The questions that will shape Georgia politics in 2021

Trump signs pandemic bill that put Georgia’s senators in vexing spot
Trump signs pandemic bill that put Georgia’s senators in vexing spot

A Democratic presidential flip of Georgia for the first time in nearly three decades. A Republican civil war sparked by President Donald Trump’s false claims of a “rigged” election. And, of course, still-unsettled runoffs that will shape President-elect Joe Biden’s presidency.

As 2021 dawns, Georgia faces yet another extraordinary political year full of momentous decisions and polarizing personalities that will shape the state for the next decade. Here are some of the biggest questions in Georgia politics that your Atlanta Journal-Constitution team will be watching this year:

(FROM LEFT TO RIGHT) David Perdue, Jon Ossoff, Kelly Loeffler, and Raphael Warnock  Credit: Associated Press / AJC
(FROM LEFT TO RIGHT) David Perdue, Jon Ossoff, Kelly Loeffler, and Raphael Warnock Credit: Associated Press / AJC

Who will win the Senate runoffs?

Yes, it’s both the most obvious and most pressing question in 2021, and the outcome will dictate the direction of Georgia’s politics and the shape of President-elect Joe Biden’s administration for years to come.

Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock need to sweep both contests to flip control of the U.S. Senate, victories that would allow Biden to immediately pursue his ambitious legislative priorities.

Republicans only need one victory, from either U.S. Sen. David Perdue or U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, to maintain the GOP grip on the Senate, and both are running jointly with a hardline message that only they can “save America” from an extremist agenda.

With such high stakes, Georgia has attracted unprecedented attention. More than $800 million has been spent on the twin cliffhangers, and small armies of grassroots activists have fanned across the state to rally voters. More than 3 million Georgians have already cast their ballot, shattering runoff records.

No Georgia Democrat has won a race for statewide office since 2006, though Biden’s narrow victory in November proved there’s a slim path they can follow. Despite Republicans’ victories in statewide runoffs, Trump’s phony narrative of widespread voting fraud undercuts the senators’ appeals to vote.

The nightmare scenario for party leaders and state officials: The weeks of dubious lawsuits and misinformation about Georgia’s vote that followed Trump’s defeat is only a glimpse of what could come if the Senate votes are as close.

Trump, Biden, Harris to return to Georgia in final push for Senate candidates
Trump, Biden, Harris to return to Georgia in final push for Senate candidates

How will Biden’s flip of Georgia reshape Democratic politics?

For most of the last decade, Democrats insisted that Georgia was on the cusp of a political transformation. They made good on at least a part of their promise in November when Biden captured Georgia by about 12,000 votes, shocking many national pundits.

Grizzled Georgians, though, knew otherwise: Democrats have closed the gap with Republicans throughout the decade, and by 2020 even Gov. Brian Kemp and U.S. Sen. David Perdue were labeling Georgia one of the nation’s most pivotal battlegrounds. Georgia was destined to be a nail-biter.

The coalition that powered Biden’s victory — soaring turnout from voters of color, along with a higher rate of support from white voters than any statewide Democratic candidate has enjoyed in more than a decade — can’t be easily replicated, though.

Just how much of that support was thanks to backlash over President Donald Trump and how much was an embrace of the party’s policies and personalities?

Over the next year, state Democrats will start to find out, as Biden’s every move gets chewed up by Georgia Republicans still smarting over Trump’s defeat.

And a coalition of newly elected leaders like Carolyn Bourdeaux and Nikema Williams – and perhaps Ossoff and Warnock – will be tested anew as they join a pantheon of state Democratic powerbrokers that already includes former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

December 5, 2020 Valdosta - President Donald Trump speaks during the Republican National Committee's Victory Rally at the Valdosta Flying Services in Valdosta on Saturday, December 5, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
December 5, 2020 Valdosta - President Donald Trump speaks during the Republican National Committee's Victory Rally at the Valdosta Flying Services in Valdosta on Saturday, December 5, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

What kind of staying power does President Trump have in Georgia Republican politics?

No state may determine whether Trump’s coalition of diehard devotees can remain a powerful force in Republican politics quite like Georgia, and the next year will go a long way in testing the limits of his power outside the White House.

For the past two months, Trump has berated and battered top Georgia GOP leaders for refusing to go along with his claims of widespread voter fraud. He’s mocked Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, labeled Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan a “puppet” and called for Gov. Brian Kemp to resign.

Trump’s outrage at the three for refusing to block Biden’s narrow victory has effectively guaranteed each will face Republican primary challenges from Trump supporters who say they didn’t do enough to support the president’s claims of a “rigged” vote. That’s if they each decide to stand for a second term.

But Trump’s post-presidency will influence the state GOP in other ways, too, that will reverberate all over the state: Local decisions at Republican gatherings, the state’s looming legislative session and municipal elections at year’s end.

Already, the fault lines are growing, with pro-Trump politicians like state Sen. Burt Jones and U.S. Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene jockeying for more power and influence with Trump’s loyalists, even as Duncan and other GOP leaders urge the party to move on.

That leads us to the next question …

Who will line up for 2022 races?

