Battleground: Ballot Box | Why Georgia's economy is good/bad for Democrats/Republicans
LISTEN: On this week's episode, we look at how Georgia's top candidates are talking about local and national economic issues.
Thirty years ago, then-Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton had three signs on the wall of his campaign office to focus their messages: “Don’t forget health care,” “Change vs. more of the same,” and "The economy, stupid."
That final maxim from Democratic strategist James Carville has loomed large through wars and recessions, good times and bad, and the economy has led to great gains and major losses for both parties during critical elections.
The 2022 midterms in Georgia are no different, as candidates for Governor and Senate pitch their vision for what’s going well and what needs improving.
At the state level, Governor Brian Kemp is riding high on record surpluses, unemployment at an all-time low and new business announcements at a steady pace. And Sen. Raphael Warnock just cast a deciding vote on the federal Inflation Reduction Act and has championed measures to cut back on a flagging national economy that some say could be headed for a recession.
On this week’s episode, we look at conflicting claims about the economy and its impact on Georgia’s election.
Depending on who you ask, the economy is doing great… or terrible. It’s Democrats’ fault for this, or Republicans’ fault for that. It can be confusing at best and misleading at worst to talk about “the economy” right now, which can mean everything from gas prices and grocery costs to state budget surpluses and participation in the labor force.
But that’s not stopping politicians running for key offices this year from using the economy as a cornerstone of their campaigns, either to stay in office like Gov. Brian Kemp and Sen. Raphael Warnock, or to unseat the incumbents like Stacey Abrams and Herschel Walker.
Looking at polling data so far, Kemp’s message of a strong state economy is resonating with Georgia voters - and somewhat undercutting Walker’s assertions that everything is bad nationally.
Abrams has now delivered a sweeping economic policy address of her own, calling for things like free technical college and expanded financial aid paid for by allowing gambling, while Warnock is currently doing a victory lap after several pieces of legislation he championed made it into the Inflation Reduction Act that passed the Senate last week.
So let’s sort our way through what Georgia’s top political candidates are saying about different parts of the economy and how it’s shaping their road to November.
I asked Jim Hobart, a Republican pollster with Public Opinion Strategies, to explain how Republicans are generally approaching the economy.
"For a Republican federal candidate it’s essentially running to be one thing, and that’s a check and balance on Joe Biden and his administration," he said. "They want to show that they will be a check and balance on what they would say are economic policies that are not that good for the country that Biden and Democratic leadership have passed over the last 18 months or so."
But locally speaking, Republican governors – especially incumbents like Kemp – are running on their records in office, especially since the coronavirus pandemic.
"Governors in certain states – Kemp among them – took very different approaches to the way they handled the pandemic and thus how that handling affected the economy of an individual state," he said. "I think more so this year than in most years, it is very viable for governors to say, ‘Hey, I did things differently and our state is benefiting because of that,’ and to point very clearly to what he did differently."
Brian Kemp is the only incumbent Republican governor in a competitive race this year, and he’s uniquely positioned to point to the past four years of Georgia’s economy to bolster his case to have four more years in the governor’s mansion.
During the pandemic, Kemp caught a lot of heat from all sides for his decision to reopen the state’s economy earlier than many other states and to ease pandemic restrictions to “protect the lives and livelihoods of Georgians.”
But Hobart says the last two years of economic data in the state can give the governor some vindication. Because Kemp did things differently and the state has record-setting economic numbers, it's easier for him to make the case that the economy is doing great at the local level.
"In ordinary circumstances, it's a challenge to kind of bifurcate the two messages like, 'Hey, I know you're feeling the pain of inflation and what's going on with the national economy, but because of what I've done, Georgia is attracting all these new companies, Georgia's unemployment is low, things are much better here than they are in other states," Hobart says.
As you might have heard a time or two, Georgia leaders regularly tout the state as “number one to do business.”
The state has one of the busiest ports in the country, and is a mecca for the film industry and other sectors. Major economic development projects like electric vehicle maker Rivian and Hyundai are bringing manufacturing facilities in Georgia, and other companies investing in all parts of the state - especially rural Georgia. The state has also amassed more than $10 billion in surplus revenue over the last two fiscal years. Plus, the state’s unemployment rate is at an all time low - just like we’re seeing across the country.
So Kemp, in a recent speech in McDonough, prefaced attacks on the national economy by touting what he’s overseen in Georgia.
"This team has put our state on the path to greater economic opportunity for all who call the Peach State home," Kemp said. "We've brought good paying jobs to every corner of Georgia, landed the largest economic development deals in our state's history, passed the biggest income tax cut on record and kept government out of your way and out of your pocket."
The governor has also extended a suspension of the state gas tax into September, which has led Georgia to have some of the lowest prices in the country, as prices overall have fallen in recent weeks.
And yet, at the same time Kemp is touting Georgia’s economy he also says thanks to Democrats and Joe Biden, the national economy is terrible.
"Standing here today, there is no doubt that the Biden administration's runaway spending and disastrous policies have put the future of countless families in Georgia in jeopardy," he continued. "Last year, they told us inflation was temporary. Now they're telling us the recession you're feeling every single day is just the economy in transition. Well, I don't need Joe Biden and his pals telling me when Georgians are hurting because I know they are."
Of course, gas prices and other supply issues are affected by multiple things - including the war in Ukraine - and cause and effect is not that simple to lay blame.
So how can Georgians be hurting under Democrats and see record prosperity because of Republicans?
The short answer: politics.
There are a lot of issues that will drive voters to the polls this year, from abortion rights to election rules to being unhappy with the overall direction the country is heading.
Dr. Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, says how people feel the economy is doing is one of the more important factors.
