Georgia Republicans last week rejected two malignant trends within their party – one less conspicuous, but no less important, than the other.
Best-known is the “Big Lie” about the 2020 election. By renominating Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the Peach State GOP rejected former President Donald Trump’s attempt at vengeance against two high-profile politicians he couldn’t bully into summarily overturning the voters’ will and reversing his loss to Joe Biden there.
The second is the increasing propensity of Republican politicians to contrive culture war controversies as a substitute for materially improving the lives of their constituents. Kemp’s victory over former Sen. David Perdue overcame that strategy, too.
Perdue built his primary challenge on the Big Lie by insisting the 2020 election was “rigged and stolen.” It was not, but lying represented the table stakes for a defeated senator’s comeback attempt built on Trump’s endorsement.
Yet pre-primary polls made clear that damaging democracy with lies about 2020 wouldn’t be enough for Perdue to oust Kemp. So Perdue tried a gambit directly at odds with the livelihoods of Georgia workers.
Specifically, he attacked the largest economic development project in Georgia history. Perdue decried an agreement Kemp reached with Rivian, a manufacturer of electric-powered pickup trucks, to offer tax incentives for a $5 billion plant that would create 7,500 jobs.
“A woke California company whose mission is to turn the world green,” Perdue complained. “They just want to make money off of us.”
That followed a path trod lately by other GOP luminaries include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has lashed out at Disney over its defense of gay Floridians. It was all the more remarkable coming from Perdue, whose career as a corporate executive had typecast him as a member of the pro-business Republican establishment.
In the Trump era, however, a nativist brand of blue-collar GOP populism has gained higher ground. It collides squarely with the values of a modern, globally integrated digital economy grounded in education, tolerance and inclusion.
As a matter of culture and economic status, that collision exacerbates the anger and alienation that have fueled Trump’s assault on American democracy. As evenly divided as the country remains politically, the older, rural, overwhelmingly White red-state voters he has galvanized keep falling further economically behind their younger, more diverse, blue-state counterparts in growing metropolitan areas.
In the 2016 presidential election, for example, the 472 counties won by Hillary Clinton accounted for 64% of American’s economic output, according to calculations by the Brookings Institution. The 2,584 counties carried by Trump accounted for just 36%.
Trump vowed to reverse the economic “carnage” inflicted on “forgotten Americans.” But he didn’t. In 2020, Brookings calculated, the 509 counties carried by Biden accounted for 71% of US output.
Unexpectedly, the coronavirus pandemic has narrowed that chasm a little. The emptied-out urban office buildings that lockdowns produced left some well-paid employees doing their jobs from less-populated areas. Many have chosen to stay there as the pandemic winds down.
“The rise of remote work during the Covid-19 pandemic has spawned new hopes for the spread of tech jobs into the US heartland,” Brookings scholars Mark Muro and Yang You reported in a new study earlier this year. Digital job growth accelerated in the likes of Lincoln, Nebraska, Gulfport, Mississippi and Salisbury, Maryland, among others.
The Biden administration has made several attempts to boost the economic fortunes of heartland residents, including $1,400 checks in the American Rescue Plan and rural broadband subsidies in the bipartisan infrastructure law. Last month, White House Domestic Policy Adviser Susan Rice and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a “whole of government” initiative to expand economic opportunity in rural areas.
But red-state Republican governors bring more political credibility to the effort than Democrats in Washington. In luring the Rivian plant, Kemp emulates the success of predecessors such as Carroll Campbell of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who enticed foreign carmakers to bring high-paying manufacturing jobs.
“This is something smart Republican governors have been doing for decades,” observed Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster dismayed by Trump-era trends within his party.
“There are very few people who will object to a large number of high-paying jobs coming into their community, whether they’re making electric vehicles or solar panels or BMWs,” Ayres added. “This is the very definition of a pocketbook issue for rural areas that have been struggling economically. The governing wing of the Republican Party will never turn away from that.”
The question Perdue placed on the table was whether the governing wing still held sway in a Deep South governor’s race. The emphatic answer from Georgia Republicans: Kemp 73.7%, Perdue 21.8%.