In a wide ranging talk to the Oconee County Democrats last month, Greg Bluestein, political reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reflected on his career, lamented the decline of newspapers, commented on the 2020 election, and presented an analysis of Georgia politics since that time.
He also speculated on future political developments, saying he doesn’t think Republican Gov. Brian Kemp will run for president this year but also that he doesn’t think Kemp has fully ruled it out.
He said he thinks Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock could be on a national ticket in 2028.
And he said he thinks the Georgia Legislature will revisit its 2019 abortion bill when it meets in January.
Bluestein talked for a little more than 40 minutes and took questions for another 40 minutes.
The meeting ended with a raffle of Bluestein’s 2022 book, Flipped, which focuses on Georgia’s 2020 election that resulted in Democrats Joe Biden, John Ossoff, and Warnock winning in what has been a solidly Republican state.
Reflections On Career
Bluestein, 41, said he started his career working for The Red & Black, the student newspaper at the University of Georgia, where he was a journalism and political science major.
He said a lot of the people he is covering today he was already covering back in 2002.
He said he remembers “a little known construction worker who liked to wear his boots around town and go to parties and meet with voters. He was in an uphill battle against an entrenched incumbent. That guy’s name was Brian Kemp.”
The incumbent was Democrat Doug Haines. Kemp won.
After graduating, Bluestein started working for the Associated Press, where he “was covering politics all over the nation.”
“My wife and I were thinking about having kids, and I knew I could not live that sort of lifestyle that the AP demanded,” he said.
Bluestein joined the AJC in 2012 as a business reported and said he moved quickly into covering politics.
Decline Of Newspapers
Bluestein said even as recently as 10 years ago the media system in the state was much stronger than it is today.
“You had Athens, The Banner-Herald, the Savannah Morning News-- The Morris Chain,” he said, referring to Morris Communications, based in Augusta, which owned both the Athens and Savannah papers. Both are now owned by Gannett.
“Back when Morris owned that chain,” Bluestein said, “It actually had a big presence in Atlanta. They covered Georgia news from an Athens, or Savannah, or Augusta way.”
Bluestein said the papers in Chattanooga, Columbus, and Macon also “all had correspondents in Atlanta who covered what was happening under the Gold Dome with their local readers in mind.”
“Unfortunately, that has gone by the wayside as these papers have gotten smaller and more diminished,” he said.
Bluestein said ownership of the AJC has been investing in the paper, and “we have seven or eight reporters based in the Capitol.”
Change Started In 2016
Bluestein said the change in Georgia politics that culminated in the election of Biden in the 2020 Presidential race and of Sen. Jon Ossoff and Sen. Warnock began in 2017.
Ossoff, a young documentary film producer, was the Democratic Party nominee in a 2017 special election for Georgia's Sixth Congressional District. The Republican nominee, in a district long considered to be a Republican stronghold, was former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel.
“Ossoff’s near miss when he came within four points of topping Karen Handel in that race kind of set the stage, became a litmus test,” Bluestein said, “not just for Donald Trump chances, but also to see how a Democratic candidate with a lot of funding, with a centrist message...how that could fare in the suburbs.”
“That was the beginning, to me, of the wave of big Democratic victories that would come in Georgia,” he said.
Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams in 2018 by 55,000 votes, the closest margin of victory for a Republican in the race for governor in decades, Bluestein said.
The election of 2020 is the centerpiece of Bluestein’s book, Flipped, with the subtitle How Georgia Turned Purpose and Broke the Monopoly on Republican Power.
In his talk with Oconee County Democrats at the Oconee Chamber of Commerce in Watkinsville, Bluestein focused mostly on what followed.
Bluestein said when Abrams decided to run against Kemp in late 2021, the situation seemed favorable for a challenge of an incumbent.
“Gov. Kemp had just been booed at the Republic convention. He was being booed in Republican events all over the state,” Bluestein said.
“People were heckling him, getting in his space, challenging him” over his decision not to overturn the election for Trump, he said.
Bluestein said David Perdue, who challenged Kemp in the Republican primary, was given a 50-50 chance of winning.
“The governor used every tool in his disposal,” Bluestein said. “The powers of incumbency, which are tremendous in Georgia. The powers to direct budget spending. Use federal grants, even federal grants he opposed.”
In the November election, Bluestein said, Kemp stayed on message, “not saying one single bad word about Donald Trump.” Instead, he focused on the economy “and beating Stacy Abrams.”
Bluestein said “Raphael Warnock did the exact same thing. He knew his worst enemy in that campaign...was Joe Biden.”
Bluestein said on the campaign trail Warnock mentioned Republicans with whom we was working “and tried to demonstrate that he is bipartisan...That is the strategy he stuck to relentlessly, and I think he needed to.”
“Now, we’re in 2023,” Bluestein said, “We’ve got legit national candidates from both sides of the party lines.”
|Book Published By Viking, 2022|
Bluestein said Kemp “is keeping his options open in 2024. He is not ruling out a run for president. He certainly wants to be in the mix. He also is not taking any steps.”
“But there is another potential national candidate,” Bluestein said. “I don’t think you can count out Senator Warnock in that light in 2028 and in future campaigns.”
Bluestein said that Warnock has shown that “He can win a swing state.”
“He and Gov. Kemp, they both proved that there is a block of 200,000 voters, might be even more, in Georgia who are willing to split their tickets,” Bluestein said. “Willing to vote for Republicans, but also Democrats.”
Bluestein said another candidate to watch is Republican Margorie Taylor Greene from the 14th Congressional District. “There is a real chance” that she will end up as a vice presidential candidate in 2024, he said.
Democrat Lucy McBath, who represents the Seventh Congressional District, “is a legitimate contender” for future national office as well, he added.
In response to a question from the audience, Bluestein said a number of issues will be addressed in the legislative session that begins in January, “But I think the biggest thing, still to be determined, is abortion.”
House Bill 481, passed in 2019, prohibits physicians from offering abortion services to pregnant women if a so-called "fetal heartbeat" is present, which typically occurs in the sixth week of pregnancy.
Exceptions are allowed if the pregnancy is considered to be futile, in a medical emergency, or if the woman is pregnant by rape or incest.
The state Supreme Court is expected to rule on a challenge to the law in the next few weeks.
“It is a very different Georgia landscape now” than in 2019, Bluestein, and it might be hard to pass the same bill again.
“That bill passed after weeks of really fraught and emotional debate,” Bluestein said. “I saw members, members here in Athens, Houston Gaines, visibly struggle. He ended up supporting it.”
“I remember it,” Bluestein said. “They surrounded him, with Kemp and some of the biggest name House members. They pressured him.”
“It passed by one vote to spare,” Bluestein said. “And now it is a very different environment. You’ve got more Democrats in some of those seats in part because of that vote.”
“There will be pressure to call for an outright ban or fewer exceptions,” he added.
The video below was recorded with my camera and tripod by a member of the audience at the Democratic Party meeting.
Bluestein was not using a microphone, and the audio is quite weak.
The video begins with Bluestein came to the podium and ends as the meeting ends.
Bluestein spoke to the Oconee County Republican Party in January of 2023, but the party will not allow anyone to make video or audio recordings at its meetings.
Bluestein told me his presentations at the two meetings consisted of ‘pretty much the same stuff.” He said he didn’t remember if the questions from the two audiences different.