Last month, 119 state legislators in the House voted for a sweeping gun bill that, if Gov. Nathan Deal signs it into law, would loosen restrictions on taking firearms into churches, government buildings and other places previously off-limits.
Republicans pushed the measure, after failing to pass a similar bill in the waning moments of the 2013 legislative session.
But three Democrats were among those ratifying the bill in the House. And another person supporting gun legislation was state Senator Jason Carter, a Decatur Democrat who’s running against Republican Governor Nathan Deal.
Deal has said pointedly that the legislation is not “part of his agenda” but he’s expected to sign it. Carter, whose family has South Georgia roots, brushed off questions about the bill by saying he’s an “NRA Democrat.”
A Southern Democrat, Not A National Democrat
GPB reached out to several long-term Democrats who said they’re not familiar with that phrase. One political expert mused that Carter may be taking his cue from an ad Democratic Congressman John Barrow ran a few years back showing him handling guns and crowing about his NRA endorsement.
"That ad was very successful," said Charles Bullock, a professor at the University of Georgia. "It neutralized some of the Republicans’ claims that Democrats were against guns or opposed the NRA."
Bullock said the term would be one way to show voters that Carter isn't like other more liberal Democrats.
Similarly the term “southern Democrat” became popular in the 1960s and 1970s as a way for members of the party in the South to signal a more conservative political and social streak.
“I haven’t heard that term in years,” said Curtis Wilkie, with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. “Implicit in that term was the idea that they were very conservative, far more conservative than the national party.”
A half a century later, Candidate Carter appears to be trying to create the same distance between him and national Democrats.
One fellow Democrat, former Governor Roy Barnes, says supporting gun rights is part of the complex identity of a Southern Democrat.
“The right to bear arms. Fiscal issues,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “As I tell folks, I’m a capitalist, through and through. But I’m a Democrat. I’ve been in business all my life. My family has a group of businesses. And people will say, ‘You sound like a Republican.’ And I say, ‘No I’m a Democrat but I’m a capitalist Democrat’.”
Barnes said he didn’t necessarily favor some of the more extreme parts of gun bill but he said Southern Democrats have had a long tradition of supporting hunters, and opposing efforts to restrict where people can bring guns. Barnes is a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association, which backed this year’s gun bill.
Other Georgia politicians define themselves as rural Democrats.
And Then There's Rural Democrats
Rep. Debbie Buckner of Junction City was one of the three Democrats who supported the gun bill in the House. She says that fits with being one of the last rural Democrats in the House.
“I live on a farm and my son and my husband carry their guns with them probably every day because they never know when they’re out walking in the wood and they come upon a rattlesnake and have to use it for protection,” she said.
She says scores of her constituents contacted her to say they wanted her to support the bill.
“I call it an election-year issue that was brought up to try to create a score card vote for people,” she said. “It’s the kind of a vote that in a district like mine I needed to take seriously.”
Buckner, like House Speaker David Ralston who said it was important to pass a gun bill this year, is facing a challenger in this year’s election.
The gun measure isn’t the only bill that might show up on a score card. Carter also voted for a constitutional amendment that would bar the state from raising the income tax.
In an interview last week, he justified that vote by saying Georgia won’t ever raise the income tax anyway. And he said the state has a variety of revenue sources to draw from. Therefore limiting any one stream won’t be dire for Georgia’s finances.
Fiscal Conservatives Or Losing 'Their Dadgum Minds'?
But others vociferously opposed the bill, including DuBose Porter, chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia. He was furious when two House Democrats, Tyrone Brooks of Atlanta and Hugh Floyd of Norcross, voted for the measure and handed the Republicans the two-thirds’ majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment.
“They have voted with Republicans, who have spent this entire session dismantling the very programs that we stand for,” he said in a statement. “Both have been there long enough to know what they were voting on. It appears that they have lost their dadgum minds.”
But Democrats in the South have a long history of favoring conservative budgeting policies.
“Historically they’ve always been fiscally conservative, Southern Democrats,” said Wilkie, in Mississippi. “That’s always been a hallmark of Democrats -- and Republicans for that matter -- down here.”
Democrats hold no statewide offices and control fewer than 50 percent of both chambers of the legislature. While demographics are changing in a way that will favor more moderate politicians, it remains to be seen if conservative votes on gun and tax bills will be enough to put a Democrat in the Governor’s mansion this year.