It’s qualifying week in Georgia. Here’s what to expect

In 2018, Lucy McBath surprised many when she qualified as a Democratic candidate in the 6th Congressional District. She went on to win that year's election, beating Republican U.S. Rep. Karen Handel. Now, after the 6th District was dramatically reshaped during redistricting to become GOP-friendly territory, McBath is running in the neighboring 7th District, where she will face U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux in the Democratic primary on May 24. BenGray.com / Special

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In 2018, Lucy McBath surprised many when she qualified as a Democratic candidate in the 6th Congressional District. She went on to win that year's election, beating Republican U.S. Rep. Karen Handel. Now, after the 6th District was dramatically reshaped during redistricting to become GOP-friendly territory, McBath is running in the neighboring 7th District, where she will face U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux in the Democratic primary on May 24. BenGray.com / Special

A Capitol frenzy will set the stakes in May and November

A parade of candidates will march through the Georgia Capitol this week to qualify for legislative races and statewide offices for the first time since Democrats scored statewide victories in 2020 and Republicans redrew political boundaries to solidify their grip on the Statehouse and the state’s congressional delegation.

Over the next five days, hundreds of office-seekers will line up to run for governor, the U.S. Senate, every statewide constitutional office, 14 U.S. House seats and all 236 spots in the General Assembly.

The political rush will bring a circuslike atmosphere to a Georgia Statehouse that’s already abuzz with activity at a crucial point during the legislative session. Many archrivals will bump into each other in the halls of the Gold Dome as they line up to run.

It comes at a particularly uncertain moment in Georgia politics. State Democrats are coming off an epic election cycle, when they flipped the state in a presidential vote for the first time since 1992, swept both U.S. Senate runoffs and captured a GOP-controlled U.S. House seat.

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Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue's challenge against Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP primary reveals a divide within the state Republican Party. Perdue is one of five high-profile candidates to receive endorsements from former President Donald Trump, who -- still sore about his defeat in Georgia in 2020 -- has targeted some Republicans, such as Kemp, whom he claims didn’t do enough to promote his lies about election fraud. BenGray.com/Special

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue's challenge against Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP primary reveals a divide within the state Republican Party. Perdue is one of five high-profile candidates to receive endorsements from former President Donald Trump, who -- still sore about his defeat in Georgia in 2020 -- has targeted some Republicans, such as Kemp, whom he claims didn’t do enough to promote his lies about election fraud. BenGray.com/Special

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Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue's challenge against Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP primary reveals a divide within the state Republican Party. Perdue is one of five high-profile candidates to receive endorsements from former President Donald Trump, who -- still sore about his defeat in Georgia in 2020 -- has targeted some Republicans, such as Kemp, whom he claims didn’t do enough to promote his lies about election fraud. BenGray.com/Special

But the national climate is perilous for Democrats seeking to defend U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s seat, oust Gov. Brian Kemp and chip into GOP dominance at the Capitol. President Joe Biden’s approval rating in Georgia is sagging amid high inflation and economic uncertainty.

Still, Democrats are expected to line up in huge numbers to run for seats that once went uncontested. Party leaders have tried to recruit contenders to battle for as many seats as possible, even in heavily conservative territories, to help drive up turnout.

Far from being unified against resurgent Democrats, though, Republicans are bitterly divided. Former President Donald Trump, sore over losing Georgia in 2020, is intent on punishing Kemp and other Republicans he claims didn’t do enough to promote his lies about election fraud.

He’s endorsed five Georgia candidates for top offices, including former U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s primary challenge against Kemp and former football standout Herschel Walker’s campaign to challenge Warnock.

With the former president’s blessing, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice is also taking on Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who famously rejected Trump’s demand to “find” enough votes to overturn his defeat. Three statewide officers are not running for reelection, triggering crowded races down the ballot.

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Republicans used a special session of the General Assembly in November to draw new congressional lines that are expected to give them an additional seat in Georgia's U.S. House delegation. But when it came to maps for the state Legislature, they did more to safeguard their grip than to expand it. Democrats could pick up five or six seats in the state House and one more state senator, although the GOP would still maintain control of the General Assembly. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Republicans used a special session of the General Assembly in November to draw new congressional lines that are expected to give them an additional seat in Georgia's U.S. House delegation. But when it came to maps for the state Legislature, they did more to safeguard their grip than to expand it. Democrats could pick up five or six seats in the state House and one more state senator, although the GOP would still maintain control of the General Assembly. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Republicans used a special session of the General Assembly in November to draw new congressional lines that are expected to give them an additional seat in Georgia's U.S. House delegation. But when it came to maps for the state Legislature, they did more to safeguard their grip than to expand it. Democrats could pick up five or six seats in the state House and one more state senator, although the GOP would still maintain control of the General Assembly. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia’s redrawn political maps change the dynamic, too. Under the new boundaries, Republicans stand to win another seat in Congress, where they currently hold an 8-6 majority in the delegation.

Instead of running in GOP-friendly territory, Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath is competing in a neighboring district against fellow Democratic U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux. Fierce primary battles are also underway in two open Republican-leaning House seats.

The overhaul will have a different effect on the Legislature. Democrats are set to gain seats in the General Assembly after the GOP drew maps that do more to safeguard — rather than expand — their majorities. But a wave of retirements will leave dozens of open seats.

