Eric Tanenblatt: Donald Trump, Political Heir to Georgia’s Sonny Perdue

Eric Tanenblatt

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

As an outsider, they said he couldn’t win his party’s nomination against mainline, monied rivals. As a political renegade, they said he couldn’t create a winning general election coalition.

He was said to have retrograde views, wanting to return us to our painful past of sectarian divisions.

Political elites said he stood no chance–and the media gave him even less of one. His opponent’s political war chest was nearly seven times as great as his own.

The whole political world said he would be dead on arrival as the polls closed on election day.

Now, you would be forgiven for assuming I meant Donald Trump, whose stunning victory earlier this month defied political science and all electoral modeling. But it wasn’t Mr. Trump’s victory I meant to recall, rather another discounted outsider, right here in Georgia, some 14 years before our new president-elect stepped into the political focus.

The campaign for governor of Sonny Perdue, a veterinarian and businessman who led the Democratic caucus in the Georgia State Senate before joining the Republican Party in 1998, served in many ways as the prequel to Mr. Trump’s historic bid for president.

The political and social dynamics at work in Georgia in 2002 weren’t much different than those that yielded Trump’s upset: largely unknown quantities competing against the closest thing to a modern day political machine (well-oiled, deeply funded, and punishing) set against the backdrop of acute populist dissatisfaction with establishment elites.

Both men weathered the sharp apprehension of elites in business and media, a disquiet they sometimes made louder for their own faults. Neither had real ties to their party or had long championed ideological causes.

But together they rode populist sentiment into office in a way that few thought possible and fewer still thought probable.

Perdue, whose election as Georgia’s first Republican governor in 135 years was as unpredictable as this year’s election, exerted a lasting, positive influence on his state in his eight years in office. And as President-elect Trump, the heir to the same populism that vaulted Perdue into the governor’s mansion, navigates the pitfalls of constituting a new government, there are lessons to heed from Georgia’s experiment.

The president-elect has demonstrated a knack for defying the odds (and the doubters), but governing isn’t campaigning–indeed, it’s far more challenging. And I would know: I served as Gov. Perdue’s first chief of staff during the tumult to create a new state government that served the people.

If this year’s primaries were instructive in any way, it was to demonstrate how truly dissatisfied the average American voter has grown with the process. Perdue understood that then just as Trump understands it now.

Unbound to special interests or the good old boys, the governor was free to create a government of his own choosing: no favors were owed but to those who elected him. Already, Mr. Trump is off to a good start in the same way.

The naming of senior aides, including Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as White House Chief of Staff, and senior advisors has worked to quell some concerns as to the temperament of the next president.

Personnel, as they say, is policy. And Perdue’s staff was so tremendous that they built their own legacies as their cemented his. They include Paul Bennecke, then the political director on Perdue’s campaign and now the Executive Director of the Republican National Governor’s Association (RGA); Nick Ayers, who began as a campaign aide before rising to Executive Director of the RGA and later as a senior advisor to Vice President-elect Mike Pence; and Trey Childress, a policy advisor to the governor who now serves as the Deputy Governor of the State of Illinois, among others.

The challenges that faced Georgia a decade ago are not so different from those that face our nation today: voters have lost confidence in government (and virtually all pillars of civil society) and feel increasingly neglected. Perdue was able to change that for Georgians. With a little Peach State prudence, Donald Trump, too, can do the same for America.