Georgia View: An Ebbing Red Tide?
Just shy of a century after the Civil War ended, enough Georgians were willing to se-lect a GOP ballot for Georgia Republicans to hold their first General Primary in 1964. Two years later, in 1966, Congressman Howard “Bo” Callaway (R-District 3) received the most votes for governor, though only a plurality. This tossed the election into the Georgia House of Representatives, a practical one-party chamber of Democrats, which elected the second place finisher, Lester Maddox, to serve as governor.
It took another 36 years for Georgia voters to elect their first Republican governor since Reconstruction, in the person of former State Sen. Sonny Perdue (R-Bonaire). During that 2002 election, a slow-building red tide began sweeping the state, slowly recasting Georgia’s political landscape from top to bottom.
Sheriffs, county commissioners and even longtime legislators switched parties, and the once safe label of “Blue Dog” conservative Democrat was gone with the wind.
But even though a hurricane can significantly alter a landscape or shoreline, that change is not always permanent. For accreted shoreline to remain, owners and developers often build extensive and expensive sea walls or even look to the ocean floor offshore for beach renourishment. Such is the way of politics. The base must be broadened and deepened, or the structure becomes top heavy and may collapse under its own weight.
On paper, Georgia’s GOP appears bulletproof – led by the well-considered incumbent, Gov. Nathan Deal, likely to face only token Democratic opposition and feints from the right of his own party and all-but-endorsed by Atlanta’s Democratic Mayor Kasim Reed.
Two Republican U.S. senators lead a congressional delegation in which the GOP enjoys a healthy majority, atop district maps all but designed to guarantee re-election. In the General Assembly, near super majorities exist in both chambers, with the expectation of a few more seats to come in the 2014 elections. And yet all is not well in elephant country.
There is unease within the GOP activist community, which leans well right of the political center on a wide range of issues, from conspiracy theories regarding the genesis of the new Common Core standards for public education to a growing divide over how best to approach the thorny issue of immigration beyond the typical sound bite of “secure the borders.”
The GOP has been here before. Business folks who help fund the party tend to be more centrist, as their customers come from all political stripes, races, cultures and customs. Fiscal conservatives and social conservatives share appreciation for much of our Constitution but part company when government begins to enter the privacy of family and personal lifestyle choices. Libertarians seek a much reduced government footprint on all fronts, save infrastructure and national security; and the growing voice of the Tea Party can often be heard shouting down its own members. Oh, the joys of being ringmaster under this Big Tent.
As with the Roman Empire – and the Democratic Party’s long Georgia reign – all power parties eventually come to an end, and usually it’s not pretty. Those who withstand the test of time typically find ways to build and bind larger constituencies, while smoothing the occasional rougher waters. Gov. Deal’s tendency to quietly and inclusively solve problems before they erupt is an encouraging trend. The state’s Medicaid’s hospital bed fee and DeKalb County School board suspensions and appointments are but two recent examples.
But leading requires vision, as well as building coalitions and even, on occasion, compromising. Typically, this has not been a well-demonstrated skill set during the Georgia GOP’s reign of nearly a dozen years. More than a few political observers believe that the high red tide arrived during the 2010 mid-term elections. When the ebb tide begins, heading back towards the low, it can take more than a casual observer to note the daily erosion and loss of territory. When you are fighting amongst yourselves with gusto, those tiny losses at the edges and margins may even seem trifling.
While campaigning in 1858 as the GOP nom-inee for an Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate, Abra-ham Lincoln aptly warned, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Still words to the wise today, especially for the leadership and activists within Georgia’s Republican Party.