Meet Art Gardner: The outlier of Georgia’s Republican Senate primary

Art Gardner, Republican candidate for Senate, Georgia
Art Gardner, Republican candidate for Senate, Georgia

WASHINGTON, April 17, 2014 – Often referring to themselves in the third person, Georgia Republican Senate candidates have spewed talking points so similar that it almost feels as though they had a secret meeting back in January and wrote them together.

Then there is Art Gardner.

Gardner aims to present himself as the panacea to many of Washington’s ills. Pragmatism guides most of his policy positions rather than the fervent ideology that saturates so many of his opponents’ worldviews. However, he has managed to find a major stretch of common ground on which to join the rest of the Republican crowd.

“I got into this race to fix the budget,” he says. “Everybody says they want to solve the budget problem, they want to balance the budget, but they never propose any specific cuts because they’re afraid that it’ll cost them votes.”

“[I]n my view, what we need to do is go back to something like what we had with the sequester, which is forcing cuts in the military spending, and forcing cuts in discretionary spending,” he says, adding that mandatory spending—more commonly referred to as ‘entitlement spending’—eats up 60% of the budget today and must be addressed if any serious inroads are to be made toward balanced books.

The budget issue has featured prominently in the primary, with the seven contenders decrying in unision the federal government’s overblown spending at every opportunity. Broun has suggested shuttering the Department of Education, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, Department of Labor, and the Department of Commerce, while former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel has professed her intentions to repeal the 16th amendment (establishing the income tax) to keep more money out of Washington’s sticky hands. Indeed, even in the wildest of dreams, one can hardly imagine that a Republican candidate could scrape together a campaign without promising to gut the budget and target tax rates.

FairTax, the tax legislation overhaul first put on the Senate floor by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (who’s impending retirement threw open the door for this primary to occur), continues to curry favor with conservative grassroots and often resurfaces in the daily discourse of the campaign trail. A tax-slashing vendetta against the IRS has served as the battle cry of the race’s leaders, usually followed by some sort of catchy slogan against Obamacare and those socialists up on Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet Gardner, true to his centrist form, refuses to box himself in à la Bush-41.

“From what I can glean from media reports, books, and first-hand accounts, the two political parties were fairly close to a ‘grand bargain’ to solve our nation’s deficit problem by cutting spending substantially and raising taxes a little (something like a 5-to-1 ratio) a few years ago,” he wrote in an email. “But one of the factors that hampered reaching such a deal was the reluctance of many in the GOP to agree to any tax hike, even it came with a huge spending cut and would balance the budget.”

An underdog by any standard, Gardner has managed thus far to fly under the media and public radar despite running a campaign that flouts almost every political assumption associated with a statewide race in Georgia. Where others in the mélange remand the Republican Party for not hewing more closely to conservative principles, Gardner criticizes it for ignoring the center.

Where others take to their soapboxes to demand Obamacare’s head, Gardner quietly details a complex and original plan to lower healthcare costs in a bipartisan manner. And where others scramble to get their pictures taken with every middle-aged somebody they can wrangle, Gardner spends much of his time before college voters—a demographic all but ignored in the typical course of Republican congressional primaries.

Like fellow grassroots candidate Derrick Grayson, Gardner suffers from a serious lack of name recognition in a field populated by multiple Georgia stars. Still, that hasn’t stopped him from amassing an impressive social media following. His campaign’s greatest expenditure, as a percentage, focuses on reaching millenials where they spend most of their time these days: the Internet.

But a pretty Twitter page isn’t the only way Gardner has attempted to cater to the 18-24 set. The very tenets of his unorthodox platform were designed to pull them in, along with women, minorities, and gays—groups Gardner claims have been pushed away by the Republican Party in recent years. “It’s time to find a way forward,” Gardner said in an interview before the last debate in Savannah, “[and] to develop candidates within our party who are not always social conservatives.”

Gardner proudly supports same-sex marriage, women’s choice in reproductive issues, and environmental protection. Despite the fact that his social stances clash with those held by every other Republican in the field, most candidates in the country, and even with the Democrat he would eventually face in the general election, Gardner maintains that his views fit with the general public’s outlook.

“I don’t think that my positions on the social issues are non-traditional,” he explains. “They are consistent with what a lot of mainstream Republicans think—we should focus on government and stop trying to tell folks what to think and how to act. It is just that the social conservatives in our party are very vocal and very active and have in recent years dominated our party rather effectively.”

Gardner’s acceptance of marriage equality, a cultural norm that repels many Republicans, has held steady for decades. Nearly twenty-five years ago, Gardner founded the Georgia chapter of the Cadillac LaSalle Club, an organization for enthusiasts of the classic American automobile that presumably attracted the same sort of clientele who would rally behind the rightest of Republicans in a race like today’s.

Gardner refused to give in to pressure from some members to exclude gays from the group, and boldly put policies in place to ensure that LaSalle lovers who happened to be homosexual could join as they pleased. Even though the move ultimately caused some individuals to decline membership, Gardner continues to stand by his decision to accept all people into the club.

A humble patent lawyer with the horn-rimmed glasses of a seasoned professor, Gardner speaks at times like the wonky academic he looks and at others like a pragmatic reformer of the status quo. His easy manner belies a deep understanding of the machinations behind politics at every level, and yet he still opts to remain above the fray.

In a recent phone interview, Gardner avoided the most clever of interview traps by refusing to speak ill of his fellow Senate hopefuls. “There’ll be enough mud thrown around,” he said of the race.

Next page: Gardner on Affordable Health Care and taxes….

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