Republicans competing to become Georgia's next governor united Tuesday behind a charge to punish Delta Air Lines for cutting business ties with the National Rifle Association, while the state's term-limited GOP governor and others refrained from commenting publicly as officials worked behind the scenes to resolve the feud.
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Fallout from the deadly Valentine's Day school shooting in Florida engulfed Georgia politics Monday when Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a leading GOP gubernatorial contender, said he wants to block renewal of a major tax break for Delta after the Atlanta-based airline announced it will no longer offer discounted rates for NRA members flying to the group's conventions.
Four of Cagle's Republican rivals in the 2018 race for governor said they also support halting the $38 million-per-year sales tax exemption on jet fuel that would primarily benefit Delta. One GOP candidate, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, suggested using that money instead for a "sales tax holiday" for Georgians to buy guns and ammunition tax-free.
The Republican chairman of a Senate committee that approved the tax break last week said officials at the statehouse were working Tuesday to resolve the rift between GOP lawmakers and Delta. Sen. Chuck Hufstetler of Rome said lawmakers felt Delta unfairly singled out the NRA while maintaining special agreements with "many other controversial organizations."
"There's work ongoing to try to fix this disagreement," Hufstetler said. "... I think this additional issue where they were treating (the NRA) different from all the other organizations pushed a lot of the members over the edge."
Gov. Nathan Deal, who has sometimes clashed with social conservatives in his own party on issues he feared could tarnish Georgia's business-friendly reputation, had no immediate comment on the Delta dispute Tuesday, spokeswoman Jen Ryan said. House Speaker David Ralston, another powerful Republican, also was quiet.
Republicans who have lined up against Delta have demonstrated once again the powerful support for gun rights in Georgia. In recent years, the GOP-controlled legislature has greatly expanded the rights of licensed gun owners to bring their weapons to bars, schools, college campuses and even some government buildings.
Still, the ire directed publicly at Delta seems politically extraordinary. In his tweet Monday vowing to kill any tax break benefiting Delta, Cagle said: "Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back."
Delta is one of Georgia's largest private employers, with 33,000 workers statewide, and its busy Atlanta hub has made Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport the busiest in the world.
Although Cagle's blunt threat to kill the tax cut may win fans among GOP voters, it could also backfire when it comes to recruiting business — most notably Georgia's status as a finalist for Amazon's planned second U.S. headquarters, said William Hatcher, an Augusta University professor who studies economic development.
"It's not good economic policy to threaten one of the largest employers in your state," Hatcher said. "You see the political logic in trying to fire up the base. But it's also risky."
Democratic officials in other states quickly made overtures to Delta. U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio said in a statement his state "would be lucky to call itself the home of Delta headquarters." Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam tweeted: "Hey @delta — Virginia is for lovers and airline hubs. You're welcome here any time."
An NRA spokeswoman, Amy Hunter, had no immediate comment Tuesday on the Georgia dispute. A message posted to the NRA's official Twitter account said: "Having those on the left pushing for a boycott to pressure companies to drop discounts just shows how out of touch some are."
More than a dozen companies, including Metlife, Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, Best Western, Wyndham and United Airlines have ended NRA partnerships since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Police say the suspect, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, killed 17 people with an AR-15 assault-style rifle.
Delta spokesman Anthony Black also declined to comment and would not name any other groups that receive discounted fares from the airline.
The proposed tax exemption had been part of Deal's larger tax overhaul, which has passed the state House and awaits a vote in the Senate. As the Senate's presiding officer, Cagle wields considerable power over the fate of the exemption. Previously valued at $50 million annually, the governor's office gave a revised estimate Tuesday putting the break's worth at $38 million.
Democrats, who control roughly one-third of the votes in both the Georgia House and Senate, have criticized Cagle and other Republicans. Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta Democrat, said the GOP's message has been that "the state won't think twice about punishing corporations for corporate stances that they don't agree with."
"I think if I were a business or corporation, I would think twice about coming here," Jordan said.
AP reporter Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this story.