Georgia Republicans seek to channel Youngkin’s mojo in 2022

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Gov. Brian Kemp kicked off the morning after Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory by channeling the same culture war fights that propelled the Virginia Republican’s win.

He declared federal vaccine mandates an “outrageous big-government power grab” and kept his focus on President Joe Biden’s sagging approval ratings.

Though the event was planned days before Youngkin led a GOP resurgence across a state once seen as solidly Democratic, Kemp and other Georgia Republicans are embracing his strategy to tap into battles involving school and race to motivate conservatives.

State Sen. Burt Jones, who is running for lieutenant governor, debuted an ad this week that seeks to capitalize on the same critiques of “critical race theory” that helped propel Youngkin to a victory. His leading Republican rival, Butch Miller, issued a similar pledge.

And other top Republicans want the party to converge on base-pleasing issues that could reverse the GOP slide in Georgia — and steer attention away from former President Donald Trump.

“Turns out when you have a candidate talking about the issues voters care about, like education and inflation. Instead of fearmongering about the past, the GOP can compete and win,” said Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, one of Trump’s most outspoken Republican critics in Georgia.

“President Biden’s legislative agenda is cooked,” Duncan said, “and this should be a wake-up call to liberals everywhere that change is coming.”

Indeed, some Georgia Democrats were sounding the alarm, worried the backlash in Virginia and other states that held off-year elections were ominous portents of the party’s future.

They’re concerned that gridlock in Washington over the bipartisan infrastructure bill and Biden’s measure that would boost social welfare programs and combat climate change, along with rising prices and a scarcity of key goods, is threatening the party’s fragile coalition.

“It’s incredibly important that we start engaging communities we need to turn out — right now,” said John Jackson, the chair of the DeKalb County Democratic Party.

“We can’t wait until next year. We have to start explaining to them what’s at stake,” Jackson said. “That’s tough to communicate with progress in Washington stalled, but we still have to do it.”

‘Bold ideas’

Youngkin managed to appeal to both Trump supporters who make up the bulk of Republican primary voters in the Deep South and white suburban voters who once formed the backbone of the Republican coalition but fled the party while Trump was in office.

But Youngkin’s path to victory isn’t exactly a roadmap of how to win in Georgia.

For starters, Kemp and other GOP leaders won’t be able to finesse their relationship with Trump like Youngkin, who kept him at arm’s length while embracing his support.

The former president is fixated on Georgia and has already endorsed four statewide candidates — and has repeatedly attacked Kemp for refusing his demands to illegally reverse his election defeat.

Kemp must contend, too, with the threat of a primary challenge from former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. If Perdue runs, both men would be drawn toward the party’s far-right flank and leave the nominee weakened against an expected challenge from Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Abrams would be a very different sort of candidate than former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who struggled to attract Black voters with a muddled message. The Democratic electorate in Georgia is far more diverse, and Abrams has proved successful at mobilizing voters of color.

Abrams is unlikely to focus on Trump, as McAuliffe did. She hardly mentioned his name in 2018 and has sent signals that a 2022 run would highlight issues that resonate with a broader base of voters, such as expanding health care access and boosting education funding.

“The Virginia results show that voters want leaders with bold, tangible ideas,” said state Rep. David Dreyer, an Atlanta Democrat. “If one candidate doesn’t offer that, people will vote for the candidate that has bold ideas or just stay home.”

‘Buzzing’

Kemp’s allies, meanwhile, saw Youngkin’s win as validation that his approach to the election was the right course.

He’s catered to his party’s base by promoting issues that echo Youngkin’s platform, including recent trips to the U.S. border with Mexico to trumpet crackdowns on illegal immigration and opposition to critical race theory, an academic framework that holds that systemic racism undergirds the nation’s institutions. (It is unclear to what extent, if at all, that critical race theory is being taught in Georgia schools, but some educators worry politicization of the issue will make it more difficult to teach about the role of racism in society.)

And he’s taken on Biden’s vaccine mandates, leading a coalition of states in litigation that challenges a White House requirement that federal contractors get vaccinated.

Already, Youngkin’s victory has encouraged Georgia Republicans to take bolder steps in 2022.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The National Republican Congressional Committee on Wednesday released a new list of targets that included U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, a moderate Democrat who represents the majority-Black district that stretches across parts of Middle and South Georgia.

“My phone has been buzzing all morning on higher profile interest in defeating Bishop,” said Brandon Phillips, who chairs the GOP 2nd District. “There’s a red wave coming, and I don’t think Sanford can surf.”

And conservative activists, buoyed by the GOP resurgence in Virginia, are pushing Kemp and other Republicans to take up more aggressive measures in next year’s legislative session, such as bans on obscenities in school libraries and barring transgender women from participating in female school sports.

Cole Muzio of Frontline Policy Action has put those measures at the center of his conservative group’s legislative agenda for 2022 and said that the “seismic victory” in Virginia would transform Republican politics in Georgia.

“These issues are unifying. Parents are fed up and frustrated,” Muzio said. “Virginia has been the cautionary tale for Georgia for a long time. And now we’re seeing Virginia bounce back for conservatives who listened to the concerns of parents and put students first.”