OPINION: 7 things we learned about Georgia politics in 2022

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Georgia voters, you are one saucy bunch. Hogging the national spotlight, defying expectations, holding candidates accountable — is there anything you won’t do?

The midterm elections not only picked Georgia’s leaders for the next several years, they also told us more than a few things about Georgians in 2022, as well as the direction state politics are headed. Here is just a bit of what we learned:

1. It’s the person, not the party. For the first time in a long time, victory was possible for statewide candidates in Georgia, no matter their party. Republicans swept every statewide constitutional office, but Democrats now will hold both U.S. Senate seats for the next four years.

Georgians crossed party lines in the November elections to vote for both Gov. Brian Kemp and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, while Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger won over an estimated 40,000 Democratic voters in their May GOP primaries.

For the past 20 years of Republican dominance, and more than a century of Democratic dominance before that, even a good candidate from the wrong party didn’t have a prayer of winning statewide.

This year, strong candidates with disciplined campaigns from both parties won statewide, making Georgia the definition of a “battleground state” in 2022.

2. Also, it’s still the economy, stupid. It’s as true today as it was in 1994 when James Carville told a bunch of Bill Clinton for President staffers not to make the campaign so complicated when voters said pocketbook issues were their top concern.

The same held true in 2022 in Georgia, as gas prices nearly doubled, inflation surged to a 40-year high and spiked even higher in the Metro Atlanta area. Our own polling, plus plenty of interviews on the campaign trail, told us that the economy was the overriding concern for Georgians from the beginning of 2022 until the end.

Gov. Brian Kemp and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock both delivered messages, in their own way, that addressed and even answered that anxiety, and voters rewarded them for it.

3. Candidates matter. Herschel Walker’s incredible football-fueled celebrity turned out to be a blessing and a curse for Republicans in Georgia this cycle. The blessing came even before the Senate primary began, when a PPP poll showed Walker had already consolidated Georgia GOP voters behind him with a 72% approval rating, even as he still lived in Texas.

But Walker’s cakewalk in the primary (he defeated three uber-qualified Republicans with 68% of the vote) masked his deep flaws as a general election candidate.

Even some Republicans who liked Walker couldn’t get past his firehose of personal drama, head-scratching gaffes, cruise-control pace during the runoff, and general lack of readiness for office.

4. Marjorie Taylor Greene is getting more powerful. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s campaign attracted plenty of attention this cycle, mostly because of the massive $17 million her unknown Democratic opponent managed to raise from out-of-state donors to unseat her in the 14th District.

But Greene spent plenty of time outside of her district, too, raising her profile as Donald Trump’s warm-up act at rallies, shooting her own reality show, and generally attracting the worst kind of attention.

Despite her incendiary rhetoric, Greene has been embraced by the incoming GOP House majority, including U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, whom she’s supporting for Speaker. Look for Greene to sit on high-profile House committees, where she’ll make the most of her time on camera, and have the power to move legislation with Republicans in charge to pass it.

5. Donald Trump has lost a lot of his juice. Even while Greene’s power has risen nationally, Donald Trump racked up a series of defeats in Georgia’s 2022 GOP primaries, the contests where he was thought to have the most influence.

In reality, Trump’s picks for governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and even insurance commissioner all tanked by more than 50 points. The Trump-aligned candidates who got past their primaries had their own money, like Lt. Gov.-elect Burt Jones, or their own celebrity, like Herschel Walker.

Not only was Trump the proverbial “kiss of death” for most Georgia Republicans, the former president’s clashes with Gov. Brian Kemp and Sec. of State Brad Raffensperger actually strengthened both Republicans’ general election appeal by casting them as independent actors, beholden to no party leader. In a battleground state like Georgia, that was as good as gold.

6. The “Warnock Way” beat the Stacey Abrams’ playbook. The age-old debate among Georgia Democrats about whether to appeal to moderates or progressives has a new answer thanks to U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s campaign. Instead of choosing voters on the left or center, Warnock’s team went to the left and center at the same time. In the end, he outperformed the entire Democratic ticket in November and won his race in a runoff.

7. Change is the only constant. Georgia added an incredible 1.6 million new voters between 2018 and 2022, making up one-fifth of eligible voters this year. Among the new faces were a higher proportion of voters under 35 and people of color.

With Georgia always changing, the campaigns that adapted their strategies this year were rewarded accordingly.

The year ahead may make Georgia an early primary state, crown Atlanta the host of the 2024 Democratic National Convention, make Donald Trump the star of the trial of the century in Fulton County, and so much more.

We’ll be watching, Georgia voters, we’ll be watching.