"I think that there's a case to be made for perceptions of the economy having an indirect effects on vote outcomes, because those midterm primary models do incorporate the president's approval rating," she said. "If you have an unpopular president who isn’t perceived as being a good steward of the economy then that's not going to help his party in a midterm election, and that may be where we are now."
Like we heard from a Republican pollster earlier, Gillespie agrees that Kemp has an easier job convincing voters that local economy equals good and national equals bad because of Democrats.
"On the one hand, they want to blame Joe Biden for the national economic conditions and they want members of his party to pay the price for that at the polls in this election," she said. "But they also want to take advantage of the things that are going well for the economy at the statewide level, particularly for the incumbent Republican governor who wants to hold that up as as a as a shining record of achievement, to say that based on what he's done for the past four years, he should be allowed to continue to serve in this position for another four years."
She said there’s a big debate among political scientists about people who vote based on their own individual economic situation versus what’s going on around them - the latter thought something she tends to agree with.
For example, if you are unemployed but the overall economy is doing well, you might not blame elected officials for your own personal state.
"Similarly, you could be doing well economically, and you might be able to afford and withstand high gas prices and high food prices, but you are very much aware that people are hurting in your community," she said. "So if you see that happening, you still may take a very negative view of the people who are in power, and that's probably not going to work well for the president if he's running for reelection, and that certainly wouldn't be something that members of his party would want hanging over their heads as they try to run for reelection as well."
That's just one reason Kemp is ahead in the polls.
But it’s a different story for Herschel Walker, who has been running a campaign plagued by controversies and gaffes and a failure so far to succeed in his economic message that Warnock and Biden have led to a bad economy. Gillespie the political science professor says one reason is incumbency for Warnock.
"Because [Walker] hasn't held office, can't take credit for the favorable economic conditions in the state because he's played no role in helping to shape them," Gillespie said. "What he and the NRSC are going to try to do is to say that national Democrats have created an adverse economic environment that's going to make it really difficult for Georgians to do business or for Georgians to be able to live comfortably, so they shouldn't be allowed to be in charge of making macroeconomic policies that could increase inflation and could drive the country into a recession. And that's the line that I would expect them to make.”
Warnock’s campaign received a much-needed boost last week when the Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that tackles everything from climate change to health care, including several proposals Warnock championed. That includes lowering prescription drug costs for seniors on Medicare to a ceiling of $2,000 a year and a cap on the cost of insulin at $35 a month for Medicare recipients.
But other efforts, like a proposal to close the Medicaid coverage gap in states like Georgia, failed.
Even with the major policy victory, Hobart the Republican pollster says it’ll be a tough road for Warnock because of how unpopular Biden is.
"I think that what voters are looking for less so than really the specifics in terms of what is Walker going to do differently on the economy if he's elected to the Senate, but instead, they just want to know they have confidence that he is someone that's going to go there and fight against Biden's policies because they don't like it," he said.
For his part, Walker hasn’t really talked much about economic policies in his race so far, though he did hold two recent press conferences attacking Warnock for supporting the reconciliation bill. Walker trails Warnock in the polls by a wide margin at this point, according to the polling website 538’s average of the race.
Stacey Abrams is also behind in the polls but she has a more difficult task ahead of her: convincing voters Georgia’s strong economy could be better in a different way if she’s in charge.
In an hourlong address Tuesday night, Abrams painted a bold picture for how she would oversee the state’s multi-billion dollar economy and blasted Republicans for what she says it not investing enough in Georgia during its good economic times.
"We have the resources, we just need the leadership to get it done," she said at a brewery in Atlanta. "Once again, Brian Kemp's poverty of imagination has left too many of our people saddled with debt or excluded from opportunity."
Much like Kemp, Abrams says the record surplus that Georgia has enjoyed should be returned in part to the taxpayers through a billion-dollar refund, but the rest should go towards addressing inequalities in things like education and housing and other ambitious goals.
"For the past 20 years, Georgians have been trained to believe that we can't afford to do what's right," Abrams said. "That solving the big problems and making bold choices won't work. But when we have been bold, when we have been brave, we have been the best."
That means free technical college for Georgia students, and boosting need-based financial aid for college students… and an equally bold plan to pay for it without raising taxes.
"I know these plans for technical college and need based aid are only as good as our ability to pay for them long term, and that is why I am calling for a constitutional amendment to allow sports, gaming and casinos in Georgia," she said. "This will serve as a permanent source of revenue to underwrite broader access to education. We can afford it and we must do it."
That amendment would require a heavy lift in the legislature and to get on the ballot in a future general election, but it’s the kind of swing-for-the-fences idea that Abrams needs to break through Kemp’s messaging of the economy in Georgia running smoothly.
And of course, for Abrams everything comes back to Medicaid expansion, whether it’s boosting educational spending or fixing rural broadband.
"For Georgians to make progress, to secure rural Georgia's future and to help those of us who live in the metro areas, we have to be in this together, and that is why we must expand Medicaid immediately," she said. "Thirty-eight Republican and Democratic governors have accepted the benefits for their states, but not here in Georgia. We are second in the uninsured and 48th in access to mental health services. Medicaid expansion will pour billions into the state's broken health care system for pennies on the dollar."
The 2018 governor’s race was a very policy-heavy battle between two very effective campaigners who excelled at reaching past their respective parties’ base to provide their vision for the next four years in Georgia.
This time, the candidates say the stakes are even higher.
So in these final 90-some-odd days, pay close attention to how Georgia’s candidates for Senate and governor talk about the economy - try to go beyond the blame and attacks on their opponents and see what visions they have for Georgia’s future.
And remember: it’s the economy, stupid!
Battleground: Ballot Box from Georgia Public Broadcasting is produced by Stephen Fowler. Our editor is Josephine Bennett. Our engineer is Jake Cook and Jesse Nighswonger wrote our theme music. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.