The top Georgia political stories of 2021: Chaos, conflict and new campaigns

Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock, center, join Joe Biden on stage after his victory in the 2020 presidential election. Biden was campaigning for the two men heading into runoffs for seats in the U.S. Senate. Both Democrats won, defeating incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. (Alyssa Pointer / AJC file photo)

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

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Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock, center, join Joe Biden on stage after his victory in the 2020 presidential election. Biden was campaigning for the two men heading into runoffs for seats in the U.S. Senate. Both Democrats won, defeating incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. (Alyssa Pointer / AJC file photo)

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

There’s a famous Lenin quote that always comes to mind during the busiest of times: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”

Those who thought 2021 might give us a respite from the world-changing drama in Georgia were mistaken. I wrote last year of a tapestry of chaos, conflict and campaigning that’s still unfinished. This year, you can spin even more drama into the mix.

Let’s launch right into it.

  • The runoffs. The November 2020 election left Georgians with unfinished business: a pair of U.S. Senate contests just five days into the new year that decided control of the chamber. With stakes so high, armies of volunteers flooded Georgia and nearly $1 billion was spent on the four campaigns.

Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock pulled off a historic sweep, unseating GOP incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue after a nine-week contest dominated by then-President Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud. Their victories gave Democrats control of Washington — though with hardly any breathing room — and allowed incoming President Joe Biden to pursue a far more ambitious agenda.

ExploreIndepth: Inside the campaign to undermine Georgia’s 2020 election

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Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock swept the state's U.S. Senate runoffs in races that saw nearly $1 billion in spending combined. (Jenny Jarvie/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock swept the state's U.S. Senate runoffs in races that saw nearly $1 billion in spending combined. (Jenny Jarvie/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock swept the state's U.S. Senate runoffs in races that saw nearly $1 billion in spending combined. (Jenny Jarvie/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

  • The Trump effect. Donald Trump and his allies responded to their defeats with a barrage of misinformation, conspiracy theories and outright lies about election fraud in Georgia that helped incite the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. As 2022 dawned, the mythology that the election was “rigged” continued to dominate Republican politics, as GOP candidates jockeyed for the former president’s support and showed up at “Trump Won” rallies.

Trump’s demand that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger reverse his defeat became the focus of a Fulton County criminal probe. Gov. Brian Kemp was booed at conservative gatherings for refusing Trump’s push to overturn Joe Biden’s win, and Trump even suggested at a September rally in Middle Georgia that he wished Democrat Stacey Abrams had won the governor’s race in 2018.

The former president endorsed a slate of four statewide candidates — and disavowed four others — leaving his Republican adversaries weakened or sidelined. As the year ended, Trump appeared more intent on shaping Georgia’s politics than any other state — and Georgia became the biggest test of his influence in the nation.

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Donald Trump, left, pushed hard in a failed attempt to reverse his defeat in Georgia by spreading conspiracy theories and lies about voter fraud in the presidential election. He has continued to maintain a strong presence in Georgia, endorsing four candidates for statewide office, including U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Donald Trump, left, pushed hard in a failed attempt to reverse his defeat in Georgia by spreading conspiracy theories and lies about voter fraud in the presidential election. He has continued to maintain a strong presence in Georgia, endorsing four candidates for statewide office, including U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Donald Trump, left, pushed hard in a failed attempt to reverse his defeat in Georgia by spreading conspiracy theories and lies about voter fraud in the presidential election. He has continued to maintain a strong presence in Georgia, endorsing four candidates for statewide office, including U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

  • The campaign conflicts. At Donald Trump’s urging, University of Georgia football icon Herschel Walker entered the U.S. Senate race against Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock, immediately becoming the GOP front-runner in one of the most competitive races in the nation. But his celebrity didn’t scare off challengers, as Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and others joined the contest.

Stacey Abrams, always expected to mount a rematch against Gov. Brian Kemp, ended the suspense by launching her campaign in December. More surprising was the decision by former U.S. Sen. David Perdue to join the race days later, and he opened the campaign by embracing pro-Trump falsehoods that helped win the former president’s endorsement. Down the ticket, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan opted against a second term rather than face a Trump-backed opponent, and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger became an underdog in his reelection campaign.

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Democrat Stacey Abrams launched her campaign in early December to unseat Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, center, and then former GOP U.S. Sen. David Perdue joined the race a few days later.

Democrat Stacey Abrams launched her campaign in early December to unseat Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, center, and then former GOP U.S. Sen. David Perdue joined the race a few days later.

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Democrat Stacey Abrams launched her campaign in early December to unseat Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, center, and then former GOP U.S. Sen. David Perdue joined the race a few days later.

  • The new administration. Thanks to the Democrats’ victories in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoffs, President Joe Biden pursued a more expansive agenda than he could have under divided control of Congress. Biden signed into law a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package and $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan backed by Georgia Democrats — and unanimously opposed by the state’s GOP delegation.

Georgia Democrats, emboldened by their recent success, pushed for more aggressive efforts to expand federal voting rights and pass a far-reaching social spending and tax measure that was in limbo at year’s end. State Republicans vowed to make sure the Democratic support for those left-leaning policies would come back to haunt them in 2022.

