Georgia becomes ground zero for 2022 elections

Associated Press/Steve Helber

Georgia is emerging as the most critical battleground of the 2022 midterm elections.

With Stacey Abrams’s entrance into the governor’s race on Wednesday, Democrats landed one of their top recruits, one they hope will also lift up Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), whose seat is crucial to the party’s efforts to hold their Senate majority.

But Democrats are facing strong headwinds next year: the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging, inflation is rising and President Biden’s approval rating is well underwater. What’s more, the political coalition that helped power Democratic victories in Georgia last year appears fragile, and a loss in the governor’s race or Senate race – or both – would be seen as a titanic blow to the party.

“I think on one hand, we have the best candidates we could ask for. Stacey is a superstar and so is Warnock,” one Georgia Democrat said. “But the mood of the country is starting to shift. If they can’t pull it off, I think it’s going to be a rough cycle for us across the board.”

Democrats are defending razor-thin majorities in both the House and Senate, and Georgia will likely play a key role in their efforts. Warnock is facing a challenge from former football star Herschel Walker, who has the backing of former President Trump, while redistricting in the state appears likely to hand the GOP an extra seat in the House.

At the same time, the coalition of voters that helped drive Democratic wins in recent years – mainly people of color, women and suburbanites – appears more tenuous this time around.

Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race provided some early evidence that some suburban voters may be swinging back toward the GOP in the post-Trump era. Meanwhile, voting rights advocates worry that new voting restrictions in Georgia and other states could depress turnout among voters of color.

Abrams’s emergence in the governor’s race virtually guarantees that Georgia will once again be a crucial political battleground with broad national implications. Biden carried the state last year, becoming the first Democrat since 1992 to win the state’s electoral votes, while Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) triumphed in a pair of runoff elections in January that handed control of the Senate to Democrats.

While Democrats have notched a series of key victories in Georgia in the recent past, no figure is more dominant in the state party than Abrams, a former state House minority leader who came within 1.5 percentage points – or about 55,000 votes – of beating Gov. Brian Kemp (R) in the 2018 race for governor.

Democrats had almost universally expected Abrams to mount another gubernatorial bid. No other figure in the party has announced a campaign and, with Abrams now in the race, none are expected to. That set up gives Abrams a clear path to the nomination and averts a potentially bitter primary fight.

Her announcement on Wednesday creates a highly anticipated rematch with Kemp, though one that will take place in a very different political environment than the one she ran in three years ago. Unlike in 2018, Democrats now control the White House and both chambers of Congress, and midterms are typically seen as a referendum on the party in power.

“With Stacey Abrams, it ain’t the same race again,” said Chuck Clay, a former state senator and Georgia GOP chairman. “It doesn’t mean she can’t win, but the idea that you can just run a duplicate of the 2018 race with a little more oomph doesn’t work here. Trump ain’t on the ballot with her now and the trend is going Republican.”

Still, Kemp may yet face a competitive primary of his own given his tense relationship with the former president, who turned on the Georgia governor last year after he refused his pleas to overturn the state’s election results.

Several high-profile Republicans have been floated as potential gubernatorial candidates, including former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who is said to be actively considering a primary challenge to Kemp. If Perdue ultimately enters in the race, he would likely have the backing of Trump, teeing off a likely highly contentious nominating contest.

“It would be, I don’t want to say catastrophic,” Clay said. “But I find it hard to believe that you could have a bitter, bitter Republican primary and then be fully healed and ready to go against a candidate that’s going to clear the field on her side and will have whatever money she needs to run.”

For now, Democrats are thrilled with the prospect of another Abrams candidacy, noting that she seems to inspire enthusiasm wherever she goes. Onlookers have long hoped she would take another stab at the governor’s mansion after losing to Kemp by the narrowest of margins.

Many moderate and progressive Democrats alike strongly believe Abrams is the right kind of candidate to propel the party forward. After taking a leading role in what was once considered a nearly impossible goal — flipping Georgia blue in a tight presidential election — she appeared on shortlists to be Biden’s vice president, with some in the president’s inner circle strongly angling within the campaign at the time for her to make the final cut.

The more people talked, the higher Abrams’s profile rose. And she certainly was not shooing anyone away from fantasizing about her next steps.

During the height of the veepstakes, Abrams appeared on several prominent news programs and in various outlets, giving oxygen by default to the idea that her political future did not stop with her first failed governor bid. When Biden chose Kamala Harris to serve as his No. 2, some turned to Abrams as a natural fit to lead the Democratic National Committee, a role that involves considerable coordination with diverse parts of the country.

But Democrats in Georgia were adamant that Abrams’s political desires were to lead the state that helped give the president a historic victory under the most unlikely circumstances.

Kemp, a conservative Republican, had seen his own profile rise after working to roll back voting protections that made it harder for people to cast ballots. In that, Abrams saw a challenge worth taking on and dedicated considerable time and resources to her non-profit, “Fair Fight,” to make sure all Georgia residents could vote freely.

“My job has been to put my head down and keep working,” Abrams said in a video message announcing her bid this week. “Opportunity and success in Georgia shouldn’t be determined by your zip code, background, or access to power.”

While Democrats see Abrams as a motivating figure for their voters, so do Republicans.

Earlier this year, allies of Kemp formed a group called “Stop Stacey,” hoping to galvanize GOP voters ahead of her campaign announcement. Other Republicans have accused her of pursuing the governor’s race as a stepping stone for larger political ambitions.

Still, some Democrats are hopeful that Abrams’s star power can have an additional benefit. Many believe she can help the party and its candidates in an otherwise unfriendly political environment.

“What happens upstream is going to matter downstream,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist close to people in Abrams’s orbit. “There are some factors that are out of her control that she has to consider in the process. It’s going to affect the type of campaign she’ll have to run.”

Tags Brian Kemp David Perdue Donald Trump Georgia Georgia governor's race 2022 Glenn Youngkin Joe Biden Jon Ossoff Raphael Warnock Stacey Abrams

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