It’s been a wildly unpredictable 2016, but this year could well top it. A free-for-all Atlanta mayoral race. Another blockbuster legislative session. A budding race for 2018 statewide offices. And, of course, a President Donald Trump.
Here are nine questions in Georgia politics that your Insiders will be watching this year. (And check out our answers to last year’s questions here).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.