What happened in Georgia politics in 2021, and what it could mean for 2022

January victories won by Democrats Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock in Georgia's U.S. Senate runoffs got the state's political year started while also bringing to conclusion the 2020 election cycle. Their wins gave Democrats control of the Senate and enabled incoming President Joe Biden to pursue a more ambitious agenda. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
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January victories won by Democrats Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael Warnock in Georgia's U.S. Senate runoffs got the state's political year started while also bringing to conclusion the 2020 election cycle. Their wins gave Democrats control of the Senate and enabled incoming President Joe Biden to pursue a more ambitious agenda. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

2021 a year of big change

Ossoff, Warnock victories determine control of the U.S. Senate

In Georgia, the year began with unfinished business from the 2020 election cycle: the Jan. 5 runoffs for two U.S. Senate seats.

At stake was control of the chamber, and that brought in armies of volunteers and nearly $1 billion in spending on four campaigns.

Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock pulled off a historic sweep, unseating GOP incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in a nine-week contest dominated by then-President Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud. Their victories gave Democrats the upper hand in both chambers of Congress — by the slightest of margins, but enough to allow incoming President Joe Biden to pursue a far more ambitious agenda.

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Former President Donald Trump prepares to take the stage for a rally in Perry, where he demonstrated his support for a slate of GOP candidates for statewide office while also maintaining his feud with Gov. Brian Kemp. Trump said at the rally that he now wished Democrat Stacey Abrams had beaten Kemp in the state's 2018 race for governor. (AP Photo/Ben Gray, File)

Credit: Ben Gray

Former President Donald Trump prepares to take the stage for a rally in Perry, where he demonstrated his support for a slate of GOP candidates for statewide office while also maintaining his feud with Gov. Brian Kemp. Trump said at the rally that he now wished Democrat Stacey Abrams had beaten Kemp in the state's 2018 race for governor. (AP Photo/Ben Gray, File)
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Former President Donald Trump prepares to take the stage for a rally in Perry, where he demonstrated his support for a slate of GOP candidates for statewide office while also maintaining his feud with Gov. Brian Kemp. Trump said at the rally that he now wished Democrat Stacey Abrams had beaten Kemp in the state's 2018 race for governor. (AP Photo/Ben Gray, File)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Donald Trump maintains grip on Georgia GOP

Donald Trump and his allies responded to their defeats in November 2020 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. Even now, the mythology that the election was “rigged” continues to dominate Republican politics, as GOP candidates jockey for the former president’s support and show up at “Trump Won” rallies.

Trump’s demand that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger reverse his defeat became the focus of an ongoing 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.

At 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, businessman Kelvin King and former Navy SEAL Latham Saddler joined the contest.

Then former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, also at Trump’s urging, entered the race for governor, mounting an intraparty challenge against Kemp only days after Democrat Stacey Abrams launched her bid. Perdue opened his campaign by embracing pro-Trump falsehoods that helped him 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, another target of attacks from the former president, became an underdog in his reelection campaign.

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The $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that President Joe Biden signed into law will bring more than $11 billion in funding to Georgia for a range of projects. The package passed Congress with support from Democrats, plus 19 Republicans in the Senate and 13 GOP members of the House, none of them from Georgia. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that President Joe Biden signed into law will bring more than $11 billion in funding to Georgia for a range of projects. The package passed Congress with support from Democrats, plus 19 Republicans in the Senate and 13 GOP members of the House, none of them from Georgia. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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The $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that President Joe Biden signed into law will bring more than $11 billion in funding to Georgia for a range of projects. The package passed Congress with support from Democrats, plus 19 Republicans in the Senate and 13 GOP members of the House, none of them from Georgia. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Billions in COVID-19 relief, infrastructure spending heading to Georgia

Congressional Democrats, thanks to Jon Ossoff’s and Raphael Warnock’s Senate victories, passed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package in March that included direct payments of $1,400 to Americans who earn less than $75,000 per year or married couples who earn less than $150,000.

