Georgia primaries will define a messy November election

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

A test of Donald Trump’s influence in the most politically divided state in the nation. A marquee race for Georgia’s top job that could set up a rematch between two archrivals. A chance for Democrats to prove the energy behind their 2020 success was no anomaly.

Georgia’s swing-state status will be on full display during Tuesday’s primary, when voters will decide party nominees for statewide, congressional and legislative offices that will define the November election and help set the national political agenda.

The top matchup on the Republican ballot is the competition between Gov. Brian Kemp and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who entered the race in December with a head of steam from Trump’s endorsement but is now limping toward the finish line.

Republican voters will also tap a nominee to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. The six-candidate field is led by former football star Herschel Walker, who is so far ahead in the polls he invited his rivals to a “unity celebration” for him on Tuesday.

Democrats have avoided the same thorny infighting at the top of their ticket, with Stacey Abrams drawing no primary opposition in her second bid for governor and Warnock facing only a little-known opponent.

But Democratic voters will decide a range of other important intraparty battles that set up a clash between liberals and moderates, particularly in Atlanta’s northeast suburbs where two popular U.S. House members were forced by new Republican-drawn maps to square off.

Both parties feature unpredictable votes for other statewide offices. Chief among them is the race for secretary of state, a job that involves overseeing elections that has earned searing attention with Trump’s effort to overturn his 2020 defeat.

And looming over the entire contest is the same question that’s roiled Georgia GOP politics for the past two years: Will Trump succeed in his effort to mold the Republican Party in his image and punish Kemp and other state officials he blames for his defeat?

The former president has endorsed 10 candidates in Georgia, including several who face uphill battles against entrenched incumbents. Democrats, meanwhile, will try to energize their core supporters without the prospect of Trump on the ballot.

“We’re ready to show everyone it wasn’t a fluke, it wasn’t just about one election cycle and it wasn’t just about Donald Trump,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, an Atlanta Democrat who chairs the state party.

Toxic ties

The primary is only an extension of a campaign season that seems to have no end.

Abrams and Kemp geared up for another bout almost as soon as the Republican took office; one of the governor’s first fundraising emails in early 2019 beckoned supporters to “Stop Stacey.” Warnock never stopped running after his 2021 runoff victory.

Kemp and his allies are increasingly optimistic about a rematch. Public polls and internal campaign data show the governor with an enormous lead over Perdue, who has scaled back his campaign. Even Trump has downplayed Perdue’s chances.

Should Kemp win without a runoff, it will be seen not only as a repudiation of Trump but also a rebuke of Perdue’s focus on election-fueled conspiracy theories. Perdue falsely claimed the 2020 vote was “rigged” and filed a legal challenge after entering the race that was rejected by a judge, who called it “conjecture and paranoia.

In the U.S. Senate race, Walker has had such advantages that he’s skipped many conventional campaign events and ignored his GOP opponents. With high name recognition and support from Trump and mainstream Republicans, he’s never trailed in any public poll.

That’s fueled bad blood from rivals who say he should be held accountable for a history that includes violent behavior against women. Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said in an interview that he won’t back Walker in the general election because “he hasn’t earned my vote.”

While Kemp and Walker aim to avoid overtime, many other candidates are almost certainly headed toward a June runoff that’s required if none get a majority of the vote. The hottest of those races are likely to be the dueling contests for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s seat.

The incumbent Republican is trying to fend off a Trump-backed challenge from U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, while a jumble of Democrats led by state Rep. Bee Nguyen competes for their party’s nod. Other statewide contests and congressional races seem destined for another round of votes.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Another closely watched race is the contest for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, once a Gwinnett County-based swing district narrowly captured by Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux that’s been redrawn by GOP mapmakers into a stronghold for Democrats.

It was no altruistic move. The overhaul also turned Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath’s neighboring suburban district into a safe GOP seat, leading her to instead jump next door and challenge Bourdeaux in a race that will shape the party’s future in metro Atlanta.

‘I hate primaries’

Tuesday’s vote is also poised to mark a new chapter for both Abrams and Warnock, who have taken advantage of GOP infighting to broaden their message.

“I can’t wait for everyone to be on the same team again,” said state Sen. Matt Brass, a Republican exasperated by the feuding. “I hate primaries because it divides us up. But soon we will all be pulling the same way again.”

Both Abrams and Warnock are trying to energize their base while preparing for stiff national headwinds. President Joe Biden’s approval ratings have taken a nosedive in Georgia, and rising inflation and high gas prices have fueled economic uncertainty.

Warnock has tailored his reelection message toward legislation to expand health care access, suspend federal gas taxes, target price gougers and cap the price of insulin. The latter has become a particularly crucial part of his legislative agenda.

“We have a bipartisan chance,” Warnock said about the insulin proposal during a stop at an East Point clinic. “And the only thing that could get in the way of this, quite frankly, is politics.”

Abrams, too, has centered her election agenda on issues such as Medicaid expansion and preserving abortion rights. A broad majority of Georgians supported both in recent polls.

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Credit: Natrice Miller /

She also hasn’t waited to spar with Kemp, trading barbs over legislation he signed to roll back gun restrictions and direct how public school educators teach race. She quipped she was “mentioned more often in the GOP debates than Georgians were.”

“Our focus is on Georgia,” she said in an interview. “The internecine politics of the Republican Party are theirs to figure out. What most people care about is that we acknowledge the pain they’re in, the anxiety they feel. And that we offer them promise and hope.”

Kemp, too, is ready for the next chapter in the election saga. If the governor has a surefire applause line at campaign stops, it’s reminding the audience that he’s the only candidate who has ever defeated Abrams.

“We’re getting up every single day to make sure that Stacey Abrams is not going to be your governor,” he said to a cheering ovation at a Canton brewery, “or your next president.”