The questions that will shape Georgia politics in 2022

Can Georgia Republicans call a cease-fire in their civil war?

A race for Georgia governor involving three colossal figures in state politics. An ongoing Republican feud stoked by former President Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election. And a U.S. Senate battle that could determine control of the chamber.

At the dawn of 2022, Georgia is poised for yet another extraordinary political year that will draw attention to the most important battleground state in the nation.

Here are some of the biggest questions in Georgia that your Atlanta Journal-Constitution team will be watching this year:

Will Donald Trump ruin the Georgia GOP’s chances in 2022?

There’s a milder way to put this question: Can Georgia Republicans call a truce on their civil war? But the fact remains that the ugly infighting between state Republicans starts with the former president and his obsession with overturning his election defeat in Georgia.

Trump recruited former U.S. Sen. David Perdue to challenge Gov. Brian Kemp, wooed Herschel Walker to run for an open U.S. Senate seat and intervened in down-ticket races for lieutenant governor and secretary of state over incumbents who rejected his conspiracy theories.

Along the way, he’s defied predictions that his grip on the party’s base — and its rank-and-file officials — would fade. Instead, some of the loudest voices in the Georgia GOP calling for a post-Trump future are themselves endangered species.

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This year's race for governor will feature some of the biggest names in Georgia politics: Democrat Stacey Abrams and two Repubicans, Gov. Brian Kemp, center, and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

This year's race for governor will feature some of the biggest names in Georgia politics: Democrat Stacey Abrams and two Repubicans, Gov. Brian Kemp, center, and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

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This year's race for governor will feature some of the biggest names in Georgia politics: Democrat Stacey Abrams and two Repubicans, Gov. Brian Kemp, center, and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

The internal fissures were sparked by Trump, but others in the state have deepened the divides. Activists have scapegoated Republicans who didn’t give in to Trump’s demands. Top-tier candidates spoke at “Trump Won” rallies and promoted his election fraud mythology.

Many officials have embraced or echoed those lies, and most were silent after Trump mused at a rally in Perry that he wished Kemp had been defeated by Stacey Abrams, the archnemesis of many a Georgia Republican.

Those silent Republicans don’t want to invite further scorn from the former president and his followers. But that tightrope act will get more perilous by the day, as Kelly Loeffler and Perdue can attest, particularly in the Atlanta suburbs that the GOP is desperate to win back.

“Sometimes Republicans are our own worst enemy,” said state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton. “I hope that the internal drama doesn’t prevent us from moving Georgia forward. But election-year politics are pretty tricky.”

That leads us to our next question …

Can Georgia Democrats overcome a souring national climate?

State Democrats flipped the script in the last election cycle by ending decades of defeats in presidential contests and U.S. Senate races. Now they’re trying to win another round of statewide seats, this time without a polarizing presidential election on the ballot.

They’re trying to reverse a curse in midterm elections that has persisted since 2010, when Republicans took control of every statewide constitutional office. And the political climate doesn’t appear inviting for Stacey Abrams or U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

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Democrats are coming off big wins in Georgia during the 2020 election cycle, including the victory by Joe Biden, center, in the state's presidential election, and a sweep by Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock in the U.S. Senate runoffs. But Democrats now face a different and difficult climate, with Biden's approval rating currently underwater. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Democrats are coming off big wins in Georgia during the 2020 election cycle, including the victory by Joe Biden, center, in the state's presidential election, and a sweep by Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock in the U.S. Senate runoffs. But Democrats now face a different and difficult climate, with Biden's approval rating currently underwater. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Combined ShapeCaption
Democrats are coming off big wins in Georgia during the 2020 election cycle, including the victory by Joe Biden, center, in the state's presidential election, and a sweep by Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock in the U.S. Senate runoffs. But Democrats now face a different and difficult climate, with Biden's approval rating currently underwater. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Voters tend to have a reflexive instinct to cast their ballots against the party in power during a midterm election, and President Joe Biden is already grappling with souring approval ratings, growing questions about his economic agenda and conservative pushback against his social policies.

What’s more, Democrats have their own internal fissures to heal, starting with a battle between U.S. Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux and Lucy McBath for a suburban Atlanta congressional district that will be framed as a proxy fight between centrists and liberals.

