Senate runoffs reshape Georgia politics as lawmakers look to session, next election

Republican losses to Democrats Jon Ossoff, left, Raphael Warnock and Joe Biden have shaken the state GOP, and that could have a great impact on what happens during the General Assembly session that begins Monday. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Caption
Republican losses to Democrats Jon Ossoff, left, Raphael Warnock and Joe Biden have shaken the state GOP, and that could have a great impact on what happens during the General Assembly session that begins Monday. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Credit: Wire

Credit: Wire

Georgia lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday with Democrats on a stunning winning streak, years in the making, that helped oust President Donald Trump from the White House and capped with a sweep of last week’s runoffs that flipped control of the U.S. Senate.

State Republicans are facing a sharp reckoning: Bitter and divided by Trump’s defeat, some GOP leaders proudly backed his effort to illegally overturn Georgia’s election and cheered the movement that culminated in the storming of the U.S. Capitol, while those who have stood against the president are vilified by him and his supporters.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, Georgia’s most powerful politician, opens the legislative session weakened and unable to corral the competing factions and personalities within his party.

Once, Kemp’s most pressing political concern was a likely rematch against Stacey Abrams. Now his GOP rivals are moving against him, stoked by Trump’s promises — to wild applause at Georgia rallies — to champion a primary challenger against him next year.

The Senate runoffs offered a test for how Republicans define themselves in a post-Trump era, and the dual defeats of U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler showed that appeasing and indulging the president wasn’t enough to matter.

Democrats are emboldened as the legislative session starts Monday. The political infrastructure Abrams built over the past decade has reaped rewards for her party, and the Senate candidate she recruited, Raphael Warnock, defeated Kemp’s appointee to the seat.

With proposals to limit absentee ballots papering the Statehouse, a divisive fight over voting rules awaits. It could be even more fraught after Georgians watched in horror as a vengeful pro-Trump mob fueled by the president’s claims of voter fraud besieged the U.S. Capitol.

Facing a rift within the state GOP, state House Speaker David Ralston said the party needs to remember that government is “at its best when it is working for our people and we address fundamental issues that make people’s lives better.” (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Facing a rift within the state GOP, state House Speaker David Ralston said the party needs to remember that government is “at its best when it is working for our people and we address fundamental issues that make people’s lives better.” (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Some leading GOP voices are focused on rebuilding the party’s brand. House Speaker David Ralston said his “focus is not on looking back, but on looking forward.” He was talking about a ballot access debate, but his words echoed more broadly.

Others crowed that Trump’s shadow looms longer than ever.

“You can’t blame the president for the runoff losses,” said state Sen. Burt Jones, who was singled out by Trump for applause at his December rally in Valdosta for backing efforts to overturn Georgia’s election results.

“It’s a mistake to think his support in the GOP is lagging,” Jones said. “I don’t feel like he cost them anything. And he’s got a very passionate following that has staying power.”

‘Writing on the wall’

The GOP rifts are deepening as politicians and the rest of Georgia rebound from an election cycle that ended with victories by Warnock and Jon Ossoff — and gird for a new round of votes in 2022.

The next election cycle may as well have begun the day after the runoffs, and this time every statewide constitutional office is up for grabs, along with the U.S. Senate seat Warnock now holds.

Democrats are eager to exert some extra muscle. They talk of challenging leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature with proposals to increase access to affordable health care and boost funding for public health systems that strained under the pandemic.

“The writing is on the wall for Republicans. The results of the elections are undeniable. The face of the state is changing,” said Michelle Au, a physician and Democrat who won a Gwinnett County-based state Senate seat long held, until 2018, by a Republican.

“I’m not naïve to the fact that Republicans still hold the majority in the Legislature. But we should remember that change comes slowly — then all of a sudden,” Au said. “These elections were a harbinger.”

Michelle Au, a Gwinnett County Democrat set to begin her first term in the state Senate, said "the face of the state is changing." She said the 2020 elections, including last week's U.S. Senate runoffs, "were a harbinger" that more change could be coming quickly.
Caption
Michelle Au, a Gwinnett County Democrat set to begin her first term in the state Senate, said "the face of the state is changing." She said the 2020 elections, including last week's U.S. Senate runoffs, "were a harbinger" that more change could be coming quickly.

