A poll provided exclusively to InsiderAdvantage by an advocacy group looking to upset the Republican apple cart in Georgia targets one of the party’s more powerful, yet vulnerable, House members: Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville. In this context, top strategists see various legislative positions being taken by Republican legislative leaders like Harrell adding to the vulnerability of the majority party in coming years.
Harrell’s race provides a unique look at basic issues all too many Republican legislators encounter. He faces Democratic opposition in a Gwinnett County district that has seen major demographic change in recent years and the poll shows Harrell currently trailing his opponent, Emily Leslie, by a 39-32 margin.
And one of the nation’s top pollsters is not shocked by the results.
InsiderAdvantage/James Magazine Chairman/Co-owner Matt Towery, who retired from polling and lives in Florida but maintains a home in Atlanta, keeps a close eye on Georgia. In the past he polled for Fox News affiliates and was once a pollster to national news outlets ranging from Newsmax to Politico. Yet he agreed this year to serve as official pollster to conservative media superstar Sean Hannity for the 2020 election cycle.
Towery looked over the poll and observes: “This thing certainly doesn’t mean Harrell is a dead duck. The good news for him is that a good portion of the district doesn’t know either candidate. That comes as no surprise. After being the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor (in 1990) I learned the hard reality that, as a state legislator, you think you are well known– but you aren’t until you advertise for your next election. Most voters can’t even name their congressman much less state legislators. But that means Harrell can use money to educate and turnout voters.”
But to educate and turn out those voters Harrell, like the state GOP itself, will need resources. That turns attention to the policy angle.
Consider that Harrell is pushing legislation which seeks to prevent Georgia taxpayers who itemize their taxes from being able to “double dip” the full deduction of state and federal taxes– limiting the deduction of state taxes for federal taxes to reduce taxable income at the state level.
The stated goal is to provide tax relief on middle income Georgians. The overall goal might help candidates like Harrell in districts where the average income of voters has declined and where most don’t itemize their taxes. If the cuts become reality, Rep. Harrell can use them to appeal to middle class voters who now dominate his district.
But the move is a double-edged sword.
Most major Republican-oriented contributors, other than large corporations, are individuals who itemize their taxes and view Georgia’s system as a major reason to live in the state. Contacted by IA, several top Georgia Trump donors flatly say they would consider ending donations to the state GOP and state-level Republican candidates if such a bill were to pass.
Their logic? “What I save on taxes I give to keep Republicans in office. If they penalize us on something we use to plan our personal budget, their donations to their groups and candidates will be off the wish list.”
Harrell represents a suburban district taking on the more urban characteristics of Fulton and DeKalb Counties. But he oversees tax policy which impacts suburban, exurban and rural areas which remain the backbone of state Republicans. And those areas, Towery notes, “are the least understood by even their own elected officials.”
One example is the historical tax credit, beloved by leaders in rural Georgia. They are viewed as a major economic development spark in areas desperately needing help. Harrell and his committee refused to give even a hearing for an effort to keep such credits alive. That would be a campaign issue down the road.
“The polls tell us that the politicians have anecdotal concepts about how the public oppose thing like tax credits, when in fact voters outside of Atlanta— the hardcore Trump voters– are more concerned about economic development, healthcare, and educational opportunities than any other issues.” That basic understanding of “Trump voters” helped Towery to correctly predict a Trump victory during the 2016 election.
Towery notes “In some ways Trump and the late Zell Miller can be considered alike – both preached some populism, being mindful of how to also keep their financial supporters happy. Everyone learned that the hard way when Zell Miller pushed a lottery in 1990 and elected officials all called it a bad idea. They
thought letting the voters decide that issue was wrong and that their conservative rural voters opposed it. Miller crushed them with it. Like Trump, he knew the pocketbook “trumped” all other issues. And it pleased his biggest donors as well because they knew it would help many of their industries.”
As for the more transitional areas such as Harrell’s seat, Towery says “incumbency and resources still matter. Going door-to-door in as many targeted neighborhoods as possible to introduce yourself to voters can help him win— and then he must hope he’s bolstered with more GOP voters added to the district after reapportionment. There are of course other suburban GOP lawmakers who must deal with shifting demographics– and sharing reliable GOP voters among them becomes more problematic. And if they’re not careful, even rural GOP legislators could start seeing their votes hemorrhaging.”
Gary Reese is an associate editor of InsiderAdvantage and JAMES Magazine.
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