Democrats also have reason to cheer. More than 1.2 million new voters have been added to the state’s rolls in recent years, many of them people of color who tend to favor their party. Abrams and Warnock — two of the party’s biggest national stars — have no formidable opposition within the party.

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Democrat Stacey Abrams will stay out of the way right now as Republicans fight over whether to back Gov. Brian Kemp for reelection or support former President Donald Trump's choice in the race, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. Abrams will look to turn the rift into a gift in November. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Democrat Stacey Abrams will stay out of the way right now as Republicans fight over whether to back Gov. Brian Kemp for reelection or support former President Donald Trump's choice in the race, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. Abrams will look to turn the rift into a gift in November. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Democrat Stacey Abrams will stay out of the way right now as Republicans fight over whether to back Gov. Brian Kemp for reelection or support former President Donald Trump's choice in the race, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. Abrams will look to turn the rift into a gift in November. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

And of course, they will try to take advantage of the GOP infighting that has imperiled Gov. Brian Kemp’s base even if he wins the nomination. Abrams and other Democrats are trying to stay above the fray, for now at least, as they attempt to turn that rift into a gift.

“The reality is we need a leader who is willing to invest in Georgia and keep us together,” Abrams told the AJC, “not someone intent on dividing us.”

Can Raphael Warnock rebuild the coalition that fueled his 2021 win?

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock emerged as a breakout star in national politics last year, outdoing Democratic colleague Jon Ossoff in the U.S. Senate runoffs as they both swept GOP incumbents to flip control of the chamber.

Now up for a full six-year term, Warnock’s campaign promotes him as the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the Senate in 2022. But, just like Stacey Abrams, he’s not veering from the liberal policies and stances that fueled his political rise.

He’s embraced an expansion of voting rights as his utmost priority. He supports the roughly $2 trillion social spending plan that’s the centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s agenda. And he was a reliable Democratic vote on every other major issue that surfaced in his first year in office.

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U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, now seeking a full term after winning the opportunity to fill the remainder of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson's term, is sticking to the liberal positions that helped him sweep into office. Republicans will try to turn his record against him as they attempt once more to brand him as a "radical socialist." (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, now seeking a full term after winning the opportunity to fill the remainder of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson's term, is sticking to the liberal positions that helped him sweep into office. Republicans will try to turn his record against him as they attempt once more to brand him as a "radical socialist." (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, now seeking a full term after winning the opportunity to fill the remainder of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson's term, is sticking to the liberal positions that helped him sweep into office. Republicans will try to turn his record against him as they attempt once more to brand him as a "radical socialist." (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Republicans will try to turn that record against him in 2022 to back up their well-worn attacks in 2020 that painted him as a “radical socialist.” First, though, they’ll need to sort out their own mess.

Herschel Walker became the de facto GOP front-runner thanks to his towering name recognition and his tight alliance with Donald Trump. Most big-name Republicans were so fearful he would move back to Georgia from Texas to run that they steered clear.

But despite entering the race in August, the former football star has yet to account for persistent issues that have shadowed his campaign: A history of violence against women, questions about his academic credentials and concerns about his readiness for the job.

Several Republican rivals, led by Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, will try to leverage those vulnerabilities to gain a spot in a runoff with Walker. If their efforts fail, Warnock and Democrats are poised to bring those issues to the forefront.

Will the pandemic reshape Georgia politics again?

We’re now entering a third year that will be shaped by the coronavirus pandemic — and the political maneuvering surrounding it.

Just as pandemic restrictions became politicized in 2020, state and federal vaccination programs transformed into a polarizing issue in 2021.

The next year will bring new challenges — some seen and some unknowable — that continue to elevate issues of public health once relegated to afterthoughts in statewide debates.

