former Democrat — has been able to largely push back the more socially conservative wing of his own Republican Party in efforts to maintain Georgia’s image of being friendly to national and international investment.
And here we get to the elephant in the room — and I don’t just mean the GOP party symbol.
Georgia currently has by some measures the largest film industry on the planet. The economic impact of the film and TV industry in the Peach State is estimated to be at least $9.5 billion.
From Marvel to Madea, from Black Panther to Baby Driver, from Freeman and Travolta in Savannah to the new Disney film set to shoot here, make no mistake: Much of Georgia’s current economic boom can be directly tied to the film and TV industry.
It’s a non-polluting industry. It’s a technologically advanced industry. It provides plenty of jobs for a diverse range of people from all walks of life. It doesn’t depend on costly construction projects. And it provides literally priceless PR for a deep South state sometimes badly in need of image enhancement.
Regardless of your politics, you’d think you’d want as much of that as you can get. Money isn’t everything, true. But the film and TV industry do nothing but move Georgia forward on all fronts.
Enter Brian Kemp, stage right.
Kemp has gone on record pledging his support of a version of the controversial “religious freedom” legislation which critics say leaves the door open to discriminating against LGBT adoptive parents. This is a similar, scaled-down version of the same legislation vetoed by Deal in 2016.
And what’s the one thing that could persuade the film and TV industry to go elsewhere despite Georgia’s lucrative and generous tax incentives?
You guessed it: Blatant discrimination.
The scene is set. Both Democrats and Republicans in Georgia made very strong choices for what kind of candidate they want to represent them in November.
Both Abrams and Kemp swamped their primary opponents, and both can say they have a clear mandate from their party’s respective bases.
It will be interesting to see how much the debate over the future of Georgia’s film and TV industry will shape this pivotal race for the Governor’s mansion. cs