Insurance Commissioner race could test Trump's influence over Georgia GOP

Courtney Parker votes on a new voting machine in Dallas, Georgia, in November.

The primary election for Georgia insurance commissioner is not one that usually grabs headlines.

But this year, former president Donald Trump is throwing his weight behind Republican Patrick Witt, who’s running in the GOP primary against incumbent commissioner John King.

The downballot Republican matchup could be another test of the former president’s staying power in Georgia politics this election year.  

John King took office in 2019 after former insurance commissioner Jim Beck was indicted on fraud and money laundering charges. Since then, he’s touted his track record of fixing the culture of the agency.

King stuck to that message at a Republican primary debate earlier this month.

“I’ve been talking to the folks who have been neglected for many years. I mean, there’s been a tradition of of folks who just had no business serving in the state of Georgia,” King said.

King’s background includes 17 years as the Doraville Police Chief. He’s the first Latino to hold statewide office in Georgia.

On the debate stage, challenger Patrick Witt talked up his time in the former president’s administration. He served as Trump’s Deputy Chief of Staff and Acting Chief of Staff at the Office of Personnel Management.

“And I negotiated against health insurance companies, dental insurance, vision insurance,” he said, “and we achieved the lowest premiums in the past 30 years.”

Witt is also an attorney. He was a member of Trump’s legal team that attempted to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results. And Trump has endorsed his candidacy.

“The only reason we’re talking about this, I think, is because of the Trump endorsement,” says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

He says the typically low-profile contest has the potential to underscore Trump’s sway over the state GOP on Election Day.

“To the extent that the establishment is trying to reclaim the Republican Party from Donald Trump, if he has a bad day in Georgia, that will help them present the case that a candidate, a hopeful Republican candidate, does not have to be Trump’s choice or even seek Trump’s, or seek to be pro-Trump.”

Watch the primary debates at the GPB News website

The insurance commissioner’s office oversees the state’s insurance system and business licensing. It also investigates consumer complaints and helps set insurance policy rates.

Some of those rates are higher than the national average. A report from comparison site finds Georgians pay around $200 more per year for comprehensive car insurance.

King says he’s focused on bringing insurance rates down.  

“And so we spend a lot of time dealing with a lot of these requests for premium increases we reject because they’re not founded in loss ratios,” King said at the debate.

Witt also says he’ll work to lower rates if he’s elected in November.

“I support any legislation that drives down costs and increases competition in the market. The issue with Obamacare,” Witt told the debate crowd, “is that it was a government takeover of health care, similar to the one that Mr. King pushed with HB1013.”

The bipartisan bill HB 1013 that passed this legislative session is also known as the Mental Health Parity Act. It’s designed to overhaul the state’s mental health care system and improve insurance coverage of mental health services.

The insurance commissioner will be involved in enforcing mental health parity as required by the new law, which takes effect July 1.

Also vying to replace King on the Republican ticket is Ben Cowart, who did not participate in the Republican debate.  

Democrats are also picking a candidate for insurance commissioner. There are three candidates in the Democratic primary race, as introduced in the Press Club debates earlier this month.

“They are, in alphabetical order, Raphael Baker, a business owner. Janice Laws Robinson is an insurance professional and Matthew Wilson is a Georgia House Representative for District 80,” the debate emcee said.

Georgia’s requirement that candidates must get a majority of the votes to win means both races could end up in a June runoff between the top two vote getters.