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The coronavirus pandemic could cast its shadow on Georgia's political landscape for a third year in 2022. Gov. Brian Kemp could face charges from the right and left as he seeks reelection, Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue is likely to blame Kemp for not taking more aggressive steps to block local-level mask requirements and vaccine mandates. Stacey Abrams could accuse Kemp of blowing an opportunity to expand Medicaid. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The coronavirus pandemic could cast its shadow on Georgia's political landscape for a third year in 2022. Gov. Brian Kemp could face charges from the right and left as he seeks reelection, Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue is likely to blame Kemp for not taking more aggressive steps to block local-level mask requirements and vaccine mandates. Stacey Abrams could accuse Kemp of blowing an opportunity to expand Medicaid. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
The coronavirus pandemic could cast its shadow on Georgia's political landscape for a third year in 2022. Gov. Brian Kemp could face charges from the right and left as he seeks reelection, Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue is likely to blame Kemp for not taking more aggressive steps to block local-level mask requirements and vaccine mandates. Stacey Abrams could accuse Kemp of blowing an opportunity to expand Medicaid. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp has long sought to energize his base by warring in court against mask requirements and vaccine mandates — and pledging to never again institute an economic lockdown.

Like with many other divides, his rivals are squeezing him from both sides: Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue blames Kemp for not taking more aggressive action to ban local restrictions. Stacey Abrams says he’s squandered a golden opportunity to expand Medicaid.

But the rapid spread of the omicron variant offered another reminder that the still-raging pandemic could threaten campaigns in other ways, bringing to the forefront new questions about disease control and prevention.

How brutal will this legislative session get?

A vast expansion of gun rights. New limits on abortion modeled after Texas restrictions. A fresh debate over which books are allowed in public school libraries. New obstacles to voting. And legislation that could allow Buckhead to divorce itself from Atlanta.

Those are just a few of the polarizing issues on the table in 2022 as leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature try to energize the party’s base — and Gov. Brian Kemp looks for different ways to inspire conservatives.

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Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, could block efforts to pass new measures increasing restrictions on abortions and transgender athletes. But the speaker could allow a bill to move forward allowing Georgians to carry firearms without permits, and he's yet to announce a position on a push to separate Buckhead from the rest of Atlanta. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, could block efforts to pass new measures increasing restrictions on abortions and transgender athletes. But the speaker could allow a bill to move forward allowing Georgians to carry firearms without permits, and he's yet to announce a position on a push to separate Buckhead from the rest of Atlanta. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, could block efforts to pass new measures increasing restrictions on abortions and transgender athletes. But the speaker could allow a bill to move forward allowing Georgians to carry firearms without permits, and he's yet to announce a position on a push to separate Buckhead from the rest of Atlanta. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

In the middle will be House Speaker David Ralston, arguably the most powerful man in Georgia not named Kemp. He relishes his role as a filter for the most divisive issues, letting some reach votes while relegating others to the Gold Dome’s dustbin.

“I spent a lot of years here trying to protect our brand and enhance the economic development stature of our state,” Ralston said, “and I don’t intend to be caught up in someone else’s campaign and put that in jeopardy.”

Ralston has indicated that he doesn’t want to revisit some topics, such as another debate over abortion or transgender athletes. But he’s open to other contentious measures, such as letting gun owners carry concealed weapons without a permit.

And he hasn’t ruled out allowing legislation to carve out a new city of Buckhead, despite unanimous opposition from Democrats in the Legislature who represent Atlanta.

The speaker isn’t the only political fulcrum at the Legislature with the potential to sway every major debate.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who opted against running for a second term, has urged fellow Republicans to steer clear of the “Trump approach” this legislative session.

Democrats once again face the reality that they can do little to stop a united Republican front in the Legislature. But House Minority Leader James Beverly, the top Democrat in the chamber, said his party can also show they’re the “grown-ups in the room.”

“Everyone tries to find something to scapegoat. Republicans are now just creating cultural problems to blame for day-to-day issues,” he said.

“And that’s avoiding the real intractable problems we’re facing with health care, education and mental illness,” Beverly said. “We’ll be loud and clear on those issues.”

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Georgia House Minority Leader James Beverly of Macon said that during the upcoming legislative session, Democrats will try to keep the focus on “real intractable problems" such as health care, education and mental illness. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia House Minority Leader James Beverly of Macon said that during the upcoming legislative session, Democrats will try to keep the focus on “real intractable problems" such as health care, education and mental illness. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Georgia House Minority Leader James Beverly of Macon said that during the upcoming legislative session, Democrats will try to keep the focus on “real intractable problems" such as health care, education and mental illness. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution