Opinion: Who’s afraid of the big, bad ‘establishment’?

We’re now six months away from picking party nominees for Georgia’s statewide offices. Most voters probably aren’t paying much attention to the campaigns yet, but some themes are starting to emerge.

One theme is a staple of contemporary election cycles, particularly on the Republican side: What is really needed, some candidate says in seemingly every race, is someone who will fight back against “the establishment.”

To which I must ask, at what point does the referee stop this fight? “The establishment” has taken body blow after body blow in recent years, without landing many of its own.

Forget Donald Trump’s presidential victory; his mere nomination by the GOP was a win against the party’s establishment. Not just in terms of the primary opponents he defeated, although beating the Bushes is no small thing. Trump also dismantled party orthodoxy on issues ranging from trade to foreign policy. With his hard line on immigration, he repudiated then-conventional GOP wisdom that future victories at the ballot box would require extending an olive branch toward Hispanic voters.

This shows up in state politics, too. Before 2016, there was 2014 — and the original businessman “outsider,” David Perdue.

Now, jean jacket or no jean jacket, an ex-Fortune 500 CEO and cousin of a recent governor is a bit more insidery than Perdue let on during his campaign for the U.S. Senate. But he did defeat a quartet of longtime elected officials. And while I don’t want to overstate this, it’s fair to say the preponderance of support from “the establishment” in the GOP primary runoff that year went to his opponent, Jack Kingston.

If “the establishment” of the Georgia GOP were running the show, one might expect smaller, more strategic contingents of Republicans in recent special elections. After five Republicans this month split the vote and allowed two Democrats to make the runoff in a GOP-held state Senate seat, following a near-disaster in the 6th Congressional District when Jon Ossoff almost slipped past 11 Republicans, settling internal matters in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms might merit a second look.

What about policy and legislation? Well, it wasn’t Democrats alone who defeated Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District measure on the 2016 ballot. That took an anti-establishment backlash, in the name of local control, in a lot of deep-red counties (whose schools were never at risk of state intervention due to poor performance anyway).

And you know what “the establishment” in Georgia, writ more broadly than just the GOP, didn’t want to pass the General Assembly? Try religious-liberty legislation. Try the campus carry bill. Deal vetoed both in 2016, but the latter returned indomitably this year and is now law.

To the extent there is an “establishment” blocking conservative-minded reform efforts in this state, it labors chiefly in fields not dominated by Republicans. K-12 public schools come to mind.

Need more proof that the GOP “establishment” is fighting uphill in Georgia? Consider the fact, revealed on financial disclosures this past week, that the state’s dominant political party is some $700,000 in debt thanks to mismanagement by the previous regime.

Georgia has problems, no doubt. But they remain unsolved generally because they’re hard nuts to crack, not because some shadowy cabal stands in the way of clear popular opinion. If the latter is a candidate’s go-to mantra, perhaps he just doesn’t want to do the hard work.

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