Gov. Brian Kemp recently delivered his remarks at the annual State of the State address before a joint session of the Georgia General Assembly.
During his roughly 25-minute speech, he touted Georgia’s thriving economy and outlined his legislative agenda to numerous rounds of applause—at least from Republican lawmakers. Within his agenda were plenty of red meat issues for the GOP, including addressing critical race theory (CRT), trans-athletes and constitutional carry.
Love Kemp’s proposals or hate them, I think most can agree that they include some hot-button topics in today’s society, and they face serious hurdles. For starters, Democrats appear poised to stand in opposition to them, but in a Republican-controlled legislature, Democratic support isn’t necessarily needed; Republican support is. That’s where the pitfalls are, and as insiders have whispered in the state capitol’s halls, some of these pet projects face uphill battles.
While Kemp’s speech partially focused on fulfilling his original campaign promises, including providing raises to public school teachers, he also took aim elsewhere. “From the classroom to the ball field,” Kemp declared, “there are those who want to divide our kids along political lines, push partisan agendas, and indoctrinate students from all walks of life.” As a result, Kemp announced that he looks forward to collaborating with the legislature to promote legislation to “protect our students from divisive ideologies - like critical race theory” and “ensure fairness in school sports.”
Critical race theory is a decades-old theory that looks at history through a racial lens and states that racism is inextricably embedded in all of our country’s social institutions—leading to adverse outcomes for people of color. Naturally, conservatives and liberals are sharply divided over the theory and its application. In fact, states—now including Georgia—are increasingly seeking to ban it from being taught in K-12 public schools.
Meanwhile, Kemp’s other point of “ensuring fairness in school sports” seems to be referring to regulating trans-athletes’ participation in sports. Like CRT, trans-athletes have become a bit of a lightning rod, and Republican lawmakers from around the country have mulled proposals to prohibit trans-females from competing against cis-females in athletics, but Kemp’s State of the State didn’t end there.
“To build a safer, stronger Georgia, we must ensure every Georgian feels safe and secure in their communities,” Kemp said before transitioning to another topic: his support for constitutional carry. Such measures eliminate the requirement to obtain a permit in order to carry a concealed firearm, which over 20 states have already enacted, but legislative success on these matters isn’t a given.
Whether or not Republicans care to admit it, many of them were hoping for a productive, albeit uncontroversial, legislative session that would end fairly early. So long as they are in session, by law, they cannot fundraise, and their campaigning activities are limited by time constraints. Yet every state legislator and state-wide elected official is up for re-election later this year. Some are facing hotly contested general elections, and they desperately want to focus on their campaigns, while avoiding national scrutiny on controversial bills. But Kemp’s agenda could throw a wrench into their plans.
Bills pertaining to CRT, trans-athletes and constitutional carry promise to be contentious, which risks prolonging session. This could hinder incumbents’ re-election bids. Moreover, while these measures seem popular among much of the Republican base, Democratic voters probably feel otherwise. Pursuing these proposals could rile the Democratic electorate and increase their turnout in November.
With Georgia’s demographics changing, enough GOP lawmakers may opt to punt on these issues for now. A number of them are in the fight for their political lives and might think that these aren’t hills worth dying on. The question for pundits and for Kemp is how many Republicans privately feel this way and will it be enough to impact the governor’s agenda?
Republicans hold a large majority in the Senate—meaning it is far more likely that these proposals could pass out of the upper chamber, even if they lost a few Republican votes. The House, on the other hand, has a slimmer GOP majority and some of its members have strong independent streaks—thus raising the stakes. What’s more, even before the State of the State, due to redistricting, the House looked as though it could lose a handful of GOP seats after the election.
Would House members imperil their majority for these issues? Time will tell. I’d be willing to bet that several Republican lawmakers’ stomachs are already getting queasy thinking about it, and they’d rather not rock the boat until they’ve secured their re-election. That’s not necessarily the death knell or an indictment on these reforms, but it will certainly make it harder to pass them.
Marc Hyden is the director of state government affairs at the R Street Institute, and you can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Hyden.