This Senate candidate says he can win on abortion rights and gun reform — in Georgia

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Matt Lieberman is running on a platform that includes banning assault weapons and refusing to support justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. Will it work?

Matt Lieberman believes "the time has arrived" for Georgia to send a Democrat to the U.S. Senate — and he believes a campaign focused on gun safety and abortion rights will make that happen, despite the state's traditional conservative bend.

Lieberman, an entrepreneur and son of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, is seeking to follow in his father's footsteps. The former teacher says he's "running as a fed up citizen of Georgia," to fill the seat of Republican Johnny Isakson.

Lieberman launched his campaign last October, about a month after Isakson announced he would soon resign his post. In December, Gov. Brian Kemp named Republican donor Kelly Loeffler to fill the vacant seat for the interim period.

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The 52-year-old entrepreneur may face a slog in Georgia, a southern state that solidly backed Donald Trump in 2016 and hasn't elected a Democratic senator since the turn of the 21st century.

Lieberman's campaign website is short on policy specifics, but he opened up during a wide-ranging telephone interview late last month. He's staking out a solidly left-of-center position, believing Georgia voters are as fed up with the state's Republican Party as he is.

Lieberman said his top legislative priority will be gun safety legislation, including a ban on military-style assault weapons like the AR-15.

"Outside of the military, civilians don't need these kinds of weapons," he said. He also favors a voluntary buyback program of assault-style weapons, but would oppose a mandatory buyback program that some gun safety advocates support.

"Moving gun control forward," Lieberman said, "is such a big one and frankly should be such an easy one." He is specifically calling for universal background checks on all gun purchases, a position that has broad public support.

Three in 10 Georgians own a gun, and the state has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the nation, but Lieberman is still banking on gun safety as a winning message for his campaign.

"It is heartbreaking to see ... mass killing on a regular basis," he said. He lamented that parents don't know when they send their kids to school "whether that horrible day might be upon [their] family."

If advocates' predictions are correct, that gamble may just work.

Joanna Belanger, political director of Giffords, a gun safety organization, said that gun safety will continue to play a major role in races across the country, including in more conservative-leaning states like Georgia.

"The idea that gun safety is only something liberal elites care about is a surface myth," Belanger said during a phone interview. She noted the growth of the suburbs, especially in Georgia, is playing a major role in the changing politics of gun safety.

Belanger pointed to the success of Rep. Lucy McBath, a freshman Democrat representing an Atlanta suburb who made gun safety the centerpiece of her 2018 campaign. McBath lost her son, Jordan, to gun violence in 2012, which propelled her to become a gun safety advocate before running for Congress.

McBath's victory "has had an incredible effect in Georgia and especially the Atlanta suburbs" when it comes to how elected officials handle the issue of gun safety, Belanger said.

Lieberman's position on gun safety, by contrast, was influenced by his experience working in schools.

"I was an educator, a teacher, and a principal for many years," he said. "I was the head of a school when the protocols around lockdown drills first started being implemented, and I dealt with kids and teachers and families around that initial trauma."

He added that while it is impossible to "make the world perfect ... we can take commonsense steps to minimize" how often mass shooting happen.

"It's inexcusable that we haven't done that yet," he said.

Lieberman also believes support for abortion rights can be a winning message in Georgia.

"I won't vote to confirm any [Supreme Court] justice who I have any notion might vote to overturn Roe v. Wade," the landmark Supreme Court case legalizing abortion, he said over the phone last month.

He added that Republicans in Georgia had "taken [the party] so far to the right" and were "out of step and out of sync with most Georgians."

An April 2019 poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found 70% of Georgians opposed overturning Roe, while fewer than 1 in 5 (34%) supported that position. The same poll showed a 21-point gap between those who think abortion should be legal in all or most cases (57%) and Georgians who think it should be illegal in all or most cases (36%).

But the politics of abortion in the state have been muddled. The Georgia Legislature passed a bill last summer that would effectively ban abortion at six weeks, which Lieberman said "takes away a woman's right to choose before she might even know she has a choice to make."

The law would make it a crime to obtain an abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy, punishable by up to 10 years in prison for both the doctor and person receiving the abortion. In October 2019, a federal judge blocked the law from taking effect.

Despite widespread support for Roe, polling showed at least 43% of Georgians in favor of the six-week ban, with 48% opposed.

Lieberman blamed that dichotomy on the idea that abortion and reproductive rights are "morally difficult issues." But, he insisted, as elected Republicans in Georgia go "further and further to the right," voters will likely seek "to restore balance in our government."

Lieberman is also betting on a drop in support for Trump in a state that backed him over Hillary Clinton by a 5-point margin in 2016 can help him win. According to Morning Consult, Trump still maintains around 47% support, though that figure constitutes a 20-point drop since he took office. And he's now facing a tough reelection battle, polling below most of his major Democratic opponents for president in the state.

Georgia will be home to two Senate races in 2020, since the special election to replace Isakson coincides with the end of GOP Sen. David Perdue's first term. Due to Georgia election law, there will be no primary in the race to replace Isakson, but rather, voters will cast a ballot on Nov. 3 for any candidate who qualifies to be on the ballot.

As of this month, Lieberman is the only "well-financed Democrat" running for Isakson's seat, according to the Journal-Constitution. Several Democrats are vying to oust Perdue.

While other Democrats may still jump in the race to replace Isakson, Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top-ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, is considering joining the race on the other side of the aisle, and Loeffler has already pledged to spend $20 million of her own fortune in an attempt to keep her appointed seat.

If no candidate for Isakson's seat wins a majority of the vote, a runoff election will be held on Jan. 5, 2021.

Lieberman said he believes demographic changes and the groundwork laid by Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her 2018 bid to be governor, will help propel him to victory.

In January, Lieberman announced that his campaign had raised $700,000 during the last three months of 2019 in hopes of turning the state blue.

"Democrats just turned two Southern states blue in November in Kentucky and Virginia," he said in a fundraising press release. "Now, our people-powered campaign is going to do the same in Georgia."

Lieberman is hoping that a pledge to ban assault rifles and oppose Supreme Court nominees who threaten a woman's right to choose will help him overcome the state's recent history of electing Republicans, despite election prognosticators like the Cook Political Report rating the race as "Likely Republican."

"The usual suspects have failed us," Lieberman said on the phone. "I'm running as a change agent that just knows we could do so much better than we're doing."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.