‘A mess.’ Georgia politicians prepare for brutal 2022 battles

the 2022 election could be difficult one for several top Republican officials, including Gov. Brian Kemp, because the right flank of the party is expected to challenge many of them in a primary. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
the 2022 election could be difficult one for several top Republican officials, including Gov. Brian Kemp, because the right flank of the party is expected to challenge many of them in a primary. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Georgia’s election season is hardly a month in the rearview mirror, but already the battle lines are being drawn for a full slate of statewide elections and another bruising fight for the U.S. Senate.

Gov. Brian Kemp is preparing for a reelection campaign with his head on a swivel. His allies are so worried about a rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams that they’ve created a group to thwart her likely 2022 bid, even as he readies for a challenge from someone in the GOP’s far-right wing infuriated he didn’t seek to overturn Donald Trump’s defeat in the presidential race.

The two Republican U.S. senators vanquished in the Jan. 5 runoffs — Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue — are both considering potential comeback attempts. Other high-profile conservatives are weighing a challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

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Down the ticket, some Republican officeholders are in the same position as Kemp — bracing for tough potential primary challenges from Trump’s allies before they can think about facing a Democrat. Some are weighing whether to hang it up.

And Republicans are increasingly concerned that U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene could threaten other GOP contenders if she runs for statewide office — and drag down the ticket even if she doesn’t because of her bigoted comments and embrace of conspiracy theories.

“The Republican Party in Georgia right now is like a Jenga game where someone has pulled out the wrong block,” said Martha Zoller, a conservative commentator and former GOP congressional candidate. “It’s unstable and a mess.”

Emboldened by statewide wins, Democrats have their own challenges ahead after winning Georgia for the first time in a presidential race since 1992 and then following that up with a sweep of U.S. Senate runoffs that won them control of the chamber.

Democrat Stacey Abrams is expected to launch another bid for the state's highest office, but Gov. Brian Kemp has to also worry about a challenge from within his own party after drawing the scorn of former President Donald Trump. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Democrat Stacey Abrams is expected to launch another bid for the state's highest office, but Gov. Brian Kemp has to also worry about a challenge from within his own party after drawing the scorn of former President Donald Trump. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Crowded fields are expected in lower-profile statewide races that once struggled to attract even a single credible candidate, and Democrats will have to defend a Biden administration that will come under relentless attack from conservatives. But they also enter with an advantage that Republicans can only dream about now: unity at the top of the ticket.

Though she hasn’t entered the race, Abrams is seen as a surefire candidate for governor and is expected to avoid the same sort of grueling primary she faced in 2018. She’d be running alongside Warnock, a newly elected Democrat with soaring name recognition whom she recruited to compete for the open Senate slot last year.

They enter the election cycle with a head of steam. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released last week showed top Democrats with significantly better approval ratings than their GOP rivals, with Abrams and Warnock both in positive territory. But one challenge for the party is to not overreach.

“We’ve got to remember that 74 million people still voted (nationally) for Donald Trump. That can be really hard for some Democrats to understand. Those people are still out there,” said Sarah Riggs Amico, who ran for lieutenant governor and the U.S. Senate. “We can’t take anything for granted.”

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‘Muddied’

The volatility on the Republican side of the ticket starts at the top. The race to challenge Warnock is essentially frozen until Perdue decides whether to mount another Senate bid. He’s viewed as unlikely to run again after his defeat to Jon Ossoff, but his advisers also say he hasn’t definitively ruled it out.

The impact of the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs between candidates, from left, David Perdue, Jon Ossoff, Kelly Loeffler and Raphael Warnock will be felt in next year's elections. With their defeats fresh, Perdue and Loeffler are each considering a run next year against Warnock. Credit: Associated Press / AJC
The impact of the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs between candidates, from left, David Perdue, Jon Ossoff, Kelly Loeffler and Raphael Warnock will be felt in next year's elections. With their defeats fresh, Perdue and Loeffler are each considering a run next year against Warnock. Credit: Associated Press / AJC

The former Fortune 500 executive is probably the only candidate who could clear the field of other well-known challengers, but two other 2020 Republican rivals are also ruminating on a run: Loeffler and former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who fought throughout the year for a spot in the runoff against Warnock.

Allies of both are pointing fingers over which Republican was to blame for Loeffler’s stunning upset defeat last month. Loeffler’s camp blames Collins for entering the race, forcing her to run to the party’s right flank, while his former hands say the infighting could have been avoided had he been Kemp’s pick for the open seat.

Eric Tanenblatt, a Republican operative and close Loeffler ally, said the criticism of her 2020 bid smacks of “sour grapes.”

