What a fish fry, a Democratic bash and Ted Cruz tell us about Georgia politics

Herschel Walker, Gov. Brian Kemp and state Sen. Burt Jones pose for a picture.

Herschel Walker, Gov. Brian Kemp and state Sen. Burt Jones pose for a picture.

In a series of fiery speeches at the party’s convention in Columbus, Stacey Abrams and other Georgia Democrats pledged to complete their “unfinished business” this midterm by flipping other top state offices.

The same Saturday, leading Republicans traveled to a fish fry in Perry, one of the birthplaces of the modern GOP renaissance. It was this fertile territory, Gov. Brian Kemp reminded his audience, where Sonny Perdue’s rise to political power blossomed two decades ago.

And in Buckhead, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz headlined a super PAC’s “Together for Truth” conference before a legion of conservatives who were pummeled with the message that the November midterm was a referendum on President Joe Biden’s agenda.

The trio of events reinforced key trends that have shaped Georgia’s election.

First and foremost, they served as a reminder both parties can still rely on a deep reserve of volunteers motivated to do the thankless work: The door-knocking, phone-banking, text-messaging, fund-raising and get-out-the-vote-organizing at the center of campaigns.

They also proved again that candidates are placing bold bets that nationalizing state elections will pay off.

At stops around the state, Kemp ties his rival to “Biden-Abrams inflation” and other Republicans eagerly invoke the president’s name. Herschel Walker claims that U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock has done more to help Biden than he has for Georgia voters.

And at the Truth and Courage PAC’s summit, Cruz predicted Biden has unwittingly birthed a Republican “revival.”

“Every time we see some dumbass decision from this White House, part of me grieves but part of me quietly celebrates,” Cruz said. “Because it is accelerating the process of peoples’ eyes opening up and people coming back.”

Instead of running from Biden, Abrams and other key Democrats have embraced his platform, hopeful that his recent policy victories will speed a turnaround in public opinion.

Stacey Abrams speaks at the Democratic Party of Georgia’s State Convention in Columbus, Georgia, Saturday, August 27, 2022. Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer/AJC

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Credit: Steve Schaefer/AJC

She and other statewide contenders are trying to leverage outrage over the U.S. Supreme Court’s consequential abortion ruling to energize a wave of new supporters.

And while Warnock has a more guarded approach to Biden – and uses his campaign stops to highlight an independent streak – he’s also keen to show how the president’s legislative priorities wouldn’t have passed without Democratic victories in Georgia’s 2021 runoffs.

Running mates?

The weekend events also underlined the complex dynamic among marquee candidates.

Consider the picture taken backstage Saturday of a smiling Kemp sandwiched between Walker and state Sen. Burt Jones, the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor.

Three months after the May primary, the widely shared snapshot is the closest that Kemp and Walker have come to campaigning publicly together.

Allies of both insist they harbor no ill will toward each other – Walker has spoken of forming a devastating political “tag team” on the trail – they each may have reasons to remain wary of a closer alliance.

With solid leads in the polls, Kemp might have little motivation to tie himself to Walker, whose campaign trail travails have given Democrats fresh hopes of holding Warnock’s seat.

Plus, Kemp’s camp needs little reminder of Walker’s snubs during the primary. Walker said he was “mad” at both Kemp and his Donald Trump-backed rival, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, for competing against each other. And Walker wouldn’t say whether he voted for Kemp in May.

As for Walker, a closer connection with a popular governor with conservatives offers fewer pitfalls.

Still, it could further alienate Trump and his die-hard loyalists, though polls indicate Kemp has done a better job solidifying Republican support than Walker.

And it would bring more attention to their divides over key policy issues, with both taking different stances on abortion restrictions, immigration policy, the falsehoods surrounding the 2020 election and – of course – Trump.

The quartet

The Democratic side of the ledger is also complicated.

Abrams and Warnock are longtime friends and political allies. Abrams encouraged Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, to run for the late U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat after she decided against seeking the job herself.

But the two haven’t held a joint rally together this campaign season, with each focusing on their own races rather than campaigning as de facto running mates.

Stacey Abrams and other top Georgia Democratic candidates.

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The Democratic Party of Georgia’s convention offered the latest example, as Warnock spoke with other federal candidates at the start of the day, while Abrams and the statewide contenders took the stage after lunch. The two top Democrats never shared the stage together.

One of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats on the November ballot, Warnock has emphasized that he’ll work with anyone “if it helps Georgians.” To that end, he invokes his proposals with Republican Sens. Tommy Tuberville, Marco Rubio – and even Cruz.

Republicans have raced to adapt. Rather than brand him as a radical extremist, as they tried in 2020, Walker and other GOP figures often call Warnock a “good guy” who nonetheless overwhelmingly votes for liberal Biden-backed policies.

Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock speaks at the Democratic Party of Georgia’s State Convention in Columbus, Georgia, Saturday, August 27, 2022. Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Aligning himself more closely with Abrams might make it harder for Warnock to appeal to potential split-ticket voters. It also might bring attention to somewhat conflicting campaign messages within his own party, such as differences over whether to support limits on abortion and whether to embrace the president.

Some insiders expect the leading candidates to band together as the last sprint nears, much like what happened during the Senate runoffs in 2021. But there is a precedent for a more distanced strategy.

The last time a U.S. Senate race and a governor’s contest shared the ballot in Georgia was in 2014, when then-Gov. Nathan Deal was up for reelection against Jason Carter and David Perdue faced Michelle Nunn for an open U.S. Senate seat.

Rather than a unity ticket in the final rush to November, each member of the quartet each went their own way: Four separate bus tours with four different closing messages.