Daily Jolt: Democratic gains reignite debate over Georgia GOP embrace of Trump

President Donald Trump. (Photo by Zach Gibson – Pool/Getty Images)

Should Georgia Republicans take a cue from the Democratic wave this week and distance themselves from President Donald Trump? Or is a refusal to more enthusiastically  embrace him the root of their problems?

That’s the debate among some Republicans after Democrats won a sweep of statewide and legislative races around the nation, including flipping three Republican-leaning districts in Georgia. And the talk is no small matter in a state GOP that has largely subjugated its Never Trump movement. 

First up is state Rep. Buzz Brockway, a Republican candidate for secretary of state who had a warning for fellow partisans: “Democrats are energized and united behind the single purpose of defeating Republicans and halting Trump,” he said. “Republicans are neither united, nor energized. If the GOP doesn’t get a unifying purpose, we’ll lose in 2018.”

That led to a rejoinder from Brandon Phillips, a former Trump campaign chief in Georgia who said the key is unifying people behind Trump.“It’s what our folks want,” he said, invoking the battles between Trump and Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake. “A base never rallies behind lukewarm.” (Greg Bluestein)

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We know where Republican state Sen. Michael Williams, a candidate for governor, fits into the above debate. He argues that Republicans lost the race for Virginia governor because voters nominated establishment-friendly Ed Gillespie over a more ardent Trump supporter.

What he added on Wednesday was a broadside at former state Sen. Hunter Hill, whose decision to resign to run for governor triggered a special election that Democrats won. Williams said that Hill’s resignation “harmed the conservative cause for all Georgians.” “Voters are sick of establishment and self-serving candidates for office,” said Williams.

Hill spokesman Cody Hall said his former constituents deserved a “senator who is not seeking higher office and could focus solely on the needs of the district.” Georgia taxpayers, he added, will have to subsidize Williams’ “circus act next legislative session.” “Williams’ false attacks, desperate publicity stunts, and press conference flops are beneath the dignity of the office he is seeking,” said Hall. “The people of Forsyth County deserve better and the people of Georgia certainly deserve better in their next governor.” (GB)

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One of Williams’ opponents, meanwhile, was quick to dive into another debate roiling the Georgia political world this morning. Secretary of State Brian Kemp on Thursday vented about the decision to allow the school’s cheerleaders to kneel during the national anthem at football games.

“Just because you have the right to protest, doesn’t make it right,” the Republican gubernatorial candidate said. “I support the First Amendment Rights of all Georgians but wholeheartedly believe that kneeling during the singing of our National Anthem is insulting to the men and women who have fought and died to protect our freedom and way of life.”

It came after Kennesaw State University president Sam Olens wrote a letter to KSU students, faculty and staff about the anthem controversy.

“While I believe there are more effective ways to initiate an exchange of ideas on issues of national concern, the right to exercise one’s freedom of speech under the First Amendment must be protected,” he wrote.

The debate isn’t confined to metro Atlanta. A member of the College of Coastal Georgia Foundation’s Board of Trustees resigned in protest of the Board of Regents’ decision to allow the school’s basketball players to kneel at recent games, the Brunswick News reported.

The Regents referred to a four-page advisory from the Attorney General’s office that concluded that athletic associations will likely be “subject to the same First Amendment limitations and compelled speech” for any adverse action it takes. Read the guidance here.

In a statement, Attorney General Chris Carr said he supports First Amendment free speech protections “even when I strongly disagree with the speech or expression.”

“While our office believes the courts likely would deem that public university students kneeling during the national anthem is protected by the Constitution, I want to be clear that I find it disrespectful to our nation, to our first responders and to our troops who have fought – and even died – to defend the freedoms we enjoy.”

(Tamar Hallerman and GB)

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The Secretary of State’s office is investigating a Facebook video featuring Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, our colleague Mark Niesse reported last night. In the video, Reed encourages people to vote and says he voted Tuesday for Keisha Lance Bottoms for mayor. State law prohibits solicitation of votes within 150 feet of a polling place, Channel 2 Action News reported Wednesday, and Reed discloses he’s at Fickett Elementary School in southwest Atlanta in the video. A Reed spokeswoman dismissed the investigation as an attempt to prop up Bottoms’ opponent Mary Norwood. (TH)

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Big pay raises could be in store for members of the Georgia legislature and other statewide elected officials, per our colleague James Salzer. The state’s compensation committee is recommending that lawmakers receive $12,000 raises in 2019 — a roughly 70 percent increase above their current pay — and that statewide elected officials and the House speaker see their pay bumped by $20,000 to $43,000. The panel compared Georgia statehouse salaries with those in other states and local county courthouses and found that while officials’ pay was above average in some areas, it was low in others. (TH)

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We spent most of yesterday’s jolt reviewing the results of Georgia’s political races, but it’s worth noting some of the outcomes further afield that could have ripple effects here.

We’ll start in Virginia, which elected its first transgender person to the state legislature on Tuesday. Not only did Democrat Danica Roem handily defeat her opponent, but she knocked off the very Republican delegate who authored Virginia’s transgender bathroom bill.

The Republican-controlled Virginia legislature defeated the legislation in committee earlier this year. The bill would have required people to use public restrooms that matched the sex on their birth certificates.

Georgia was one of a dozen states to sue the Obama administration for federal overreach in 2016 over its public school directive that prompted these bathroom bills. But Gov. Nathan Deal urged caution on similar legislation after North Carolina’s law prompted a tsunami of protests from businesses. (TH)

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Also on election night, Maine voters became the first in the nation to approve via referendum the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare. But a twist came yesterday, when Republican Gov. Paul LePage said he wouldn’t implement it unless the Maine legislature finds the money to pay for the program’s expansion. “Credit agencies are predicting that this fiscally irresponsible Medicaid expansion will be ruinous to Maine’s budget,” LePage said in a statement. “Therefore, my administration will not implement Medicaid expansion until it has been fully funded by the Legislature at the levels DHHS has calculated, and I will not support increasing taxes on Maine families, raiding the rainy day fund or reducing services to our elderly or disabled.”

Georgia’s GOP leaders decided not to expand Medicaid, citing big costs to the state. But Deal back in March said his administration would explore changes to the program after House Republicans’ first Obamacare repeal bill collapsed. Georgia lawmakers in 2014 passed legislation that gives the legislature the final say over any expansion to the Medicaid program. (TH)

Our colleague Chris Joyner’s latest column about the Georgia Supreme Court’s move barring citizens and journalists from listening to audio of its court cases is a must-read. The court recently ruled that since audio recordings technically aren’t transcripts that can be inspected and copied — as required under state law — they aren’t technically considered court records. Here’s a nibble from Joyner’s column:

In the kind of ironic twist you cannot make up, the video of oral arguments on this very question of whether audio from Georgia courts is public is available on demand on the Supreme Court’s own website. The high court does this by choice and because it is the right thing to do. Other courts around the nation are making similar changes, which makes this opinion all the more troubling.

Read the whole thing here. (TH)