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Better Georgia Looks to Stop State School Takeover, Start Democrats’ State Takeover

Since its formation five years ago, Better Georgia has brought down one of the state’s most powerful senators, shamed another Republican state senator into allowing a vote on a rape-kit testing bill (with an assist from comedian Samantha Bee) and turned a state representative, Tommy Benton from nearby Jefferson, who defended the KKK into the pre-Trump poster child for white supremacy.

Now, the Athens-based progressive—and aggressive—nonprofit has moved on to the campaign to defeat Amendment 1, Gov. Nathan Deal’s “Opportunity School District,” spearheading the opposition group’s communications and loaning out their political director, Louis Elrod, to run Keep Georgia Schools Local. That’s all while putting polls in the field, calling voters, updating a daily news blog, recording a weekly podcast and posting to a Facebook page with 132,000 followers.

Flagpole recently talked to executive director Bryan Long and communications director Brandon Hanick about Amendment 1, guns on campus, Donald Trump and how they could all jump-start Georgia’s long, slow shift back to blue.

Flagpole: What’s your role been in the Amendment 1 campaign?

Bryan Long: Our role is one of a couple dozen progressive organizations that have come together. It’s the biggest campaign I’ve seen on the left in a long time. More money, more participation. There’s a real campaign. But it’s surprising, it’s more of a bipartisan campaign. There are Republicans, tea party Republicans, although I’d call them more Trump Republicans—they’re blending.

It’s an interesting time in Georgia right now. [Republicans are] changing direction. Look at the two vetoes from the governor this year. He vetoed the religious liberty bill, which I expected. I thought Nathan Deal used all his political capital to veto religious freedom, which is something we worked on for three years. So I just knew campus carry was going to be signed. But we were part of a coalition working on that as well, and lo and behold, he vetoed the second one. Those two issues have shifted in Georgia so rapidly that it surprised even me.

FP: There was such a backlash to the vetoes, though. It’s not going away anytime soon. It’ll probably be a campaign issue in 2018.

Brandon Hanick: Absolutely. We’re already gearing up as much as we can in this busy campaign season for 2017. We know it’s going to be back. We know it’s going to be an issue again for the fourth year in a row.

BL: We know these issues only get bigger. They don’t get smaller when you have a victory or a veto. When you push back a policy, the other side comes on stronger, which means we have to be stronger and bigger as well.

We also understand that these are issues we have to win at the ballot box. And one thing I do expect out of Republicans is, one of the lessons they’re going to learn from the Trump campaign is doubling down on their most extreme views. That is a way for them to engage their base, and I think that’s going to come at a risk. I’m very interested in seeing what this election is going to look like in Georgia. I’ve seen polling vastly different in the past week.

FP: It looks like Trump’s going to win pretty comfortably in Georgia. [Note: At the time of this interview, most polls showed Trump ahead by 4–6 points, but others since have shown Trump’s lead narrowing or Clinton taking the lead.]

BL: Just this morning there was a YouGov [poll] with Clinton up by six. I’ve seen two internals, private polls… that had Clinton up by five. It’s really, really difficult [for pollsters] because, college-educated women in metro Atlanta, no one knows whether to model them in the past or model them in the future. We don’t know how they’re going to vote this year. After this election, we’re going to know whether college-educated women in metro Atlanta are going to hold their nose and vote Republican again, or whether they’re willing to pull the Democratic lever and vote for Hillary or a third party. You’re seeing a mix. There’s a tension in the polling I’ve seen.

FP: If they don’t vote for Trump, then the issue becomes, was it a one-time-only deal because it’s Trump, or can you flip them permanently?

BH: I think it’ll depend on who the next candidate is. No one thought Trump could make it this far, so who knows if this will give rise to someone more extreme.

BL: We’re not going to see a Republican win the primary [for governor] in 2018 that’s a centrist.

FP: Will we see someone to the right of Deal? Seems like the vetoes will become a litmus test.

BL: Absolutely. I think they’re going to learn the wrong lessons from Trump. And it may work for them one more time. I think it only works for them one more time, but it’s a big one, and I want to do everything I can to stop them before the 2018 election.

FP: Only one more time because of the demographic changes in Georgia?

BL: When you look at the demographics—whites without a college degree, college-educated, African Americans and Hispanics, others—we’re right in between [swing states] North Carolina and Virginia. What progressives in Georgia need to do is somehow find a way to make these college-educated whites feel comfortable pulling the lever for Democrats and the policies that, when we poll, they agree with, which are equality issues, health care issues, education—even on guns, the sensible background checks. There’s a long list of issues that, when you poll just the issues, we win again and again and again and again, which is the pressure that Deal felt when he signed his vetoes.

Getting back to Amendment 1, I think this is the first volley in the 2018 governor’s race. If he wins this, I think he’s going to be a strong governor for the Republicans going into the 2018 race. Two years isn’t long enough to judge results, so every Republican will be able to claim the mantle of having saved education in Georgia. If his education reform is defeated, that’s a really severe blow for him, he becomes a lame duck, and others step up with new ideas.

FP: Maybe I live in the Athens bubble and I don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the state, but I know very few people who are going to vote for this. Are you getting the same sense?

BH: Anecdotally, yes, and polling-wise. The WSB poll, the only public poll that’s come out, has us ahead. Anecdotally, we’re getting a lot of requests for events around the state; they’re asking us if we know anyone on the takeover side that we can recommend. That’s a bad sign. The nature of the two campaigns is very different. The governor’s campaign is very top-down. Our side is much more grassroots.

BL: We are seeing a very positive trend polling-wise for our side, but as voting starts today, what scares me is people who haven’t heard the issue at all. Those people are going to walk into the voting booth and see a very deceptive ballot question.

FP: What effect has early voting had? There usually aren’t this many people voting this early, so does that throw you off at all?

BL: No, because the campaign rolled out its advertising earlier, and in the first three weeks outspent the governor six-to-one. The governor is running a more traditional campaign, which is stacking his ad buy at the end. He’s going to blow us away the last two weeks. We hope we’ve already won by the time he gets his ad buy up.