Credit: TheCOLCollection

Credit: TheCOLCollection

Few Democrats have cobbled together as many bipartisan successes under the Gold Dome as state Rep. Scott Holcomb of Atlanta, who expressed hope that his party’s victories will convince GOP leaders that more — not less — consensus is needed. Still, he added, he’s a realist.

“It makes for a more volatile year. Overall, I’m pessimistic about the chances for broad-based legislation,” Holcomb said. “I hope I’m wrong, but there’s a lot of challenges ahead. And Republicans need to figure out who they want to be going forward.”

Many across the political aisle would agree with him on that latter point.

Former U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland called for change at the top ranks of the state GOP, which is led by David Shafer, after Trump’s narrow loss in Georgia and the party’s two Senate candidates went down in flames. Shafer prominently backed Trump’s efforts to overturn the results.

“We need somebody to bring all these different factions together,” said Westmoreland, a Republican who decided not to stand for election in 2016 after six terms representing a west Georgia district.

“One of the reasons I left Congress is we have a group of Republicans who had to get everything they wanted in legislation or they blocked us from doing anything,” he said. “We couldn’t move the ball forward.”

Westmoreland, who has been a Statehouse lobbyist during recent sessions of the General Assembly, said he’s now worried the same gridlock in Washington has seeped deeper into state politics.

‘A void’

Democrats’ victories in November and January — their first statewide wins since 2006 — were due to an impressive ground game that targeted, registered and mobilized like-minded voters in record numbers.

But they also were helped by the stew of distractions and falsehoods concocted by Trump. His false claims of a “rigged” election sent conflicting messages to his base. His rallies focused far more on his November grievances and attacks on Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger than the fate of the U.S. Senate. And his ceaseless loyalty tests put the GOP incumbents in constant fear of his backlash.

“Trump’s closing argument was, ‘I’m going to work against Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger,’ ” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, a top aide to Abrams. “For people who care about facts and actually want this pandemic to be over, to keep hospitals open, to provide jobs — that message isn’t going to win them over.”

Retiring state Rep. Scot Turner lives in Cherokee County, Georgia’s most important Republican-controlled bastion, where Trump’s overwhelming victory four years ago came with an undercurrent of concern that would haunt the GOP.

Retiring state Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, said his party needs to focus on issues that most affect Georgians. “If the Republican Party sticks with messages that help get people educated, go to work, stay healthy and live their lives in a free manner, I think they’ll be OK," he said. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Caption
Retiring state Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, said his party needs to focus on issues that most affect Georgians. “If the Republican Party sticks with messages that help get people educated, go to work, stay healthy and live their lives in a free manner, I think they’ll be OK," he said. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

The county gave Trump and Perdue nearly 100,000 votes in November, a GOP vote total that trailed only three more populous — and solidly Democratic — metro Atlanta counties. But Trump’s margins in Cherokee fell from 71% in 2016 to about two-thirds in November.

Turner isn’t surprised by the president’s soft underbelly in this hardened conservative stronghold. Turner noted it was a “big red flag” when he got more votes than Trump in his district in 2016. Four years later, even the county’s tax commissioner outpolled Trump.

“This is the person who takes your money from you — and she did better than him,” he said, stressing the need for a messaging reboot.

“If the Republican Party sticks with messages that help get people educated, go to work, stay healthy and live their lives in a free manner, I think they’ll be OK,” Turner said.

Ralston, too, said government is “at its best when it is working for our people and we address fundamental issues that make people’s lives better.”

Still, he and other bipartisan leaders have uttered such crowd-pleasing rhetoric before, only to forcefully back issues that stoke deep partisan divides.

Westmoreland, the former congressman, said unifying voices are needed to fill the chasm in the post-Trump era. But uniting a splintered GOP is a thankless task, particularly when the chasm between Republican elected officials and the grassroots base is so wide.

“There’s a void, and somebody’s got to step up and say that we need to get together and make sure we’re united,” he said. “But who wants to take it on? It’s kind of like being the guy in the parade walking behind the elephants with the broom and a shovel.”

Former U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland says the state GOP needs changes at its highest levels, adding that a unifying voice is needed. But he added that it's a difficult task. "It’s kind of like being the guy in the parade walking behind the elephants with the broom and a shovel,” he said. BOB ANDRES  /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Caption
Former U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland says the state GOP needs changes at its highest levels, adding that a unifying voice is needed. But he added that it's a difficult task. "It’s kind of like being the guy in the parade walking behind the elephants with the broom and a shovel,” he said. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

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