The winner of Tuesday’s runoff for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat might as well keep their campaign going: The seat is up for grabs again in November 2022, this time for a full six-year term.

And before Kemp faces a probable rematch against his archrival Abrams, he also must first contend with a likely GOP primary challenge egged on by Trump.

Perhaps foremost among the possibilities is U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, the four-term congressman who unsuccessfully challenged Loeffler in November.

But others could be maneuvering for a chance to run; Jones has made waves with his effusive support for Trump’s push to overturn the election results.

The down-ticket races may be equally captivating. Raffensperger, a favorite target of the president, has already drawn the promise of a challenge from Vernon Jones, a pro-Trump Democratic state legislator. GOP chair David Shafer may mount a rematch against Duncan for lieutenant governor. Many others could join the list.

And a growing bench of ambitious Democrats, inspired by Joe Biden’s win, could run for statewide office, including several who toyed with the idea of competing against Loeffler but were waved off by party officials who favored Raphael Warnock.

Among the Democrats to watch are an ascendant group of women who, along with Abrams, could make their move: Bottoms, DeKalb District Attorney Sherry Boston, state Sen. Jen Jordan and state Rep. Bee Nguyen. So could DeKalb chief executive Michael Thurmond and Charlie Bailey, the runner-up in the 2018 race for Attorney General.

But none of those dominoes will fall until Tuesday’s runoffs are settled and a new political landscape is clear.

June 26, 2020 Atlanta - Bipartisan supporters gathered before Gov. Brian Kemp signs HB 426, hate-crimes legislation, into law on the last day of the legislative session at Georgia State Capitol on Friday, June 26, 2020. Gov. Brian Kemp signed hate-crimes legislation into law on Friday after state lawmakers brokered a compromise over the proposal after 16 years of debate over whether to extend protections to people who are targeted because of biases. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
June 26, 2020 Atlanta - Bipartisan supporters gathered before Gov. Brian Kemp signs HB 426, hate-crimes legislation, into law on the last day of the legislative session at Georgia State Capitol on Friday, June 26, 2020. Gov. Brian Kemp signed hate-crimes legislation into law on Friday after state lawmakers brokered a compromise over the proposal after 16 years of debate over whether to extend protections to people who are targeted because of biases. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

How messy will this legislative session get?

A fight over voting rights. An uncertain economy. A still-raging coronavirus pandemic. And a battle over redrawing the political maps that will frame the political landscape for the rest of the decade.

Yep, there’s plenty at stake this year in the Legislature.

Much of the attention will focus on new efforts to restrict access to the ballot that could define this year’s legislative session.

Georgia Senate Republicans are demanding an end to at-will absentee voting and aim to forbid ballot drop boxes after a surge in mail-in votes fueled Joe Biden’s slim victory. House Speaker David Ralston wants to assure that legislators — and not voters — choose Georgia’s top elections official.

At the same time, lawmakers must craft a spending plan for the next 18 months at a dodgy economic moment. A surge of surge in coronavirus cases, along with challenges in distributing vaccines, offer other dilemmas for lawmakers. So will a new push to overhaul criminal justice policies.

Looming, too, is the once-a-decade redistricting process that will play out later this year, redrawing the maps for Georgia’s legislative and congressional boundaries after the latest U.S. Census.

Surely, Republicans will try to draw the lines to blunt the growing power of Democrats in the suburbs, and likely seek to undercut Carolyn Bourdeaux and Lucy McBath, two U.S. House members representing a stretch of Atlanta’s northern Arc.

And surely there will be bitter fights — both between the parties and internally — over the boundaries and contours of Georgia’s political districts as the mapmaking plays out.

That leads us to our final question:

How much political clout will Gov. Brian Kemp have?

It’s safe to assume Kemp couldn’t have imagined the last year going down the way it did: An angry President Trump, feeling betrayed that Kemp ignored his advice on filling an open U.S. Senate seat and calling for Kemp to resign because he won’t try to overturn his election defeat.

But that’s where Kemp stands now, his every tweet “ratioed” by Trump loyalists, his every decision and pilloried by a group of state Republicans who once backed him – or, perhaps just as damaging, greeted with indifference or silence by his most devoted allies.

The truth is, though, Kemp’s year was bound to be tough even before the Trump backlash.

His frenemy, House Speaker David Ralston, split sharply with Kemp on his decision to select Loeffler to the open Senate seat; Ralston backed Collins, deepening a rift between the two most powerful men in the Statehouse.

And rank-and-file Republicans have been more emboldened to challenge Kemp’s policies after the end of an eight-year alliance between Ralston, then-Gov. Nathan Deal and then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle that shaped every major decision in the state.

At the dawn of 2021, Kemp faces a question over whether to appeal to Trump loyalists who helped him narrowly win office in 2018 or start pursuing a broader conservative message to win back more moderate voters with a strategy that some hope will sustain the GOP in a post-Trump era.

For Kemp, much is riding on the first question in this piece: He staked his political capital on tapping Loeffler, a financial executive unknown to much of Georgia, to the coveted Senate seat. Her victory on Tuesday validates his decision; her defeat would dog him the rest of his term.

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