After big losses, Democrats think Warnock may have the answers they need

Four years ago, Democrats came so close to ousting Republicans from Georgia’s top offices that anxious incumbents talked about the “wake-up call” every chance they could. Two years ago, the alarms went off when Democrats swept U.S. Senate seats and elected President Joe Biden.

The midterm this week brought a screeching halt to the state’s leftward tilt. Republicans dominated their Democratic opponents in every statewide election but one — triggering another U.S. Senate runoff that could decide which party controls the chamber.

Has the pendulum in Georgia swung decisively back to the Republican corner and rendered the 2020 election a momentary anomaly? Or have seesawing election cycles become a fact of life in one of the nation’s premier battleground states?

The answer to those questions is still being written. U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker meet in a Dec. 6 runoff that will bring even more attention to the state, along with a new onslaught of ads tempting exhausted voters to show up to the polls one last time this year.

But what happens over the next four weeks will not only shape Biden’s term. It will define the political direction of a state that doesn’t snugly fit into any narrative.

Gov. Brian Kemp focused his reelection campaign on the economy, and it worked, said one of his predecessors in the Governor's Mansion. “One of the reasons that Kemp connected is he talked about jobs,” said Roy Barnes, the state's last Democratic governor. “It was the most harmful thing to Democrats — they need a clear message.” (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

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Credit: Jason Getz /

Gov. Brian Kemp and other state Republicans won dominating victories over Democratic opponents that largely mirrored the outcomes of the 2014 election, back when the GOP had a firm grip on the state.

The governor and most other statewide winners also steered clear of Donald Trump — Kemp even took a swipe at the former president in his victory speech — and ran economic-focused campaigns that expanded the party’s appeal.

After two election cycles that saw Georgia Democrats embrace more liberal policies, Warnock’s shift toward swing voters and away from Biden helped make him the only statewide Democrat with a chance to win in 2022 — and put him unexpectedly close to an outright victory over Walker.

The former football star, meanwhile, leaned into Trump-like rhetoric throughout the campaign. And yet Walker’s advisers were caught off guard by otherwise reliable voters who withheld their support from the Republican even if it meant a Warnock win.

“Do we want to call Georgia center-right? Do we want to call it purple with more of a reddish tinge?” said Amy Steigerwalt, a Georgia State University political scientist. “It’s not overwhelming one way or another.”

‘Too mean’

So what explains how Georgia could feature both a razor-tight contest that could once again determine control of the Senate and commanding GOP victories in every other statewide race?

The answer lies in voters who broke party lines to support Kemp and other Republicans on the ballot but not back Walker. And countering the trend is a top concern of Walker’s campaign, which was stunned by more muted turnout than expected.

In all, Walker received roughly 200,000 fewer votes than Kemp. Walker’s drop-off was particularly pronounced in metro Atlanta, a nexus of mainstream Republicans where Trump also struggled. But he also fared poorly in deep-red areas of North Georgia.

One of those split-ticket voters is Beau Stubbs, who generally votes for Republicans but couldn’t put aside his concerns about Walker, who has a history of violent behavior, false claims on the campaign trail and bizarre statements about key policy issues.

“I absolutely couldn’t vote for Walker,” Stubbs said. “Republicans need to divorce from Trump and his progeny, even if it means we don’t take the Senate.”

With little time to persuade those Georgians to return to the GOP fold, Walker’s campaign will have to find other ways to energize the party’s base. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who has been a sharp critic of Walker, hopes it doesn’t involve bringing Trump to Georgia.

Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said he hopes former President Donald Trump does not come to Georgia to campaign for Herschel Walker.“The only office that appears purple is this Senate seat because Donald Trump tried to make it his seat — and not hardworking Georgians’ seat,” Duncan said. (Arvin Temkar /


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“The only office that appears purple is this Senate seat because Donald Trump tried to make it his seat — and not hardworking Georgians’ seat,” said Duncan, a Republican whose term expires in January.

He added: “When conspiracy theorists finally decide to stop messing with Georgia, we will be 100% red instead of almost 100% red.”

Losing ground with minority voters

For statewide Democrats beyond Warnock, the midterm was a disaster.

In her rematch against Kemp, Stacey Abrams notched just 46% of the vote — and fewer ballots than several down-ticket Democrats. It was state Sen. Jen Jordan, the party’s nominee for attorney general, who received the most votes of any Democratic candidates aside from Warnock.

Democrats lagged behind Biden’s 2020 performance by double digits in several of the populous metro Atlanta counties that have become a cornerstone of their coalition. Abrams notched just 25% support from white voters, according to an NBC News exit poll.

Down-ballot Republicans such as Insurance Commissioner John King, shown with Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, scored dominating wins on Tuesday. Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

The same data showed Kemp won the support of 43% of Latino voters and 46% of Asian American voters, compared with Trump’s 37% share of Georgia Latinos two years ago. (Asian American voters were not detailed in the outlet’s 2020 exit poll.)

“If the strategy is to increase minority turnout to make up for weak white support,” veteran Democratic consultant Rick Dent said, “then leaking Asian and Hispanic votes isn’t a recipe for long-term success.”

‘We need to ask ourselves why’

Roy Barnes, the state’s last Democratic governor, said Kemp’s unwavering focus on the economy was one of the key difference-makers in the contest. Even as he cast his ballot on Tuesday, Barnes said he heard people in line praising the Republican for keeping the state on an “even keel” during trying times.

“One of the reasons that Kemp connected is he talked about jobs,” Barnes said. “It was the most harmful thing to Democrats — they need a clear message.”

The former governor and other party figures expressed confidence Warnock has found that clear message as he works to persuade voters to back him in a fifth election since 2020: He tells audiences repeatedly that he’ll work across party lines to help Georgians even if it means allying with Republicans.

Democratic U.S Sen. Raphael Warnock, unlike the party's other statewide nominees, stressed during his campaign that he was willing to work with the other side. He's the only one of them who still has a chance to win. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

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Credit: Jason Getz /

“He just needs to continue his same strategy,” said state Rep. David Wilkerson, one of the Georgia House’s top-ranking Democrats. “If anything, the runoff makes it easier. Now people understand what’s at stake if he loses.”

As for other Democrats, the soul-searching has begun. Before Jon Ossoff and Warnock won their 2021 runoffs, former Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond was part of a group of the last Democrats to win statewide. He and two other down-ballot candidates were reelected in 2006.

Thurmond, who is now DeKalb County’s chief executive, said the election results proved Democrats can’t win in Georgia if they don’t build coalitions with independents, moderates and disaffected Republicans.

“We need to ask ourselves why other Democrats lost — what distinguished Warnock from the other candidates?” Thurmond said. “He ran to the middle. He embraced bipartisanship. He presented himself as a pragmatic elected official — and not as much as a Democrat.”

Staff columnist Bill Torpy contributed to this article.