Georgia GOP confident as it heads for November as Dems aim to build on recent successes

Gov. Brian Kemp heads for a general election showdown with Stacey Abrams after scoring a big victory over former U.S. Sen. David Perdue in the GOP primary. But Kemp still may need to lure back supporters of former President Donald Trump, who backed Perdue. Meanwhile, Abrams has the Democratic Party unified behind her, but she will have to separate herself from a president with low approval ratings in an economic atmosphere of high inflation. (staff photos)

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Gov. Brian Kemp heads for a general election showdown with Stacey Abrams after scoring a big victory over former U.S. Sen. David Perdue in the GOP primary. But Kemp still may need to lure back supporters of former President Donald Trump, who backed Perdue. Meanwhile, Abrams has the Democratic Party unified behind her, but she will have to separate herself from a president with low approval ratings in an economic atmosphere of high inflation. (staff photos)

Spared of runoffs, top Georgia Republicans head into a general election campaign with newfound momentum as they seek to reverse recent losses that shattered the GOP’s monopoly on statewide power.

And Democrats who avoided infighting are redoubling efforts to reforge the multiracial coalition that fueled upsets during the last election cycle amid the backdrop of economic uncertainty and an unpopular president who could drag down their candidates.

Gov. Brian Kemp and U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker won impressive mandates in Republican primaries, giving party leaders new hope of unifying conservatives in November despite years of internal turmoil driven by Donald Trump.

The governor humiliated David Perdue, Trump’s hand-picked candidate, in a victory so convincing that his rival pledged fealty to Kemp shortly after the polls closed. Walker was so confident of victory that he skipped debates and ignored his Senate GOP rivals.

Other Republican statewide incumbents, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, dispatched Trump-backed foes, at least temporarily allaying fears that the former president’s obsession with promoting candidates who embraced his election fraud lies would doom the party’s November nominees.

And no statewide GOP race is bound for a runoff, giving Republican candidates more runway to prepare for tough November matchups against Democrats who can’t make the same claim.

While Stacey Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock waltzed to their party’s nominations, several Democratic down-ticket races are headed to June overtime votes that will soak up resources and deepen internal fissures.

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Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock has vowed to confront Republican Herschel Walker head-on in November's general election. A Warnock campaign memo promised the Democrat would exploit “outrageous and false claims” by Walker that include exaggerations of his business experience and academic record. Walker, in turn, will try to tie Warnock to President Joe Biden and his poor approval rating. “I’m going to call him ‘Little Biden’ because all of his votes are just like he’s voting for Biden," Walker said.

Credit: AJC

Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock has vowed to confront Republican Herschel Walker head-on in November's general election. A Warnock campaign memo promised the Democrat would exploit “outrageous and false claims” by Walker that include exaggerations of his business experience and academic record. Walker, in turn, will try to tie Warnock to President Joe Biden and his poor approval rating. “I’m going to call him ‘Little Biden’ because all of his votes are just like he’s voting for Biden," Walker said.

Credit: AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock has vowed to confront Republican Herschel Walker head-on in November's general election. A Warnock campaign memo promised the Democrat would exploit “outrageous and false claims” by Walker that include exaggerations of his business experience and academic record. Walker, in turn, will try to tie Warnock to President Joe Biden and his poor approval rating. “I’m going to call him ‘Little Biden’ because all of his votes are just like he’s voting for Biden," Walker said.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

State Republicans are not without a thicket of their own problems. Kemp must still contend with Trump’s ire as he tries to woo the former president’s loyal supporters, including roughly 250,000 voters who backed Perdue’s campaign. Democrats will try to harness a wave of outrage if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.

And Walker’s history of erratic and violent behavior — and his blunders on the campaign trail — continue to alarm Republican leaders. His struggle to stake out policy positions has generated a steady source of damaging headlines, including after a recent fumble of a Fox News query on gun violence.

But Republicans enter the general election phase feeling increasingly optimistic about transforming the vote into a referendum on President Joe Biden, whose poor approval rating threatens to weigh down Democrats like an anchor.

Republicans have scaled back attempts to brand Warnock, a charismatic pastor with a populist streak, as a “radical liberal” and instead have repeatedly tied him to the White House. Walker described him as an “absolutely incredible” person who nonetheless votes for liberal policies.

“I’m going to call him ‘Little Biden’ because all of his votes are just like he’s voting for Biden. It makes me so sad,” Walker said. “Everyone sees it, but nobody wants to mention it. And I’m not afraid to mention it.”

In her second bid for governor, Abrams has become a unifying force for Republicans eager to smooth over fractures within the party by rallying behind a common enemy. Kemp and his allies hope to further enrage conservatives by painting her as a puppet of the president.

“She has embraced the disastrous Biden agenda at every single turn,” Kemp said during his primary victory speech in downtown Atlanta.

