Gov. Nathan Deal wasn’t on the stage Friday as the seven Republican contenders sparring over a west Georgia U.S. House seat squared off for their first televised debate. But his vetoes of two of the highest-profile pieces of legislation to pass this session were at the center of the discussion.
Several of the GOP contenders in the crowded field to replace retiring Rep. Lynn Westmoreland clashed over Deal’s rejection of “religious liberty” legislation that would broaden legal protections for opponents of same-sex marriage. And each criticized Deal for nixing a “campus carry” measure that would legalize firearms on Georgia’s public college campuses.
It was another sign that the still-bubbling debates over both measures are fast becoming a litmus test in the upcoming May 24 primary.
All seven GOP candidates said they disagreed with Deal’s veto of the gun rights expansion. And only one contender, film producer Richard Mix, said he agreed with Deal’s veto of the “religious liberty” proposal.
“I don’t think we need more legislation. It’s always the political answer to regulate, regulate, regulate and the political answer to legislate, legislate, legislate,” Mix said. “We need to use the laws already on the books.”
That’s a dicey stance for a politician in the Third District, where grassroots Republican activists last month voted to “censure” Deal over the veto. Chip Flanegan, a businessman, said he was among the rank-and-file Republicans across the West Georgia district upset by Deal’s decision.
“Gov. Deal was a Washington politician before he came back to run Georgia, and the business community came back to use its clout on the governor,” he said.
State Sen. Mike Crane, who has perhaps the highest name recognition among the contenders for the seat, came into The Atlanta Press Club debate with his own bulls-eye on his back.
He was peppered with questions about his support for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s now-abandoned presidential bid (he said he now backs Donald Trump), his criticism of the use of “no-knock” police warrants (his comments were taken out of context, he said) and his support for reviving the “religious liberty” debate next year.
“I have long been a champion for religious liberty and you know that. It’s our most important liberty,” he told a questioner. “And the day the government comes and can trample on that liberty, every freedom is at risk.”
When Crane had the chance to fire back with his own question, he turned to former West Point Mayor Drew Ferguson and asked one of the more bizarre questions we’ve heard at a debate.
“Do you like loafers or boots?” he asked.
When Ferguson noted he happened to be wearing loafers that day, Crane smirked.
“I’m a boots guy.”
(Crane told us after the debate he just wanted to get a light-hearted query in there.)
Two Democrats are also vying to compete in the heavily Republican seat. Tamarkus Cook, a local pastor, and Angela Pendley, a substitute teacher, both said they could turn the district blue with an appeal to expand Medicaid and improve access to healthcare.
You can see the Atlanta Press Club debate for yourself this Sunday on Georgia Public Broadcasting.