This week’s squeaker of a win by Brian Kemp and squeaker of a loss by Karen Handel say a lot about the state of Georgia politics. Republicans can no longer count on that big R next to their names to guarantee wins. State legislative races also proved as much, with the incredible turnout performance of Stacey Abrams’ campaign trickling down the ballot to wash away Republicans thought to be safe.
The Republican grip on Georgia politics at the statewide level is increasingly in jeopardy. The question is whether party leaders - particularly elected officials in the highest offices - are discerning enough to realize it.
The first 16 years of this century were beyond kind to Republicans. In one generation, political power shifted from good-ole-boy Blue Dog Democrats to good-ole-boy conservative (during campaigns, at least) Republicans. But this week Republicans are wondering what exactly is happening to their empire, and trying to pin the blame on anything and anyone but themselves.
Hollywood liberals. California money. Democrat pandering and fearmongering. Fake news. Absentee ballot fraud.
The dirty truth is that Georgia Republicans became politically fat and lazy during a time of plenty.
The Kemp campaign did its best to paint Stacey Abrams as the embodiment of all that was contrary to Georgia values. That’s not necessarily a bad idea - except that there was no follow-through. Sure, calling Abrams the most liberal gubernatorial candidate ever will rile up the base - but voters on the fence want to know what your alternative looks like. And they want more than just “Good for small business” or “Protect Georgia values”. They want to know what exactly you mean with those platitudes. HOW will you be good for small business? WHICH values will you protect, and HOW?
Not to mention - the Kemp campaign’s use of what can only be described as low-IQ (and we’re not talking Kemp’s there) ads in the primary were a turnoff to many voters on the fence.
Though Abrams used her share of negative ads, she often highlighted positives about her own positions. Granted, there wasn’t a ton of meat to her arguments either - but at least there was some, and she made it sound good whether she meant it or not. Positions aside, as a candidate her appeal was stronger.
As a side note, if you’re one of those who stooped to degrading Abrams over her weight or the gap between her teeth - you’re a part of the problem too. Her positions left plenty for you to speak against without the kind of personal attacks that you’d beat someone to a pulp for if they said the same about your sister.
In the 6th district, Lucy McBath did what Jon Ossoff, the national media, and tons of liberal cash couldn’t do just a year ago by defeating Karen Handel. McBath’s story - though marked by tragedy - is undeniably a great one. She campaigned mostly on the idea of something positive coming from that tragedy. Combined with what came across as a common-sense appeal to combat Washington gridlock, her ads were effective in painting her as an ordinary citizen tired of politics as usual, motivated by personal tragedy to do something about it. Running against an incumbent who’d barely won her previous race, McBath did a great job putting herself in a position to win despite being in a district largely opposed to her positions.
As for Handel - where exactly were the ads? I could count with my fingers the number of times I saw one on television or heard one on the radio. It’s as if the campaign either had no money or didn’t take the challenge seriously. As with Kemp above, these are not knocks against the candidate but against the campaign.
But the problem goes much deeper than those two races. There are multiple accounts across the state of Republicans who took for granted that they’d win. Stopped campaigning, or never even started. Hired few or no campaign staffers. Passed on offers to meet with civic groups and engage constituents. Waited too late to run ads.
In multiple cases, those Republicans woke up Wednesday having either been rejected by voters or having just eked out wins in races they should have won easily.
Which brings us to the main point of this post. If Republicans want to maintain control of Georgia politics, they must take their challengers - and their constituents - seriously.
Campaigns must focus on smarter, more precise, and more positive messaging. Tell us specifically what you stand for, specifically what policies you’ll advance, and specifically why we should vote for you. Make sound, logical arguments for conservative leadership rather than simply saying we need it.
That means no more low-IQ ads.
No more pretending to be a conservative in the primary when you’re not. (If you have to tell us you’re a conservative, you’re probably lying. You earn those bona fides with your actions and affiliations, not your words.)
No more propping up pretend conservatives. Keep playing Democrat-Lite, and voters will eventually (HELLO - they just did!) start voting for the Democrat. Give voters a distinguishably - and genuinely - more conservative alternative than the Dems, and the state is yours.
And most importantly - no more being lazy and riding Donald Trump’s coattails. You have at best two more election cycles before that coat goes into the closet. What then? Will you trot out a nearly 80 year-old Trump to rev up the base in 2024?
It’s time to be better. It’s time to stop cowering in the face of threats from the sports and entertainment industries and represent constituents’ values. It’s time to openly reject those who lend credence to Democrat claims of ignorance, racism, and misogyny by speaking and acting stupidly.
It’s time to take a cue from the other Trump. It’s time to Be Best. Or in 2020, it’ll be time to get beat.
Header credit: AP/John Amis