‘Proving ground’: Potential 2024 candidates are circling Georgia

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

A few moments after former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley delivered a stump speech for Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, she smiled as she scanned the parking lot of a bustling Indian-American shopping complex in suburban Gwinnett County.

“You know I always keep one eye on Georgia as I want to make sure all is going well,” the former South Carolina governor said Friday. “And you’ve got an interesting race here.”

Georgia’s midterm election has attracted a surge of attention from possible Republican presidential contenders who are rushing back to the state for the second time in two years, this time to help Walker and Gov. Brian Kemp in races against tough Democratic opponents.

She’s part of a second wave of big-name Republicans crisscrossing Georgia to promote GOP candidates — and introduce themselves to voters in a premier political battleground — after a spate of visits last year during the state’s U.S. Senate runoffs turned into an unofficial kickoff for the 2024 presidential campaign.

“Georgia is the perfect proving ground for anyone aspiring to national conservative leadership,” said Cole Muzio, a prominent activist who heads the Frontline Policy Council.

Former Vice President Mike Pence picked Georgia as the setting for his most significant public break from Donald Trump by endorsing Kemp ahead of the GOP primary at a rally in the heart of Cobb County.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz trekked to Atlanta in August to headline a super PAC summit designed to promote his political beliefs. The Texas Republican said he wanted to mobilize Georgians to “take back our country” by defeating U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and other Democrats.

Trump — who appears poised to run again in 2024 — could hold another rally in October for Walker and other allies. Backers of the former president say he hasn’t ruled out a return trip to Georgia despite his frosty relationship with Kemp and other GOP incumbents he unsuccessfully tried to oust.

And Muzio’s organization is hosting a weekend conference that will feature former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and burnish GOP hopes of recapturing Georgia, which narrowly voted Democratic in 2020 and is poised to be one of the most competitive states in the next presidential election.

“The road map forward has been established in Georgia,” Muzio added, “and the path both to the nomination and to the White House runs through our state.”

Haley, too, emphasized Georgia’s importance as she received a rapturous welcome from a few hundred supporters at the Global Mall in Norcross. Her attacks on Warnock might as well have been directed at President Joe Biden.

“At the end of the day, he is as liberal as we were told he would be,” Haley said, adding: “What we’ve seen from Raphael Warnock does not represent the families of Georgia. What we’re seeing from Herschel Walker shows that there are brighter days ahead.”

‘Bog us down’

What’s less certain is whether Biden will return to Georgia ahead of the November election as Republicans intensify efforts to tie their Democratic opponents to his low approval ratings.

Biden hasn’t visited the state since a January rally promoting a federal voting rights measure that was boycotted by some liberal groups. Stacey Abrams, too, bypassed the event, citing a long-standing “commitment she could not break.”

Since then, the Democratic candidate for governor has emphasized her support for the president and his agenda, saying she would proudly campaign with him if he holds a rally in the state.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

“I welcome anyone who wants to lift Georgia up and make us stronger,” Abrams said at a recent campaign stop in North Georgia. “And I’ll tell you this, if Brian Kemp doesn’t like Joe Biden, he should send back every dollar that Joe Biden sent here.”

The state’s other marquee Democrat on the November ballot has taken a more reserved approach.

Warnock, whose reelection bid depends on attracting swing voters, often reminds audiences that he bucked a White House plan to close a Savannah military installation, aggressively lobbied Biden to forgive student debt and badgered him to support a federal gas tax break.

And at stops in Democratic-leaning areas, Warnock often elicits gasps of surprise from supporters when he touts his work with Cruz on legislation to extend an interstate highway or with Alabama U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville to boost peanut sales.

Warnock frames his strategy as a way to do what’s best for Georgia no matter the political backlash.

“Some folks are trying to bog us down into a short-term political game,” Warnock said at a stop last week in Newnan. “Folks who have no vision traffic in division. They do not know how to lead us, so they’re trying to divide us for their own short-term political gain.”