Expect surprises to jostle Georgia’s top races. In just the past few days, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler announced he wouldn’t seek another term and Everton Blair, a top Democratic candidate, pulled out of the contest for school superintendent.

And late Sunday another entrant joined the contest for Georgia’s No. 2 job. Former Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall, a Democrat who briefly served in the U.S. House, announced he’ll qualify for lieutenant governor, shaking up the already unpredictable field.

Here’s more of what to watch:

The big ticket

Not long ago, the race for governor seemed destined to be a rematch between Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. But Perdue’s challenge has changed the script — and forced Republicans to pay more attention to their internal rivalry than to Abrams.

In the Senate contest, Warnock faces the prospect of only token Democratic opposition in his bid for a full six-year term. Walker, meanwhile, holds commanding leads in polls and in fundraising, thanks to his high visibility and Trump’s endorsement.

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Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker, who was urged to run by former President Donald Trump, holds commanding leads in the GOP field in terms of polling and fundraising. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker, who was urged to run by former President Donald Trump, holds commanding leads in the GOP field in terms of polling and fundraising. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker, who was urged to run by former President Donald Trump, holds commanding leads in the GOP field in terms of polling and fundraising. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The biggest question might be whether Walker’s Republican rivals stay in the race. A recent InsiderAdvantage/Fox 5 poll showed Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, former Trump administration official Latham Saddler and military veteran Kelvin King all in the single digits.

A Democratic surge?

Democrats once scrounged for enough candidates to compete even for high-level offices. Now there’s intense competition up and down the ballot.

That trend started to solidify in 2020, when Democrats fielded candidates in 187 state legislative races — roughly 80% of the Gold Dome seats up for grabs.

Both parties recruited contenders for every congressional race on the ballot, a departure from past years when multiple incumbents went unchallenged. For the first time since 1994, every U.S. House contest was contested.

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Democrats appear set at the top of their 2022 ticket with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, left, running for reelection and Stacey Abrams making another bid for governor. But the party aims to field candidates in as many down-ticket contests as possible to help drive turnout.

Democrats appear set at the top of their 2022 ticket with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, left, running for reelection and Stacey Abrams making another bid for governor. But the party aims to field candidates in as many down-ticket contests as possible to help drive turnout.

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Democrats appear set at the top of their 2022 ticket with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, left, running for reelection and Stacey Abrams making another bid for governor. But the party aims to field candidates in as many down-ticket contests as possible to help drive turnout.

Though many of the Democratic contenders were summarily defeated in heavily GOP areas, senior party officials hope driving up the competition down the ballot will help Abrams and Warnock at the top of the ticket.

“Our goal has always been to compete in every race in every corner of the state,” said Scott Hogan, the state Democratic Party’s executive director. “And it’s exciting to see so many strong Democratic candidates stepping up to run for office up and down the ticket.”

A new Gold Dome makeup

The GOP’s relatively guarded approach to legislative mapmaking means that Democrats could pick up five or six House seats and one state Senate seat, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis. Several newly created open Senate seats will be competitive.

Even after those changes, Republicans would retain solid majorities in both legislative chambers. But a wave of departures promises to bring more change to the General Assembly.

Key legislative leaders such as state Rep. Terry England and state Sen. Lindsey Tippins have announced they will retire. Others are seeking higher office.

No longer afterthoughts

No longer are down-ticket races mere afterthoughts in Georgia. After the 2020 election focused intense attention on Georgia, contests for lieutenant governor and secretary of state are drawing national scrutiny.

Crowded fields of candidates have already formed to run in open races for lieutenant governor, agriculture commissioner and labor commissioner.

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Georgia's race for secretary of state has gained national attention because of incumbent Brad Raffensperger's resistance to pressure from then-President Donald Trump to "find" enough votes to reverse his loss in Georgia in 2020. Raffensperger, left, faces challenges in the GOP primary from U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, center, and former Alpharetta David Belle Isle, who lost to Raffensperger in a 2018 party runoff.

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Georgia's race for secretary of state has gained national attention because of incumbent Brad Raffensperger's resistance to pressure from then-President Donald Trump to "find" enough votes to reverse his loss in Georgia in 2020. Raffensperger, left, faces challenges in the GOP primary from U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, center, and former Alpharetta David Belle Isle, who lost to Raffensperger in a 2018 party runoff.

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia's race for secretary of state has gained national attention because of incumbent Brad Raffensperger's resistance to pressure from then-President Donald Trump to "find" enough votes to reverse his loss in Georgia in 2020. Raffensperger, left, faces challenges in the GOP primary from U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, center, and former Alpharetta David Belle Isle, who lost to Raffensperger in a 2018 party runoff.

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Raffensperger faces serious challengers from his right and left. And Attorney General Chris Carr is readying for a potential November matchup against Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan.

Surprise, surprise

Four years ago, McBath announced her plan to run for Congress just hours before she qualified for the seat, stunning political insiders. Similar surprises could be in store this week.

More candidates could make last-minute decisions to join the races for attorney general, labor commissioner and state school superintendent.

Long-serving incumbents could join the growing list of veteran politicians who have decided not to run for another term. And contenders could switch from one contest to another, or drop out altogether.

Staff writers Mark Niesse and Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this article.