ATLANTA – Two years ago, Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia since 1992, and the Peach State elected two Democrats to the U.S. Senate in runoffs.
Last Tuesday, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp won reelection in a rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams by a wider margin than in 2018, leading the GOP to a sweep of all eight constitutional offices. Sen. Raphael Warnock is the only statewide Democratic candidate left standing, pending a runoff with Republican challenger Herschel Walker.
Given those results, it might be tempting to conclude Georgia has turned back to solid red again, as it had been since 2006, the last time before 2020 a Democrat won statewide office.
“You might look at the 2020 election and runoffs as an anomaly in a still Republican state,” said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University.
But such an interpretation ignores the gains Democrats have been making in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, where an increasingly diverse electorate added two Democrats to Georgia’s congressional delegation since 2018 and put more Democrats in the General Assembly.
“The 2020 outcomes were consistent with the trajectory we’ve seen for the last decade,” said Brian Robinson, a former top aide to then-Gov. Nathan Deal and a Republican political commentator. “What we’re seeing now is more of an anomaly.”
This year’s Republican success story starts with Kemp, who bested Abrams last Tuesday by 7.5 percentage points, a significantly larger margin of victory than in 2018, when he won by just 1.4 percentage points.
Robinson said Kemp picked up those points this time around by appealing to the middle. His 2018 campaign was geared more toward the Republican base, as was exemplified dramatically in an ad featuring Kemp pointing a shotgun at a teenager wanting to date his daughter.
Bidding for a second term this year, Kemp had a record to run on. His main theme was that he moved quickly to reopen Georgia businesses during the early months of the pandemic, paving the way to an economic recovery that outpaced other states.
“He took a risk opening first that could have gone sideways on him,” Robinson said. “It allowed him to make significant inroads.”
Robinson said Kemp also gained ground with moderate voters by refusing to go along with then-President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia, a stand for election integrity that also helped Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger win reelection by more than 9 percentage points.
Trump also was a factor in Abrams’ favor in 2018, Robinson said. Suburban voters unhappy with the lightning rod president in the White House had a reason to vote for Abrams that year, he said.
But this year, Abrams’ candidacy was hurt when moderate voters identified her with the fight against voter suppression, which most Georgia voters weren’t experiencing when they went to the polls, Robinson said.
Also, Kemp took advantage of Abrams’ national celebrity by running ads claiming she was out of touch with Georgians.
“She became more celebrity than local politician,” Robinson said.
The rest of the Republican slate for statewide constitutional offices rode Kemp’s coattails to victory. While Raffensperger’s winning margin over Democratic state Rep. Bee Nguyen was the largest, most of the remainder of the GOP ticket won by almost as large a margin.
Republicans also gained a seat in Georgia’s U.S. House delegation, boosting the GOP majority to 9-5, a result that had been a fait accompli since the GOP-controlled General Assembly redrew Georgia’s congressional map during a special redistricting session late last year.
The new map substantially redrew Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath’s 6th Congressional District to heavily favor Republicans. As a result, she moved into Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux’s heavily Democratic 7th District and beat Bourdeaux in a primary last May. Republican Rich McCormick then was elected in McBath’s now GOP-friendly former district.
But the redistricting session also allowed Democrats to make gains in the General Assembly, slightly reducing the size of Republican majorities in the state House and Senate. Changing demographics in Cobb and Gwinnett counties that favor Democrats forced Republicans to draw a smattering of new districts likely to go to Democratic candidates.
Democrats gained one seat in the state Senate, bringing the Republican majority down to 33-23, and made a few pickups in the House.
“The investments Democrats have been making all cycle have paid off,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, who chairs the Georgia Democratic Party. “Georgia Democrats gained seats in both chambers even in the face of Republican gerrymandering.”
The only uncertainty remaining is who will represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate going forward. With neither incumbent Democrat Warnock nor Republican challenger Walker clearing the 50%-plus-one margin of victory needed to avoid a runoff, they will clash again on Dec. 6.
Swint said the outcome may have a lot to do with whether Democrats retain their majority in the Senate. If Democrats win tight contests in Arizona and Nevada – the only other Senate contests from Election Day other than Georgia’s still not decided as of Friday – Republicans won’t be able to flip the Senate even if Walker wins next month.
“You may not get the Republican money to come in or the fervor [for Republicans] to go out and vote,” Swint said.
While what happens to the balance of power in the Senate isn’t in Walker’s control, Robinson said there are steps the University of Georgia football legend must take if he wants to overcome his sizable underperformance at the polls last Tuesday compared to the rest of the statewide Republican ticket.
“He’s got to make Raphael Warnock own Biden’s failed recovery,” he said. “Walker [also] needs to show some fluency on policy issues and matters specific to Georgia.”
Regardless of what happens in the runoff, Swint said Democrats should take heart that Georgia is not going back to the days of total Republican domination a decade ago.
“In Cobb and Gwinnett, it’s been real tough for them.” he said. “The days of Republicans winning everything are over.”
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.