Last week, Georgia Rep. Mesha Mainor exited the Democratic Party for the Republican one in dramatic fashion.
She held a press conference at the Georgia Capitol and wrote an op-ed in the New York Post to explain why she was leaving the Democrats after decades, saying that her former party cared more about teachers’ unions than children.
“It’s the kitchen-table topics that many Democratic leaders fail to address that impact your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” wrote Mainor, who was first elected to Atlanta’s District 57 in 2020. “Republicans are more focused on those issues.”
Mainor’s switcheroo, which makes her the only Black Republican of the state’s 236 legislators, prompted praise from Georgia GOP Chair Josh McKoon. It “doesn’t reflect a change in her approach to being a state legislator, but rather reflects the reality that the Georgia Republican Party is a place where diversity of opinion is welcomed, where different ideas that lead to innovative public policy solutions are celebrated and not condemned.” McKoon said during the press conference.
Georgia Democrats responded by saying that they’re actually the open-minded ones. “Their candidates for office have to take an oath to the Republican Party,” said Georgia House member Shea Roberts (D-Sandy Springs) to Atlanta Civic Circle. “And if you watch their voting pattern, a few renegades voted against things just to make a statement. But for the most part, they vote in a bloc.”
As for Democrats? “We don’t tell people how to vote. There are certain core principles that we just kind of expect we all agree on,” Roberts said.
Red and blue lawmaking
Mainor claims that becoming a Republican won’t change her votes in the future. “An ‘R’ next to my name doesn’t change who I am,” she said during the July 11 press conference. “Priorities: education, public safety, jobs, healthcare, and senior resources.”
But political experts say that in Georgia–as well as for state legislatures across the country that are characterized by one-party control, hyperpartisan politics, an urban-rural divide, and uncompetitive races–the “D” or “R” after a politician’s name says a lot more about how they will vote than the politics of the district they represent or their past voting record.
“The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization, one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist and author of How Democracies Die.
That’s not to say that every bill comes down to partisan party-line voting. Of the 250 bills that ultimately crossed Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk out of the 1,800 or so introduced in the 2023 legislative session, a majority passed with bipartisan support. But that’s because many of those were uncontroversial, said Roberts, the Democratic state representative.
“We agree on the largest majority of them because they’re not really controversial. Whether or not I find them valuable to Georgians is another question,” she said.
By and large, Republicans nationwide tend to favor tough-on-crime bills, lower taxes, and less regulation for guns, but more regulation for abortions and LGBTQ issues–while Democrats opt to vote in the opposite direction.
In March, for instance, Georgia Republicans successfully pushed through a controversial law that sharply restricts the gender-affirming care doctors can provide transgender patients under the age of 18. It passed on party-line votes in the House 96-to-75 and Senate 31-21, despite strong turnout at the Capitol from doctors, trans teens and their parents opposing the bill.
Meanwhile, state Democrats introduced 17 gun-control bills in the last legislative session, ranging from requiring background checks and waiting periods to red-flag laws limiting firearms for people with mental health issues. Republicans, who control both the state House and Senate, did not allow any to come to a vote, even in committee.
The education funding bill that upset Mainor, Senate Bill 233, would have funded a $6,500-per-year voucher for Georgia public school students to enroll in a private school. It was unique, because it was a hot-button issue that didn’t fall neatly along partisan lines. The bill ultimately didn’t pass because a dozen Republicans opposed it.
“I think the school choice issue showed you that the caucus allows you to vote your conscience in your district,” said Rep. Kasey Carpenter (R-Dalton). “There’s a lot of Republicans who voted against it, and I don’t think anybody got burned at the stake because of it.”
Carpenter admitted he feels pressure to vote with the party on some issues but says it “really all just depends on the issue and how fat the margin is on the issue.”
Lonely in the middle
The partisan all-or-nothing approach to governing isn’t healthy, says State Sen. Sonya Halpern (D-Buckhead). “There are enough people who believe in common sense and pragmatic approaches. I think people want us to get things done.”
Halpern and Roberts in Atlanta, along with Carpenter in Dalton, are among a small group of state lawmakers who’re most likely to transcend party lines–shading purple, while Atlanta’s core, including Mainor’s district, remains blue, an island in the bright-red sea of rural Georgia.
“I think there’s a core group of us that work in the middle and are spreading ideas off each other,” said Carpenter. He represents Dalton in the North Georgia mountains, which has one of the state’s highest Latino populations at 53%.
While Carpenter votes with his fellow Republicans on tax cuts and Second Amendment bills, he failed to talk his colleagues into granting in-state college tuition to first-generation immigrants who’re Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients for the fifth year in a row.
“I would say there’s at least a third of the folks in our party that just don’t like the idea, but I think we just have to have hard conversations sometimes,” Carpenter said.
Reaching across the aisle can backfire, however. It did for Roberts when the mother of two wrote about her own abortion for Fox News last year, hoping to bridge the partisan divide. Instead, she said, she got hate mail.
“I would love to come back to a place where we’re not sniping at each other and not arguing over extreme issues. I would like to get back to doing the work of the people–making sure our kids are getting a good education and that we’re passing some common-sense laws,” she said. “But if the presidential candidates are what they’re going to be in 2024, I think that’s going to be near impossible, because they’re that extreme.”
Meanwhile, talks have stalled on both sides of the aisle about forming a bipartisan Problem Solvers caucus under the Gold Dome, similar to the one in the U.S. House. The notion is unlikely to resurface next session, because it will be an election year, when lawmakers are more likely to preen for partisan voters.
“Unfortunately, I think it’s politics time again,” said Carpenter. “That will be a fun thing next year.”