Swing voters in Senate runoff boost Georgia’s standing as a 2024 battleground

Supporters of Sen. Raphael Warnock cheer after hearing final results at his election night watch party at Atlanta Marriott Marquis on Tuesday, December 6, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Supporters of Sen. Raphael Warnock cheer after hearing final results at his election night watch party at Atlanta Marriott Marquis on Tuesday, December 6, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s runoff victory proved that a consequential bloc of Georgia voters won’t habitually back a candidate just because of party affiliation, a maverick streak that could redefine the state’s role in the next race for the White House.

Had Warnock lost Tuesday’s runoff to Republican Herschel Walker, Georgia’s vote for President Joe Biden in 2020 and Democratic sweeps of the 2021 runoffs might be seen as more of a fluke than a flip.

But Warnock’s roughly three-point triumph not only deprives Republicans of a clean sweep of statewide races, it ensures Democrats hold both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats the next four years even as the GOP retains its control over every other state office.

The win also secures Georgia’s standing as one of the nation’s most politically competitive states — where candidates of either party have a legitimate shot of winning statewide if they can claim the center of the electorate as Warnock and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp did.

That makes it easier for both parties to pour money into the state ahead of 2024 and means Georgia will be one of the few toss-up targets for White House hopefuls, joining Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as pivotal stops on the path to the presidency.

“This election showed there’s a group of Georgia voters who are willing to decide races by voting both ways,” said Jason Carter, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014. “And the presidential race could very well come down to those voters.”

Look no further for Georgia’s increasing electoral clout than Biden’s push to move the state up on the 2024 primary schedule, a change sure to be the subject of intense maneuvering in next year’s legislative session.

And Atlanta is a finalist to host the Democratic National Convention in 2024, competing with Chicago to land the prized event that would focus the nation’s attention on Georgia’s diverse population and growing clout.

Republican candidate Herschel Walker leaves the stage at his Senate runoff election night party at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta on Tuesday, December 6, 2022. Walker lost against Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“There’s no doubt that Georgia has arrived as one of the key swing states of national politics,” Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz said.

It also means the spotlight on Georgia won’t soon shift. More than $400 million was spent on the U.S. Senate race, making it the most expensive contest of the midterm. That pales in comparison with the torrent of cash that could be headed here in the future.

“I’m so tired of getting text messages, calls and everything,” Brittany Brakeford said as she cast her ballot in DeKalb County. “I’m here, I made my voice heard and I’m just ready for it to be over.”

‘Pay attention’

Georgia’s split-ticket trend shaped the November midterm, when Kemp outgained Walker by 200,000 votes and showcased how an important bloc of middle-of-the-road voters was up for grabs.

After a runoff spent appealing almost entirely to the party’s base, Walker fared no better with swing voters. He lagged behind Kemp’s share of the midterm in all but one of Georgia’s 159 counties. The exception was Echols County, home to fewer than 2,300 registered voters.

The largest gaps were in many of the densely populated counties where Republicans could ill afford to lag. Walker ran 7 percentage points behind Kemp in Fulton County, the state’s largest population center, and he trailed him significantly in Cobb, Forsyth and Gwinnett counties.

Warnock, meanwhile, made a nonconventional, high-risk push to turn out the swing voters from the general election when most campaigns would focus solely on efforts to turn out their base during a short runoff period.

That helped him offset Walker’s gains in deep-red parts of North Georgia where the Republican had struggled in the midterm. In north Fulton County, an affluent area that’s a bastion of moderate and independent voters, Warnock outperformed Kemp by 5 percentage points from the midterm to the runoff.

“If there’s a lesson to be learned about this election, it’s you better pay attention to the middle,” Democratic strategist Rick Dent said.

With two consecutive statewide runoff victories, the results indicate that Democrats can now consistently compete with Republicans in turning out voters for runoffs, negating the GOP’s historic edge.

Now Democrats have established an effective grassroots operation, thanks to canvassers who reached millions of households, along with voters accustomed to repeat trips to the polls.

Cameron Butler was confident that Warnock would win Tuesday’s race, but he still felt a responsibility to vote. Like many supporters of the Democrat, who has been on the ballot five times since November 2020, voting has become a habit.

“I feel like I would be letting my community down if I don’t,” Butler said.

Staff writer Lautaro Grinspan and digital specialist Isaac Sabetai contributed to this article.