“Doug getting in the race muddied all that up. It created a primary in a general election and caused a split in the party,” he said. “And it let Raphael Warnock walk into this runoff with high favorability ratings.”

People close to Collins, who is expected to make his decision by April, are urging Loeffler to sit this one out.

“Kelly can either be the person whose boredom costs Republicans the Senate twice or become a ‘Jeopardy’ answer that no one will remember the question to,” said Dan McLagan, Collins’ former spokesman. “Hated or forgotten.”

A large cast of other Republicans is exploring a bid, a list that includes Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and attorney Randy Evans, a former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg with ties to Trump and ex-U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

And complicating the timeline is uncertainty about congressional races. The boundaries of state legislative districts and U.S. House seats won’t be drawn until this fall, at the earliest, leaving many potential state and congressional candidates in limbo.

‘We’ll deal with it’

That Senate contest is just one of the Republican matchups that could relitigate the 2020 election.

Trump has repeatedly vowed to back a challenger to Kemp after he defied his efforts to undermine the state’s election, and the former president’s aides have said he put the Georgia governor at the top of his list of 2022 targets.

Former President Donald Trump, back to the camera, has pledged to back a candidate to run against Gov. Brian Kemp because he refused to illegally overturn the state's presidential election. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
Former President Donald Trump, back to the camera, has pledged to back a candidate to run against Gov. Brian Kemp because he refused to illegally overturn the state's presidential election. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The governor has raced to set a new tone ahead of a potential matchup, keeping one eye on his conservative flank and another on Abrams.

While his allies recently created a “Stop Stacey” group to pummel Abrams, Kemp has drafted a new team of consultants and aides who are trying to strike a more conciliatory tone in the Statehouse.

He has largely avoided divisive social issues and backed an effort to scale back the controversial citizen’s arrest law, a top priority of civil rights activists and leading Democrats who say the more than 150-year-old statute has been abused in cases involving the killing of Black Georgians.

And he’s embarked on a media blitz in recent weeks, appearing not just on conservative-friendly networks and local outlets but also ”Good Morning America.” Still, he and his advisers are girding for a tough challenge, possibly from state Sen. Burt Jones, a wealthy Republican aligned with Trump.

“We’ve seen what a divisive primary does to our chances of winning. You see what we’ve got now in the Senate with Warnock and Ossoff. And if you’re a Republican, you’re not happy about that,” Kemp told the AJC in an interview about a possible challenge.

“Look, that’s not something I can control,” the governor said. “What I can control is making sure we have a good (legislative) session and continuing to do what we tell people we’re going to do. And if we get a primary, we’ve got to deal with, we’ll deal with it.”

He’s not the only Republican likely to face a tough challenger. State Sen. Bruce Thompson is considering a run against Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, and Duncan could face blowback in a primary following his sharp criticism of Trump’s promotion of lies about widespread voting fraud after the November vote.

‘Eat your own’

The other top target is Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a favorite scapegoat of Trump and his allies after he and other election staffers forcefully debunked myths about Georgia’s vote in favor of Democrat Joe Biden. Among the Republicans who have floated a challenge is former DeKalb County Chief Executive Vernon Jones, a Trump ally who recently switched parties.

In an interview, Raffensperger said he is “absolutely” seeking another term and said he’s confident Georgians will come to understand “what we did is right” when he refused intense pressure from Trump to reverse his defeat.

“We’re following the law,” he said. “And if you want to win, you have to have a vision. You have to run on a platform of what you want to do. And you need to be unified. You can’t eat your own. You can’t backbite.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have an entirely different task ahead. Not long ago, the party struggled to field enough candidates to fill a statewide slate. Adrienne White, the state party’s vice chair for recruitment, said she’s now flooded with interest from potential contenders.

Some candidates are already well on their way.

State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, is considered a potential contender for state attorney general. Charlie Bailey, the Democratic candidate for the office in 2018, has already announced that he will run again. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com
State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, is considered a potential contender for state attorney general. Charlie Bailey, the Democratic candidate for the office in 2018, has already announced that he will run again. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Charlie Bailey became the first Democrat to announce a 2022 bid when he launched his campaign in January seeking a rematch against Attorney General Chris Carr after his narrow defeat to the Republican three years ago. He’s trying to get a jump on other rivals, including state Sen. Jen Jordan, who is expected to join the field.

But top Democrats say they’ll benefit from a sense of unity behind Abrams and Warnock that Republicans can’t match.

“We’re going to remove all the doubt that Georgia is a blue state next year,” said Dasheika Ruffin, a veteran Democratic strategist. “They’re going to have to throw the kitchen sink to try to stop Stacey, and it still won’t work. And because of that, the entire ticket will rise.”

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