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Greg Bluestein

Nathan Deal’s ‘religious liberty’ veto could define his legacy

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Gov. Nathan Deal. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Gov. Nathan Deal. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

After years of having a near flawless relationship with the General Assembly’s Republican leadership, Gov. Nathan Deal faces the prospect that his tenure will become a tale of two terms: before “The Veto” and after it.

There was the time before his veto this week of the “religious liberty” bill that would have strengthened legal protections for opponents of same-sex marriage, when he enjoyed largely warm relations with lawmakers who supported his agenda and accommodated his behind-the-scenes efforts to tamp down some of their most controversial proposals.

And then there is the uncertain future he faces after the veto cleaved his tenure in two, a time that seems already destined for more open warfare between the governor and rank-and-file Republicans infuriated by his decision to kill the base-pleasing religious liberty legislation.

Even Deal allies predicted a tough fight ahead for Deal, who built his first term around sweeping criminal justice changes and his second one on an overhaul of Georgia’s education system. Brian Robinson, a former top Deal deputy, said there would be “blood on the ground” next year as the governor pushes his agenda.

“It makes him a hero to some and a villain to others,” said Chip Lake, a veteran GOP strategist. “But voters elect governors to make tough decisions. It’s part of the job.”

More: ‘Religious liberty’ veto could be turning point for Georgia governor