‘Up in the air.’ In Georgia politics, the wait is on for top 2022 races

The state’s two premier contests are ‘frozen’ for now

In Georgia politics, it’s all about hurry up and wait.

After an election cycle that focused national attention on Georgia, the state’s two premier contests in 2022 are off to a relatively sleepy start. And both parties are anxiously waiting as big-name potential candidates weigh their next moves.

Though U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock is considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents on the 2022 ballot, no elite Republican has yet entered the race as the party waits to see whether University of Georgia football great Herschel Walker will jump in.

On the Democratic side, Stacey Abrams is expected to mount a rematch against Gov. Brian Kemp to try to avenge her narrow defeat in 2018. But her announcement is not imminent, and until she joins the contest, the nationally watched race won’t start in earnest.

The delay has triggered a waiting game for rival parties still recovering from an exhausting 2020 election cycle and a fight over voting rights and election restrictions that dominated the following months.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Democrats captured the state for the first time in a presidential contest since 1992, flipped a suburban U.S. House seat and won two U.S. Senate seats in January’s runoffs to retake control of the chamber. But Republicans held their own in down-ticket races, maintaining their grip on the state Legislature.

While the top races remain in limbo, there’s been a rush to fill spots down the ballot. Multiple candidates have already jumped into races for lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general and other statewide posts.

“Everything seems up in the air now,” said state Sen. Jason Anavitarte, a Republican from Paulding County. “There’s a lot of uncertainty going into the summer about who’s doing what, but hopefully there’s clarity to come.”

A ‘pump fake?’

After Warnock’s special election victory over GOP incumbent Kelly Loeffler, it seemed a heavyweight Republican would enter the race against him within weeks, if not days. And Warnock hardly stopped campaigning, telling Democrats “I am prepared to defeat whatever Republican they come up with.”

But a string of big-name candidates passed on the race, starting with former U.S. Sen. David Perdue and former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins. While other heavyweights are considering a bid, most are waiting on a decision by Walker, who former President Donald Trump said would be “unstoppable” if he runs.

Enterprising Republicans aren’t usually so eager to step aside for an out-of-state political newcomer to decide — Walker has lived in Texas for years — but support from the former president could be enough to swing a GOP primary. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll this month showed nearly 90% of Republicans have a favorable view of Trump.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

“Is the Herschel Walker news a pump fake or just a delayed handoff? That’s the $1 million question in Georgia politics right now,” said Stephen Lawson, a GOP operative and senior adviser to Loeffler, who is considering a comeback bid.

“Regardless of what his decision ends up being,” Lawson said, “it feels like it’s getting close to a tipping point that will have a ripple effect up and down the ballot across the entire state.”

Walker has told state Republicans he’s nearing a decision on whether to run, and U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter said he won’t join the contest if the former UGA star gets in.

Still, even with Trump’s backing, Walker would have to clear a number of other obstacles, starting with a move to Georgia. He also must win over conservatives unfamiliar with his political leanings, hone policy stances, court donors and brace for scrutiny into a past that includes struggles with mental illness.

Some influential activists have publicly encouraged him to pass, while others are growing antsy for him to make up his mind, noting that Warnock has already consolidated Democratic support and has quickly amassed nearly $6 million in campaign donations.

Two military veterans — Kelvin King and Latham Saddler — have announced bids. State Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, the highest-profile contender yet, is expected to enter the race. And both Loeffler and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston are set to decide soon.

“Everything is frozen until Herschel makes up his mind,” said Martha Zoller, a conservative commentator.

Trump’s influence on the contest doesn’t sit well with some Republicans. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, an outspoken critic of the former president, said he hopes the primary is decided by “Georgia conservatives rather than voices or figures from outside the state.”

“The last time our Senate races got nationalized, two Democrats got elected and Republicans lost control of the U.S. Senate,” said Duncan, who recently announced he will not seek a second term and has also ruled out his own run for federal office.

“The ramifications of an all-Democrat-controlled Washington have been disastrous, enabling President Biden to govern as the most progressive president in history without any real check or balance,” Duncan said.

‘Perfect position’

The wait for Abrams is more of a slow boil. Leading state Democrats are all but certain she will run, and Georgia strategists say there’s no backup plan if she decides against it. The AJC poll showed she’s in relatively good standing, with a 48% favorable rating that narrowly tops Kemp.

Still, she’s in no apparent rush to launch a campaign. Abrams recently published a legal thriller that’s on national best-seller lists, and she plans a nationwide book tour later this year. She also recently signed a deal for two more books.

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

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

Publicly, she’s said her focus is on expanding voting rights and opposing election restrictions in Georgia and other states. But she’s also highlighted her political ambitions, saying she “absolutely” aims to run for president one day.

“In 2018, I was the most Googled politician in the world and I am not the governor of Georgia. ... But the reality is, my fear helped me get better at my job,” she said this month in her commencement address at Clark Atlanta University.

“I may not be governor of Georgia,” she said, “but I promise you, no one in Georgia will ever forget that I was here.”

She can afford to wait. At this same stage in the 2018 cycle, Abrams had already filed initial paperwork and was preparing for a June formal announcement. Now, she’s a nationally known figure and fundraising juggernaut who started a constellation of prominent advocacy groups.

In short, she could easily clear a Democratic field of credible challengers.

And she has recent examples of late-arriving candidates who still triumphed. U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff announced his run in September 2019, while Warnock didn’t enter the special election until January 2020.

“The entire country is watching and waiting to see what Stacey will do because she’s a household name, and that will make it the best ticket we can put up for 2022,” said state Rep. Bee Nguyen, who succeeded Abrams in the Legislature and is now a Democratic candidate for secretary of state.

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

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

“But each of us is also going to have to add our own strength to the 2022 ticket,” Nguyen said. “We have a much stronger bench than Republicans and we reflect the diversity of the state.”

While state Republicans speculate that Abrams might forgo a campaign against Kemp and suggest she may aim for the White House instead, her friends and allies say those who believe that don’t really know her.

“She’s in perfect position,” said Democratic state Rep. Al Williams, one of Abrams’ closest confidants. “She knows exactly what she can bring to the race. And I’m almost as certain Stacey will run as I am certain the sun will rise in the east tomorrow.”

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