It’s not ‘hyperbole’

Democrats have tried to take advantage of the GOP infighting to fine-tune their pitch for November by building off the 2020 infrastructure that helped the party pull off upset victories in the presidential and Senate races.

Abrams, who is quick to acknowledge there are “going to be national headwinds,” has centered her campaign on a pledge to expand Medicaid, a position opposed by Kemp and other senior Republicans but widely popular among Georgia voters in public polls.

She’s also sharpened attacks on Kemp, who enacted a conservative wish list — including measures to roll back gun restrictions and direct how race is taught in public schools — that helped the governor obliterate Perdue but could haunt him in the general election.

“Brian Kemp doesn’t care about Georgians. He cares about winning elections,” Abrams said in an interview. The likelihood that the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling, she added, has only lent more urgency to her support for abortion rights.

“The fact that Republicans are now chattering about whether they’re going to criminalize women, put doctors in jail, fully and completely ban abortions with no exceptions — those are real conversations,” she said. “And we can no longer pretend it’s hyperbole.”

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Republicans will unify against Democrat Stacey Abrams, but she also has the power to bring Democrats together with her ability to mobilize voters. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Republicans will unify against Democrat Stacey Abrams, but she also has the power to bring Democrats together with her ability to mobilize voters. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Republicans will unify against Democrat Stacey Abrams, but she also has the power to bring Democrats together with her ability to mobilize voters. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

But Abrams faces a vastly different political environment than what she confronted during her 2018 campaign, when Trump’s presidency helped mobilize Democratic voters and her rise to national prominence hadn’t yet made her a villain to many Republicans.

Biden’s victory in Georgia in 2020 and the Senate runoff sweeps a few months later likely couldn’t have happened without Abrams, who has become a prolific fundraiser with an unmatched ability to mobilize voters, said Nathan Price, a University of North Georgia political scientist.

“But in addition to the headwinds that all Democrats face in a difficult midterm cycle, she’s running against a popular incumbent this time around who has his own record to run on,” Price said.

‘The last to see it?’

Like Abrams, Warnock has vowed to confront his rival head-on. A campaign memo promised the Democrat would exploit “outrageous and false claims” by Walker that include exaggerations of his business experience and academic record.

And the senator quickly challenged Walker to a series of three debates while also highlighting his support for a host of bipartisan issues: a push to suspend the federal gas tax, cap the price of insulin and pursue price-gougers.

In other ways, though, Abrams and Warnock are also keen to demonstrate their independence from Biden to counter the GOP narrative they’re lackeys of the president.

Abrams said she’d campaign with the president because “he’s delivered for the state of Georgia,” but she’s taken pains to focus on state issues. Warnock recently traveled to the White House to press Biden to forgive student loan debt and split with him on proposed military cuts.

And their TV messages focus on their ability to work across party lines. Warnock’s latest ad spotlights efforts to help tornado victims in rural Newnan. Abrams released a spot Thursday on the bipartisan benefits of “bringing the right ingredients together” as she cooked for her family.

It’s just a taste of what’s to come. The Republican Governors Association, a key Kemp ally, launched a new ad blitz. Tens of millions of dollars of airtime has already been booked for Senate candidates. And Democrats unveiled a coordinated effort to marshal the torrent of spending headed to Georgia.

“We have built an organizing infrastructure all across our state, and it has remained in our state and it has grown with time,” said state Rep. Bee Nguyen, a Democratic candidate for secretary of state preparing for a runoff. “Part of our task here is to ensure that when we go to November, that we continue to expand that broad-based coalition.”

Tapping into an enthusiastic base won’t be easy, though turnout data suggests a high level of interest.

More than 1.9 million Georgians cast ballots in the primary elections, including a record-setting GOP turnout of nearly 1.2 million. With fewer marquee matchups and a significant number of crossover votes, Democrats still set a midterm record with more than 700,000 votes cast.

As both parties try to keep voters engaged, missteps and tragedies take on a new political context.

Republicans condemned Abrams’ recent remarks describing Georgia as “the worst state in the country to live in” based on its poor rankings on key health indicators. Democrats skewered GOP opposition to gun restrictions after the massacre this week at a Texas elementary school.

“We have a Republican Party not willing to make changes when babies are being slaughtered at schools,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, the chair of the state Democratic Party.

After years of being on the defensive, Republicans sound increasingly optimistic. Jay Morgan, the former state GOP chair, is convinced that Abrams and other Democrats have irrevocably misread the souring mood of Georgians.

“Stacey Abrams saw Georgia was changing before anyone else in 2017,” Morgan said. “Five years later, the landscape has changed again. And she seems to be one of the last to see it.”


WHAT’s next

Georgia is one of 10 states that require a runoff if no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast in a primary election.

This year’s runoffs will be held Tuesday,

June 21.

The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 8. If runoffs then are needed, they are scheduled

to take place Tuesday, Dec. 6.

The deadline to register is Tuesday, Oct. 11.

Early voting will start Monday, Oct. 17.