What so recently seemed like a conservative slam dunk – a Georgia gun-rights bill to boost a “stand your ground” self-defense law – has been so watered down that, in the waning days of the legislative session, even its supporters have begun to falter. It's not even clear that the "Safe Carry Protection Act" will come to a final vote.
Just in the last two weeks, Georgia Republicans also quashed a "religious freedom bill" patterned on what many saw as "anti-gay" legislation and killed a "state sovereignty" bill that aimed to distance the state from the national Common Core school standards, now taking effect in most other states.
All three bills were largely written by conservative special interest groups and, directly or implicitly, supported by both chambers and the governor's mansion. So, why couldn't they get a solid thumbs-up from a state legislature where Republicans have a supermajority?
What has played out in the past few weeks under the gold dome here in Atlanta is a reckoning of sorts for a divided Republican Party.
Some lawmakers, fearing tea party primary threats, played to the established party base; while others, including many party leaders and political consultants, looked ahead to the demographic shifts expected to turn red state Georgia purple.
That's why the not-so-quiet populist backlash to anti-Washington legislation, percolating primarily through capitol protests and heated hearings these last few weeks, spooked Republican leadership.
Some political scientists say the revolt against a number of hard-right bills is part of a greater transformation of the political mosaic here at the crossroads of the South, suggesting, at least to some, that Republican leadership in a rock-solid red state is, paradoxically, engaged in a profound struggle to retain power.
One watershed could come as soon as this May’s Republican primary, particularly in a US Senate race where two tea party Republicans – US Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey – are now leading in the polls. If either wins, political scientists say, the chances of a Democrat – likely Michelle Nunn, daughter of longtime US Sen. Sam Nunn – taking the state’s first statewide election in a decade will dramatically shoot up.
“I think what we’re seeing [in tea party-supported bills getting killed] is that some Republican lawmakers are not as worried about [primary challenges] now as they were a couple of years ago,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, in Atlanta. “I suspect in Georgia there may also be a perception that Republicans have kind of gone off the deep end on some of these bills, so [leadership is] trying to move their party back toward the center.”
Republican leadership, Mr. Abramowitz adds, may also be “looking at longer term future of the Republican Party in this state, where it looks like Georgia is transitioning toward becoming the next purple state,” based on demographic trends.
It would be too rich to say that the defeats of polarizing states’ rights bills is a sure sign of tea party politics faltering, especially since the gun rights bill and a bill that would drug test welfare recipients may still pass.
Moreover, on Thursday, tea party Georgians were ecstatic as a Senate committee quickly moved through a bill that would make it illegal for the state’s insurance commissioner to enact any parts of ObamaCare. What had been seen as an election-year gimmick “unexpectedly” moved closer to becoming a real law, wrote Misty Williams and Aaron Gould Shinin, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Still, though also popular among conservatives, the fate of the gun rights bill is not clear, as second-guessing about its long-term impact takes hold. An original version would have allowed campus-carry but that was removed by a Senate committee on Friday; and now opponents are questioning language in the bill that would make it OK for someone not licensed to carry a gun to avoid prosecution, if they killed somebody in self-defense.
“A lot of Republicans don’t want to go on record opposing some of these bills, but they are concerned about how they would play in the general election,” suggests Mr. Abramowitz, at Emory.
The strategic fact that legislators backing bills like expanding gun carry to churches and college campuses may be missing is that the “voting population in play [in Georgia] is white women …, and are they going to want to carry a gun into church? Probably not,” says Charles Bullock, a veteran political observer at the University of Georgia, in Athens.
Similar tensions between conservative philosophy and broader cultural optics have played out across the country. Ten states considered, but decided against so-called Christian shield laws – and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto struck particularly hard. Indeed, as soon as Governor Brewer, a Republican, signed the veto, a hearing on a similar bill in Georgia was suddenly canceled, and the bill disappeared.
Helping to kill that bill in a business-friendly state, corporations like Delta and the National Football League warned state leaders that even the perception of Georgia as “anti-gay” could have an impact, for example, on the state’s efforts to host the Super Bowl at a new football stadium slated to be built in downtown Atlanta.
That guns, schools, and religion would be emotional issues that could backfire became clear even to some Republicans who are naturally drawn to the tea party’s ideals.
“Do we need to make [religious freedom] a key issue right now? No,” says Republican voter Randy Jordan, of Smyrna, Ga., an early tea party organizer who is no longer connected to the movement. “The last thing Republicans and conservatives need to be doing is getting ourselves labeled as anti-gay, when we’re not.”