Only three months removed from supercharged, nationalized elections, Georgia candidates are already lining up to run for statewide office, the U.S. Senate and congressional seats in 2022, seeking a head start in what will be another tumultuous political season in one of the nation’s premier battleground states.
The race will likely be topped by a rematch between Gov. Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams, the titans of the state Republican and Democratic parties, and a still-developing field of GOP candidates angling to challenge newly elected U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.
Some elected officials have already announced plans to give up their seats to run for statewide offices, causing a domino effect by leaving open their posts for a new crop of candidates. And others are setting the stage for congressional bids, even though the boundaries of the districts won’t be clear until the end of the year.
Fundraisers and rallies are being planned a year before the next primary, and the quiet maneuvering is well underway from candidates, operatives and activists. The fight over Georgia’s new election law has injected energy into the races, solidifying Kemp’s standing with some conservatives while also giving Democrats new motivation to flood the ballot boxes.
It’s all part of what is quickly becoming a seemingly nonstop campaign season in the country’s newest swing state as Democrats try to build on their upset wins in November and January to capture other statewide seats that have eluded them for more than a decade.
“Georgia was the center of the political universe in the last cycle, and we just might be the center of the political universe this cycle,” veteran GOP strategist Chip Lake said. “Whether we want to be or not.”
The lion’s share of attention will go to Kemp’s quest for a second term, one that seemed destined for a repeat matchup against Abrams from the moment she ended her campaign in November 2018 without conceding defeat.
But while he’s happily become the archnemesis of the left, Kemp could hardly have imagined the deep troubles he would face within his own party when he resisted then-President Donald Trump’s demands to overturn the state’s election results.
The far-ranging election measure that Kemp signed into law last month has allowed him to win back some Republicans incensed that major corporations and Major League Baseball have opposed new restrictions to voting in the overhaul.
While Trump still isn’t placated — he said the governor should have taken far more drastic steps to curtail the ability to vote — Republicans have rallied around the measure and internal polls show Kemp’s approval rating with conservatives ticking northward again.
He still faces a potentially formidable primary challenger — state Sen. Burt Jones, a wealthy Middle Georgia oil executive, is the most prominent Republican weighing a run — but the governor’s critics and allies agree that his footing has significantly improved from just a month ago.
Credit: Steve Schaefer
Credit: Steve Schaefer
“Thanks to MLB, the likelihood of a successful primary challenge to Gov. Kemp just went from unlikely to unthinkable,” said Scott Johnson, a veteran Republican activist and Kemp supporter who was runner-up to lead the Georgia GOP in 2019.
Abrams hasn’t yet announced another campaign, though state Democrats widely expect her to launch her bid by year’s end. Since her defeat, her national profile has only grown and she’s built a constellation of influential groups to promote voting rights and her agenda.
And unlike her last campaign, when she faced a credible challenger, Abrams is unlikely to draw a formidable rival from within her party. Just as the election law has galvanized Republicans, it is having a mirror effect that’s energizing Democrats aiming to build on upset victories in November and January.
“It’s a desperate attempt for Republicans to hold on to power, and it’s going to backfire,” said John Jackson, the chair of DeKalb County Democrats. “All they’ve done is just increased Democratic momentum, money and energy in Georgia.”
The other marquee race involves Warnock, arguably the nation’s most vulnerable Senate Democrat in next year’s election. An array of Republicans is considering a challenge, though to the surprise of many GOP activists, no big name figure has yet entered the race.
Many are watching University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker, who is under pressure from Trump to run but has few ties to the state GOP’s base and has lived for years in Texas. He’s been silent about a potential bid and hasn’t returned the calls of even some senior Republican officials trying to ascertain his next move.
Other potential contenders aren’t standing still. Former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins is “seriously” considering a bid, and some grassroots activists say he’s nearing a decision. And former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who edged out Collins last year, is also weighing a run as she launches a GOP voter mobilization group.
The circling of the wagons around the election law could also lift Attorney General Chris Carr, another potential Senate candidate who has vowed to fight the five court challenges lodged against the law since March 25. And veteran Navy SEAL Latham Saddler, a banking executive and former White House fellow, filed paperwork Friday to run for the seat.
But the down-ticket races might rival those blockbuster matchups for attention and intrigue. After alienating many fellow Republicans for his outspoken criticism of Trump, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan is not planning to run for a second term, leaving open one of the state’s most coveted positions. Several high-powered candidates are already lining up.
Trump is also trying to exact revenge against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who famously defied his demand to “find” enough votes to overturn the election. The former president endorsed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, who loudly promoted Trump’s falsehoods about election fraud, in a move that could spell doom for Raffensperger’s chances.
No matter who emerges, Democrats plan to field a strong candidate who can maximize the focus on voting rights. State Rep. Bee Nguyen, who won the seat Abrams vacated in the Legislature, is expected to launch a campaign and, if elected, would become Georgia’s first Asian American statewide official elected to a political office.
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
She won’t be the only candidate racing to smash barriers. State Rep. Matthew Wilson will try to become Georgia’s first openly LGBTQ statewide officer with a run for insurance commissioner against incumbent John King, a Latino military veteran who made history when he was appointed to the post.
And even the oft-overlooked race for labor commissioner is setting up to be especially spicy. Infuriated by staggering delays for jobless claims, two Democratic legislators and a GOP state senator have each announced campaigns to unseat Republican Mark Butler, a three-term incumbent.
“We’re going to have a diverse slate from top to bottom,” said state Sen. Lester Jackson, a Savannah Democrat running for the office. “I know most Georgians don’t pay attention to the down-ballot races, but when you look down the ticket next year, you’re going to see powerful names that will bring strength to the overall ticket.”
All this upheaval creates chaos deeper into the political ranks, shaking up the Statehouse as rank-and-file lawmakers seek promotions. A platoon of Republicans is already scrapping for Hice’s northeast Georgia seat, a group that includes up-and-coming state Rep. Houston Gaines and former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun.
Several Democrats are lining up with long-shot challenges against U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who said she’s raised $3.2 million in her first three months in office, after she was disciplined for her history of violent and racist statements.
And U.S. Army veteran Harold Earls this week became the first Republican to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, even though the contours of her suburban district and another competitive seat held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux could dramatically change when state lawmakers redraw the boundaries this year.
Martha Zoller, a conservative commentator and former congressional candidate, sees a new sort of edginess from Republicans eager to retain their grip on statewide constitutional offices that the GOP has swept in every election since 2010.
“For the first time in years, we’re going to see truly competitive races up and down the ballot,” Zoller said. “It’s going to be hard-fought. And the next few months will be pivotal as we see who is going to step up.”
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