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With the backing of two new U.S. senators from Georgia, President Joe Biden signed into law a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief act and a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

With the backing of two new U.S. senators from Georgia, President Joe Biden signed into law a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief act and a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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With the backing of two new U.S. senators from Georgia, President Joe Biden signed into law a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief act and a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

  • The voting fallout. Its 2020 defeats didn’t prompt a round of soul-searching in the GOP about winning back Atlanta’s suburbs as much as they inspired new efforts to energize the conservative base starting with a sweeping rewrite of election laws. The Republican-controlled Legislature adopted an overhaul that added more stringent ID requirements for absentee voting, limited drop boxes and changed early voting hours in some counties.

Democrats decried it as a Trump-inspired voter suppression tactic, and it led to a corporate rift so dire that House Speaker David Ralston even boasted about drinking a Pepsi. Republicans rallied after Major League Baseball yanked its All-Star game from Truist Park, adding an extra dose of politics to the Atlanta Braves’ championship season.

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Republican defeats in the 2020 elections sparked a push by the GOP-dominated General Assembly to complete a massive rewrite of Georgia's voting laws. (Alyssa Pointer / AJC file photo)

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

Republican defeats in the 2020 elections sparked a push by the GOP-dominated General Assembly to complete a massive rewrite of Georgia's voting laws.  (Alyssa Pointer / AJC file photo)

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

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Republican defeats in the 2020 elections sparked a push by the GOP-dominated General Assembly to complete a massive rewrite of Georgia's voting laws. (Alyssa Pointer / AJC file photo)

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

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

  • The new political map. A tense once-a-decade redistricting session reshaped Georgia politics by overhauling the state’s political boundaries. The new map created a 9-5 GOP advantage over Democrats in 2022, forcing U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath to switch races and challenge fellow Democratic U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux in the suburbs.

The GOP-controlled Legislature also approved new lines for legislative districts that safeguard Republican majorities through the next few election cycles. Still, that advantage could fade throughout the 2020s. Georgia’s population increased by 1 million residents over the past decade, and many of the newcomers are people of color and younger residents who tend to favor Democrats.

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State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, speaks in opposition to newly drawn congressional maps that are expected to give Republicans an additional seat in Georgia's U.S. House delegation., (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, speaks in opposition to newly drawn congressional maps that are expected to give Republicans an additional seat in Georgia's U.S. House delegation., (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, speaks in opposition to newly drawn congressional maps that are expected to give Republicans an additional seat in Georgia's U.S. House delegation., (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

  • The social justice movement. The killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man murdered by armed white men in coastal Georgia, sparked significant changes in state politics. A year after adopting hate-crimes legislation, legislators invoked Arbery’s death to repeal the state’s citizen’s arrest law, a statute dating to the Civil War that was initially cited by a prosecutor to justify his shooting.

And the conviction of his murderers brought an unusual reaction among state political leaders: a consensus that justice was at least partially served. Civil rights leaders who took to the streets in 2020 to demand an end to police brutality vowed to press for broader changes in 2022, while Republicans pressed for new crackdowns on crime and a push to carve out a new, majority-white city of Buckhead.

  • The pandemic. Just as pandemic restrictions became politicized in 2020, vaccination initiatives transformed into a polarizing issue in 2021. Georgia’s vaccination efforts lagged most other U.S. states, and Gov. Brian Kemp came under fire from Democrats and epidemiologists for not taking more strident action.

Like most other Republicans, the governor became an outspoken opponent of vaccine mandates — and he joined Attorney General Chris Carr to challenge federal requirements in court. The rise of the delta variant and, later, the fast spread of the omicron variant heralded another round of public health challenges in the new year.

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Discovery High School junior Morgan Scott receives a vaccine in August during an event in Lawrenceville. Georgia’s vaccination efforts against COVID-19 lagged most other U.S. states during 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/AJC file photo)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Discovery High School junior Morgan Scott receives a vaccine in August during an event in Lawrenceville. Georgia’s vaccination efforts against COVID-19 lagged most other U.S. states during 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/AJC file photo)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Discovery High School junior Morgan Scott receives a vaccine in August during an event in Lawrenceville. Georgia’s vaccination efforts against COVID-19 lagged most other U.S. states during 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/AJC file photo)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

  • The legacies. The November death of former Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Cleland led to an outpouring of grief from Georgians who honored the Vietnam War veteran’s decades of public service and accomplishments in Congress.

A month later, Republican Johnny Isakson’s death focused attention on his role of building the modern Georgia GOP while serving in the state House, state Senate, U.S. House and U.S. Senate — and his embrace of the ”Isakson Way,” which encouraged compromise where consensus could be found and avoided vilifying a political adversary where it could not.

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Johnny Isakson was the second of two former U.S. senators from Georgia to die in 2021. The first was Max Cleland. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

Credit: Bob Andres

Johnny Isakson was the second of two former U.S. senators from Georgia to die in 2021. The first was Max Cleland. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

Credit: Bob Andres

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Johnny Isakson was the second of two former U.S. senators from Georgia to die in 2021. The first was Max Cleland. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

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