It wasn’t quite happy hour yet, but the Red Hare Brewing Co. in Marietta was already filling up with locals sneaking off early from work to grab a drink Friday when Republican Hunter Hill stepped in.
For about 45 minutes, the former state senator brought his campaign for governor to the rustic brew pub, chatting amiably with its gregarious owner and touring its sprawling grounds.
It wasn’t so long ago that Georgia social conservatives and microbreweries mixed about as well as oil and water. An effort to allow Sunday alcohol sales stalled for years, and a generation of rural politicians worried that easing Georgia’s strict blue laws would alienate religious voters.
But Friday marked a watershed moment in the brewing evolution of booze and Republican politics. Three GOP candidates for higher office — Hill, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and state Sen. Rick Jeffares — campaigned in local brew pubs to celebrate an expansion of alcohol sales. A fourth, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, held an event Thursday at a Dalton distillery.
“It’s not really about the alcohol to me,” said Hill, known in the Capitol as one of the most outspoken advocates for the changes. “It’s about the deregulation of a small business trying to do something legal — create and sell their craft — and then face barriers to consumers that didn’t make sense.”
These days, Republican candidates pitch changes to alcohol restrictions much like Hill does: as a way to loosen burdensome regulations and trigger much-needed economic development in struggling communities. Jeffares, the lead sponsor of the new law and a candidate for lieutenant governor, said Friday that was cause for “celebration.”
“I’m for helping people be wealthier and more free,” said Jeffares, who visited a trio of west Georgia breweries Friday. “That’s my litmus test, and I think that ought to be the mantra of the Republican Party. This law does both, and that’s why I sponsored it.”
The Republican pivot has horrified some social conservatives who worry the GOP is losing its grip on social issues that once defined the party. Kay Godwin, the head of the Georgia chapter of the National Republican Assemblies, talked about her family’s struggles with alcohol abuse as she worried GOP candidates were giving up the “high moral ground.”
“Ten years ago, you could never imagine them doing this — at least not in public. But today no one seems to notice,” said Godwin, who has been a GOP activist for about three decades. “We’ve let our guard down.”
Sully the Sabbath?
Blue laws designed to enforce religious standards through restrictions on alcohol and shopping during the Sabbath have been on the decline for decades, but in Georgia the erosion has been slower than some other Southern states.
That’s because when Sonny Perdue, a devout Baptist and teetotaler, was governor he pledged to veto any measure that would end a Sunday ban on alcohol sales by stores, and he fought efforts to loosen alcohol restrictions, even as support grew in the Georgia Legislature for an easing of such regulations.
Gov. Nathan Deal took a different stance after succeeding Perdue in 2011. He cast Sunday sales as a local control issue — the legislation allowed residents to decide whether to allow alcohol sales on the Sabbath — and has generally been more amenable to changes to alcohol laws.
He signed a measure in 2015 that loosened Georgia’s Prohibition Era ban on in-house sales by local breweries, allowing them to charge patrons for a tour and a limited amount of alcohol. He has not publicly opposed an effort to allow restaurants to serve morning cocktails on Sundays.
And with little controversy or fanfare earlier this year, Deal signed a measure that could pave the way for a wave of new alcohol manufacturers in Georgia. The legislation, which took effect Friday, for the first time allows patrons to buy directly from local craft breweries and distilleries.
Across Georgia, Republican candidates saw those new rules as a cause for outright jubilation.
Cagle, who’s running to succeed Deal, visited Wild Heaven Beer in Decatur on Friday to shake hands and declare the law will help Georgia “hop to the top with our craft breweries.” Once cast as an obstacle to the new alcohol laws, Cagle’s campaign asserted that he played a behind-the-scenes role in brokering a compromise with liquor distributors and breweries.
And Kemp, also a gubernatorial candidate, held a meet-and-greet Thursday evening at a Dalton distillery, snapping photos with voters along a bar stacked with liquor bottles. He said he’s going “from the pulpit to the pub” to connect with Georgians.
“To put people ahead of politics, you have to travel where hardworking Georgians live, work and enjoy life,” Kemp said.
A fourth GOP candidate for governor, state Sen. Michael Williams, now includes in his stump speech the plight of a team of businessmen struggling to launch a distillery in Forsyth County because of what he calls onerous regulations.
It seems unlikely that the full-scale embrace of the issue will have repercussions among grass-roots conservatives.
Beth Harris of the Georgia Christian Coalition said the group has “consistently opposed the expansion of alcohol” but that it will leave it up to voters to decide whether the candidates’ stances on alcohol — or their campaign visits to brew pubs — affect their vote.
Still, the head-spinning cultural change is astounding to many longtime Republican hands. Todd Rehm, a veteran GOP strategist, said that he would have never been seen clutching a glass of beer at Republican gatherings in the 1990s for fear of offending someone.
Holding an event to celebrate the expansion of alcohol sales back then? “Unthinkable.”
Now Rehm draws a line between Republican support for looser alcohol restrictions and the general embrace of another once-divisive social issue: medical marijuana. Once nonstarters in conservative circles, both have steadily gained traction this decade.
“Back in 2009, Sunday sales was a definitive issue for what it means to be a social conservative. Now you have widespread passage of Sunday sales rules,” Rehm said. “We’ve come to understand that a mimosa on a Sunday may not be the worst sin of all.”
There’s an added bonus to the embrace of new booze laws: Brew pubs make for more comfy campaign venues than stuffy hotel ballrooms or cramped diners. And they give campaigns a chance to pitch candidates as regular folks who like to kick back once in a while and grab a drink. Or two.
Jeffares’ campaign, in announcing visits to brew pubs in Omaha, West Point and LaGrange, added this cheeky line in his press release: “Rick’s campaign manager Ryan Williams will be doing the driving.”
At Hill’s visit to the Red Hare in Marietta, he chatted with Roger Davis about his brewery’s challenges and talked of the legislation as a “no-brainer, common sense” change that will help his business and other alcohol manufacturers grow.
“We’re not proliferating alcohol with this decision,” Hill said. “It is about the free market and competition. It’s about allowing a company to expand its base.”
Out in the gathering crowd in Red Hare’s bar, Keven and Chris Johnson wondered who the politician was who accompanied them on the tour of the brewery’s inner workings. They made the trek from Fayetteville to Marietta to try a few brews, and they seemed surprised at the sight of a GOP candidate for governor making the rounds.
“They’re catching up to the times,” said Keven, an airline technician. “It’s about time Georgia comes out of the Stone Age.”