Analysis: Some of the biggest lessons of the Georgia primaries are in the losses

Incumbency matters — to a point. Most officeholders romped to victory, but the handful of candidates who lost serve as warning signals about 2024 trends.
Incumbents for the most part did well in Tuesday's Georgia primaries. But a handful lost close races, and other contests produced outcomes that defy easy explanations. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Incumbents for the most part did well in Tuesday's Georgia primaries. But a handful lost close races, and other contests produced outcomes that defy easy explanations. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Up and down Georgia’s ballot on Tuesday incumbents thrived.

Georgia Supreme Court Justice Andrew Pinson notched a double-digit victory over a prominent challenger, former U.S. Rep. John Barrow. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis routed her rival, and incumbent House members shrugged off opponents.

Even well-known challengers who soaked up media attention failed to gain traction. State Sens. Sally Harrell and Elena Parent both beat back formidable contenders.

But there were a handful of incumbents who lost close races, and other contests produced outcomes that defy easy explanations. Here’s a closer look at the top questions arising from Tuesday’s votes.

Former U.S. Rep. John Barrow entered his race to unseat state Supreme Court Justice Andrew Pinson armed with high name recognition and a pledge to protect abortion rights. But his campaign never turned into the referendum on abortion that he hoped it would, and Pinson notched an easy victory. (Jason Getz/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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Is Barrow’s defeat a blow to abortion rights supporters?

The former Democratic lawmaker staked his campaign on an unorthodox pledge to support abortion rights — and oppose laws that restrict the procedure — to rally Georgians in his quest to unseat Pinson.

But Barrow’s campaign was never the referendum on abortion rights that he wanted it to be. He didn’t have the financial resources — or the Democratic Party’s backing — to turn it into a statewide crusade against Georgia’s 2019 abortion limits.

When Democratic elites surrounded President Joe Biden during his visit to Atlanta in the final days of the race, Barrow’s campaign went largely unmentioned. Barrow said that was by design to steer clear of partisanship.

It contrasted sharply with the full-fledged GOP embrace of Pinson. The justice appeared with Gov. Brian Kemp, who appointed him to the seat, on the eve of the election. And Kemp’s political organization pumped more than $500,000 into promoting Pinson, joining other conservative groups who backed his campaign.

It led to an uneven battlefield, with one side of the aisle fully engaged and the other detached. (Democrats also may have been more squeamish about Barrow due to his more moderate background and pro-gun stances from past campaigns.)

What might have mattered more, though, was more conventional factors: the power of incumbency versus Barrow’s high name recognition. The results paint that picture.

Barrow overperformed in parts of east Georgia he represented over five terms in Congress. But he got softer support in deep-blue bastions in metro Atlanta, and he failed to carry Cobb and Gwinnett counties, pillars of today’s Democratic coalition.

Still, Kemp’s advisers hope the takeaway is that abortion rights isn’t as potent as Democrats think it is. Cody Hall, one of the governor’s top deputies, said his takeaway is clear: “If Democrats think running on abortion will save Biden here, think again.”

Barrow isn’t the only one who disputes that. Pinson told the “Politically Georgia” podcast not to overthink what his victory says about the state’s abortion divide.

“People will slice and dice these results and look at these maps and try to figure out what can we take out of this race,” he said. “I hope that the message we can take out of this is that Georgia is not ready to have, and does not want, a politicized judiciary.”

Gabriel Sanchez, a democratic socialist, won the Democratic Party primary against state Rep. Teri Anulewicz on Tuesday.

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Credit: Courtesy photo

How did a socialist unseat a popular Democrat in Atlanta’s suburbs?

State Rep. Teri Anulewicz was such a formidable lawmaker that when Republicans redrew the district maps last year, they paired her with a fellow Democratic incumbent in hopes of undercutting her political future.

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Instead, state Rep. Doug Stoner decided against seeking another term, and Anulewicz faced what many party insiders thought was token opposition against Gabriel Sanchez, a former nonprofit staffer who quit his job to seek the Smyrna-based seat.

Sanchez was never shy about his goals. He showed up at the Capitol to qualify surrounded by blue-clad allies from the Democratic Socialists of America, and he entered the race pledging to oppose Atlanta’s public safety center and the state’s pro-Israel stance — both issues popular with the far left.

“If you look around the Capitol building, we have so many lobbyists representing corporate lobbyists, the people at the top,” he said shortly before filling out his paperwork to run in March, “and not enough representing regular working people.”

He also sent reams of mailers highlighting how Anulewicz’s husband, Chris, represented a co-defendant in the Fulton County election interference trial against Donald Trump and featuring a picture mocking the incumbent as a phony Democrat.

Still, his threat never seemed to rise to the level of other challengers. The party leaders who rushed to support Parent, another incumbent facing a stiff challenge, didn’t materialize for Anulewicz. Perhaps that’s because they didn’t think she needed it.

Anulewicz, for her part, notes that 30,000 Cobb voters split their ticket in 2022 and backed both Gov. Brian Kemp and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. In other words, she said, Sanchez’s victory isn’t a sign that her county has swung to the party’s extreme flank.

Now, she’s inadvertently become a cautionary tale for Democrats.

“That race got fewer than 4,000 votes — and that’s why mobilization matters,” Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie said.

Sanchez still faces a GOP opponent, and Republicans harbor hopes of flipping what’s now a solid Democratic seat in November. But Sanchez’s primary victory might yet serve a bigger purpose for Republicans long eager to paint their rivals as radicals.

“When Republicans call Democrats socialists, we can now point to this guy as an example,” said Scot Turner, a former GOP legislator.

Brian Jack, center, a longtime aide to Donald Trump, nearly won an outright victory in a five-candidate race in Tuesday's GOP primary in the 3rd Congressional District. He will face former state Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan in a June 18 runoff. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Did the MAGA wing of the GOP gain ground in Georgia?

In deep-red quarters of Georgia, former President Donald Trump still dominates local politics. So do his staunchest allies.

Trump’s endorsement helped his longtime aide Brian Jack, until recently virtually unknown beyond political circles, almost secure an outright victory in Georgia’s 3rd Congressional District. Jack nearly doubled the vote total of Mike Dugan, a former state Senate GOP leader and longtime community leader he will face in a June runoff.

And Chuck Hand, a staunch Trump ally who served prison time for taking part in the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, landed a spot in a GOP runoff for the 2nd Congressional District.

But one of the sharpest intraparty fights might have taken place in Henry County, where state Rep. Lauren Daniel fell victim to an ultraconservative rival in her campaign to retain her Locust Grove-based district.

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Despite support from party leaders and a conservative voting record, Daniel lost to Noelle Kahaian, a paralegal who helped orchestrate a 2021 effort to push a Black educator from Maryland out of her Cherokee County job over unfounded claims she was peddling “critical race theory.”

Kahaian emphasized her fight against the “woke agenda” and other buzzy conservative promises while painting Daniel as a faux conservative. In the hours after her defeat, Daniel was unsparing in her criticism, calling Kahaian the “darling” of the far right.

“I was a target. And ugly seemed to win this time. You name it, I was called it,” she said in an interview. “If I could sum it up, politics defeated a proven record. It didn’t matter compared to the narrative that I wasn’t a real Republican. The lies prevailed.”