A history-making lineup is taking shape for down-ticket Georgia races that could bring even more energy and attention to marquee contests for governor and the U.S. Senate.

In most election cycles, the expected rematch between Gov. Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams, combined with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s bid for a full six-year term, would overshadow the other contests on the ballot.

But the lower-profile contests won’t be afterthoughts next year, not with former President Donald Trump continuing to shape the Georgia GOP and a slate of precedent-setting contenders lining up to run.

No longer must Democrats resort to pleading with long shots to enter the ring, not after the November presidential flip and the party’s Senate runoff sweep in January. Now, races that once attracted a single Democratic contender are contested by multiple candidates who have held office before.

The race for secretary of state might be the premier 2022 election in the nation that doesn’t involve a governor or Senate candidate, in part because of Trump’s vow to exact revenge on Republican incumbent Brad Raffensperger for denying his demand to overturn his November defeat.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s decision to forgo a second term — and avoid pro-Trump backlash of his own — has turned the race for Georgia’s No. 2 job into a wide-open affair. And there are competitive contests for lower-profile offices, as Democrats seek to build on upset wins in the 2020 cycle.

The party is putting together a slate of contenders who leaders hope could help Abrams and Warnock — rather than just try to ride their coattails. Among them are candidates looking to be the first Black, first woman, first Asian American and first openly gay elected official in their respective offices.

State Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, is running for insurance commissioner and could become the first LGBTQ candidate to win statewide office in Georgia. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
State Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, is running for insurance commissioner and could become the first LGBTQ candidate to win statewide office in Georgia. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

“We now have a bench on the Democratic side where we have a deep pool of talented candidates who can run,” said Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist who was an adviser to Joe Biden’s state presidential campaign in 2020. “And with the right candidate, and the right messages, we know they can raise the resources to compete.”

Republicans have won every state constitutional office contest for more than a decade, though the GOP is on the defensive following Biden’s victory in Georgia in November and the Democrats’ Senate wins in January.

And even as Republicans ready their own slate of formidable contenders, they’re also wrestling with a wedge Trump has driven into the state party over his November defeat that’s threatening Kemp’s reelection and has complicated the GOP’s hunt for a top-tier Senate candidate.

Armed with Trump’s endorsement, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice is considered the favorite in the GOP race to oust Raffensperger. The race to succeed Duncan could wind up a battle over loyalty to Trump.

And other races will test the durability of the Republican coalition in Georgia — a base of heavily white rural and exurban voters — who held the state Legislature and retained a Public Service Commission seat while incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue lost their U.S. Senate bids.

“I think 2022 still falls within a close margin where we hold down-ballot state offices,” said Chip Lake, a GOP consultant. “We aren’t out of that space yet.”

‘Speaks for itself’

The other 2022 races are taking shape well before the marquee races are solidified. Abrams has yet to announce a bid for governor, though Democratic insiders expect her to mount a rematch against Kemp. And University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker’s flirtation with a U.S. Senate run has triggered a GOP waiting game.

Georgia Democrats are waiting for Stacey Abrams to announce whether she will run again to become governor, and Herschel Walker is making Republicans wait to see whether he will campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Caption
Georgia Democrats are waiting for Stacey Abrams to announce whether she will run again to become governor, and Herschel Walker is making Republicans wait to see whether he will campaign for the U.S. Senate.

For Democrats, the surge of interest is a far cry from past election cycles, when party leaders had to beg and plead contenders to consider the highest-profile races.

In 2014, six Democrats signed up to run for lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general or insurance commissioner. So far for the 2022 election, nine Democrats have announced races for those jobs — several of them lawmakers — and the primary is still a year off.

In 2016, Democrats resorted to a little-known businessman named Jim Barksdale to run for the U.S. Senate after every other contender passed. He was trounced in the general election after dipping deep into his personal fortune to finance his run.

And in 2018, even the promise of Abrams at the top of the ticket couldn’t entice well-known Democrats to run for many other statewide posts. Though she didn’t win, an activist known for wearing a beauty queen sash to events still received 45% of the primary votes against an establishment-backed candidate for lieutenant governor.

If state Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, wins her race for secretary of state, she would become the first Asian American to win a statewide race in Georgia. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
If state Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, wins her race for secretary of state, she would become the first Asian American to win a statewide race in Georgia. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Now, there’s no shortage of credible contenders. State Rep. Bee Nguyen, who succeeded Abrams in the Legislature, drew national attention when she announced her bid for secretary of state, which would make her the first person of Asian descent to win a statewide political office. Also in the race is John Eaves, a former Fulton County Commission chair who would be the first Black Jewish statewide officer.

Prominent Black legislators are lining up to run for lieutenant governor and labor commissioner. And two candidates are aiming to be the state’s first openly LGBTQ statewide officers — state Rep. Matthew Wilson, a candidate for insurance commissioner, and Kolbey Gardner, a Democratic strategist who is running for lieutenant governor.

“We’ve had some rock-star Democrats run in the last two cycles. But we also saw we can’t just have any Democrat running. We’re not Massachusetts,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to have quality candidates who can bring a vision to the office and run a solid campaign. And in those races that we haven’t, the evidence speaks for itself.”

State Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta Democrat and attorney, made national headlines in 2019 after she gave a speech opposing strict anti-abortion legislation. Now a candidate for attorney general, Jordan’s viral speech earned her a trip to Washington to testify against a similar measure there.

Jordan is one of two Democrats who’ve announced they plan to challenge Republican Attorney General Chris Carr for the office. Charlie Bailey, who lost to Carr in 2018 by 2.6 percentage points, is also running for the job.

“It’s exciting because there’s a lot of talent,” Jordan said. “The downside is losing that talent in the (state) House or the Senate in terms of the roles they play right now.”

No Republican has so far filed to challenge Carr in a primary, but the incumbent received his fair share of ire for his office’s defense of the presidential election results in court. He was booed during his speech at the state GOP convention earlier this month.

By contrast, Carr said he got a warm welcome during a recent campaign swing through South Georgia.

“I can tell you that the reception that we’ve gotten has been overwhelmingly positive,” he said.

‘Undisputed leader’

Republicans will be pursuing history, too. John King became the first Hispanic statewide official in Georgia when Kemp appointed him to the post in 2019. Now he’s trying to win a full term, emphasizing his Latino roots and conservative values.

“We can’t take anything for granted. We’ve got to ask the hard questions,” King, a former police chief and military veteran, said at a campaign stop in Cartersville. “People can hold me accountable for what I’ve done, and also because I’ve been there on the streets. I have a record.”

Insurance Commissioner John King kicks off his election campaign.
Caption
Insurance Commissioner John King kicks off his election campaign.

But the real test for GOP candidates might be how closely they align with Trump. Butch Miller, a powerful state Senate leader who recently launched a campaign for lieutenant governor, is already boasting of his allegiance to Trump to head off an expected rival, state Sen. Burt Jones.

“I’ll talk straight to Georgians on where I stand: President Trump is the undisputed leader of the Republican Party, and I’d welcome the chance to earn his support over a shrimp cocktail at Mar-a-Lago or a hot dog at the Varsity,” Miller said.

And Raffensperger is desperate to rekindle support from conservatives as Trump vows to unseat him.

Even as he laments the hateful invective and death threats from pro-Trump supporters, Raffensperger has also praised an attempt to review Fulton County’s mail-in ballots and questioned whether county officials kept track of all absentee votes returned to drop boxes.

At the end of the day, Carr said, Republican voters will unite behind their candidates to help them keep their lock on statewide offices.

“I know that we have come out of, obviously, a historic and difficult election cycle in 2020 and 2021, and that there are a lot of folks with different feelings all over the board,” he said. “But the bottom line is a unified Republican Party is going to have more success in 2022 than one divided, and that’s what I’m focused on.”

Staff writer Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this article.

2022 ELECTION SCHEDULE

May 24: Primaries

June 21: Primary runoffs

Nov. 8: General election

Dec. 6: Runoffs

Source: Georgia Secretary of State’s Office

The 2022 slate so far

A closer look at key down-ticket races:

LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR

Incumbent Geoff Duncan’s decision not to run for a second term has left the field wide open to those seeking the state’s No. 2 position.

Announced candidates:

Republicans — Activist Jeanne Seaver and state Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller have stated their intent to run; state Sen. Burt Jones is expected to announce his campaign later this summer.

Democrats — State Reps. Erick Allen and Derrick Jackson, and political activist Kolbey Gardner have expressed their intent to run.

SECRETARY OF STATE

Republicans and Democrats alike are seeking to challenge incumbent GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both pointing to the way he handled the 2020 election.

Announced candidates:

Republicans — Former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, and former probate Judge T.J. Hudson have all announced that they plan to challenge Raffensperger.

Democrats State Rep. Bee Nguyen, former Fulton County Commission Chair John Eaves and former college professor Manswell Peterson have stated their intent to run.

ATTORNEY GENERAL

Some Republican activists fault GOP Attorney General Chris Carr for the state’s inability to overturn the 2020 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump, which could lead to him drawing a primary challenger, though no one has announced yet.

Announced candidates:

Republicans — Carr is the only Republican who has stated his intent to run.

DemocratsState Sen. Jen Jordan and Charlie Bailey, who ran against Carr in 2018, have both announced their intent to run.

INSURANCE COMMISSIONER

Gov. Brian Kemp appointed current Insurance Commissioner John King to his role after suspending the previous commissioner, who has been indicted on fraud and money laundering charges. Next year will be the first time King will face a statewide electorate.

Announced candidates:

Republicans — King is the only Republican who has stated his intent to run.

DemocratsState Rep. Matthew Wilson is the only Democrat who has stated his intent to run.

LABOR COMMISSIONER

The Georgia Department of Labor has drawn criticism throughout the pandemic for long delays in processing unemployment claims, spurring challengers from both sides of the aisle to challenge current Commissioner Mark Butler.

Announced candidates:

RepublicansState Sen. Bruce Thompson has announced a primary challenge against Butler, who has yet to formally say whether he’ll run again.

Democrats State Rep. William Boddie and state Sen. Lester Jackson have filed paperwork to run for the office. So has Nicole Horn, an executive.