Trump’s infrastructure unveil hinted at Georgia’s new battleground status

President Donald Trump gives Gov. Brian Kemp a chuck on the shoulder during his recent visit to Atlanta. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

President Donald Trump Wednesday paid his second visit to Georgia since March and he had the state’s increasingly competitive political campaigns on his mind.

The president used a UPS distribution hub in Hapeville as a backdrop to announce a rollback of federal environmental regulations he says will help speed up major infrastructure projects. But he also took care to praise GOP rivals for a Georgia Senate seat, both on hand for the president’s quick fly-in. And Trump otherwise signaled he is well aware that recent polls show state races could be tight up and down the ballot in November after years of GOP dominance.

“Especially, I appreciate the state called Georgia,” he said. “It’s a special place. It’s a great place, and it’s an honor to be with you. It’s an honor. This is where I’m announcing — this is good for the whole country, not only Georgia, this is for the whole country — but I’m announcing it in Georgia because we have some great things planned for you. You are special people.”

The visit came less than four months before the election that will determine whether Trump serves a second term in office as well as who wins both of Georgia’s senate seats. No campaign money was spent on the trip, the White House said, but the president made several references to the upcoming election during his 41-minute remarks.

“I’m not going to talk about 2016,” Trump said. “That was the greatest election, and now we have to do something very important, we have to keep it going, or this country will be in big, big trouble.

Trump won Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in 2016, securing 50.4% of the vote to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 45.3%.

Democrats are growing more confident the state could turn blue in 2020, however. Polls have shown Trump neck-and-neck with his presumptive opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.

For the first time in many years, Democrats made significant gains in the state Legislature in the 2018 mid-term election, especially in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, where the population is becoming younger and more diverse. In the June primary, Democrats set a new primary turnout record and their voters outnumbered Republicans.

Trump has drawn fierce criticism from Georgia Democrats since April over his response to COVID-19. And recent killings of African Americans brought new focus on race and violence and made activists out of legions of young people and minorities.

The president mentioned Biden only briefly during his address, claiming the former vice president supports adding more bureaucracy to the environmental review process for construction projects, which would harm economic recovery.

Trump recognized Georgia’s Republican elected officials and candidates in the audience, including incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins, who are vying for former Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat in November.

Loeffler followed Trump down the steps off Air Force One after his arrival at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where Collins was waiting on the tarmac.

Loeffler is “a woman who’s come in and done a great job, and she’s been so supportive of me and the agenda,” Trump said. The president called Collins “an incredible spokesman, an incredible man and friend.”

Recent polls show Collins leading the race over Loeffler for the seat Isakson vacated Dec. 31. The crowded race with candidates from both parties is likely to go a runoff in January.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s December appointment of Loeffler to fill Isakson’s seat until November’s election caused friction at the time between the governor and the president, who favored Collins for the role.

That seemed to be well forgotten by Wednesday. Trump offered praise for Kemp, and he even mocked the governor’s former opponent, Democrat Stacey Abrams.

“He was running against somebody that was unbeatable, running against a superstar,” Trump said. “I said, ‘Oh, she’s a superstar. Wow. Can you beat superstars? I don’t think so.’ But he figured out how to beat a superstar. And I don’t know, is she still a superstar, Brian? I’m not sure, I don’t think so. I don’t know. Superstars don’t lose, do they?”

Abrams, whose name has been floated as Biden’s potential vice presidential nominee, held a virtual press conference with other state Democrats ahead of Trump’s visit lambasting the president for visiting the state when it is experiencing a spike in COVID-19. The state confirmed nearly 3,900 new cases Wednesday.

“As thousands poured into the streets to march for Black lives, Trump has called us thugs, gassed peaceful protestors and sicced the U.S. military on American citizens,” Abrams said. “But we have an opportunity. Joe Biden has shown the confidence, the competence and the courage that is absolutely in stark contrast to Trump’s incompetence, his bumbling response and his moral cowardice.”

State Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, called Trump’s election-year announcement “another broken promise” – a reference to Trump’s vow four years ago to invest in the country’s infrastructure.

“Republicans see the same numbers that Democrats see, and they know that their days and their numbers are limited here,” the Atlanta Democrat said in the call with reporters Wednesday. “And Donald Trump has a seven-digit buy up on local air here in Atlanta to try and save his presidency, but it’s not going to work.”

During such a fraught historical moment, Georgia voters should know the president is fulfilling his campaign promises and working to help restore Georgia jobs lost in the pandemic, said State Rep. Vernon Jones, a DeKalb County Democrat. Jones, who has broken with his fellow Democrats, was offered up for interviews by the White House ahead of the president’s visit.

“Is this a political event? Clearly, it is,” Jones said. “This is the president coming and saying, ‘I told you we’ll be able to take projects from seven years to two years.’”

Jones announced he would not be seeking re-election to the state House shortly after endorsing the president. He said he cannot in good conscience vote for Biden, who he said takes Black votes for granted.

Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report. 

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.