For a group who mocked the pundits by setting another high-water mark just six months ago, Georgia Republicans are an angst-ridden bunch.
It showed at the party’s convention in Athens last week. Start with the contest for chairman, which the incumbent John Padgett won with a majority (just shy of 55 percent in a two-man race) that was awfully skimpy for a man who presided over such a victorious election cycle. Just 12 hours before formal nominations were taken, and after a campaign that had been going on for months, there were genuine conversations about recruiting a third candidate.
But that election was in part a proxy for a deeper rift. For much of the anti-Padgett sentiment stemmed from a belief the Georgia GOP has been very successful at electing Republicans who don’t always govern like Republicans when they get to the Gold Dome.
This went beyond the usual complaints about RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). It spoke to the tepid response most statewide constitutional officers received from the crowd, and the handful of boos that greeted Speaker David Ralston. It turned up in the resolutions delegates approved, which mostly chided legislators for bills they haven’t passed.
It reflected a sense of exasperation I’ve noticed during recent legislative sessions. For example: Social conservatives say party leaders have sold out to the chamber of commerce; chamber reps say the trial bar gets anything it wants and nothing it doesn’t; trial lawyers say … well, not much, because the chamber folks are right about that.
This sense of exasperation surfaces when legislative leaders flex their muscle to pass bills that make the grassroots uneasy (medical marijuana) or mad (raising taxes for transportation) but not those the base favors (religious liberty).
Some of these complaints are legitimate. Others are more indicative of the distance between the kind of Republicans who attend party conventions and even those who reliably vote for Republican candidates.
But all of them are exacerbated by a relatively recent turn toward legislating only in big chunks. “Relentless incrementalism” is a phrase often cited by legislators, but unfortunately it is mostly observed in the breach.
The need to shore up transportation funding, for instance, morphs into a $1 billion-a-year problem when it goes largely unaddressed for more than a decade. School-choice advocates tire of gearing up for, and using a lot of their political capital on, big constitutional-amendment fights every couple of years, only to watch as smaller measures die quietly in between. One area in which legislators are relentless incrementalists, the handing out of small tax breaks, undermines the party’s stated goal of broad tax reform.
It all adds up to the kind of anxieties on display last week in Athens. Maybe it was just the location, but the scene was reminiscent of Georgia football fans who know their team is talented but fear it will struggle to beat the weaker teams or flail against the stronger ones.
In both cases, frustrated fan bases start clamoring for a change at the top.