The measure also included $3.6 billion to be shared by Georgia’s cities and counties, plus $4.8 billion for the state, much of it to be used in three areas: broadband expansion, water and sewer projects, and help for those hurt financially by the pandemic.

President Joe Biden also signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan backed by Democrats with support from 19 GOP senators and 13 Republicans in the House, although none of them from Georgia. The package includes more than $11 billion for projects in Georgia.

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Georgia's Republican-led Legislature responded to Donald Trump's false claims of election fraud by approving Senate Bill 202, an overhaul of the state's voting laws. The measure includes limits on the use of drop boxes that proved to be popular with voters in the 2020 presidential race. (Tami Chappell/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Georgia's Republican-led Legislature responded to Donald Trump's false claims of election fraud by approving Senate Bill 202, an overhaul of the state's voting laws. The measure includes limits on the use of drop boxes that proved to be popular with voters in the 2020 presidential race. (Tami Chappell/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
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Georgia's Republican-led Legislature responded to Donald Trump's false claims of election fraud by approving Senate Bill 202, an overhaul of the state's voting laws. The measure includes limits on the use of drop boxes that proved to be popular with voters in the 2020 presidential race. (Tami Chappell/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

GOP follows election losses by passing tougher voting law

Georgia Republicans responded to their defeats at the ballot box not with soul-searching but, instead, new efforts to energize the conservative base through 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 the new voting law, Senate Bill 202, as a voter suppression tactic inspired by Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud.

The fallout spread to the business sector, leading to a corporate rift so dire that House Speaker David Ralston 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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In response to new congressional lines that the Republican-led General Assembly put in place during a special session on redistricting, Democratic U.S. Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux and Lucy McBath will run against each other in May's Democratic primary in the Gwinnett County-based 7th Congressional District.

In response to new congressional lines that the Republican-led General Assembly put in place during a special session on redistricting, Democratic U.S. Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux and Lucy McBath will run against each other in May's Democratic primary in the Gwinnett County-based 7th Congressional District.
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In response to new congressional lines that the Republican-led General Assembly put in place during a special session on redistricting, Democratic U.S. Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux and Lucy McBath will run against each other in May's Democratic primary in the Gwinnett County-based 7th Congressional District.

Republicans strengthen their hand with new political maps

A tense once-a-decade redistricting session reshaped Georgia politics by overhauling the state’s political boundaries.

A new congressional 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.

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The killing of Ahmard Abery by three white men in coastal Georgia fueled an effort to rewrite the state's citizen's arrest law, a statute dating to the Civil War that was initially cited by a prosecutor in justifying the shooting.

The killing of Ahmard Abery by three white men in coastal Georgia fueled an effort to rewrite the state's citizen's arrest law, a statute dating to the Civil War that was initially cited by a prosecutor in justifying the shooting.
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The killing of Ahmard Abery by three white men in coastal Georgia fueled an effort to rewrite the state's citizen's arrest law, a statute dating to the Civil War that was initially cited by a prosecutor in justifying the shooting.

Arbery killing spurs social change, and more could come

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.

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The coronavirus pandemic remained a polarizing issue in 2021, as Georgia lagged behind most U.S. states in vaccinations rates. Gov. Brian Kemp joined in court efforts opposing mask mandates and federal vaccination requirements. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

The coronavirus pandemic remained a polarizing issue in 2021, as Georgia lagged behind most U.S. states in vaccinations rates. Gov. Brian Kemp joined in court efforts opposing mask mandates and federal vaccination requirements. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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The coronavirus pandemic remained a polarizing issue in 2021, as Georgia lagged behind most U.S. states in vaccinations rates. Gov. Brian Kemp joined in court efforts opposing mask mandates and federal vaccination requirements. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Political divide over pandemic remains

Just as coronavirus restrictions became politicized in 2020, vaccination initiatives transformed into a polarizing issue in 2021. Georgia’s vaccination efforts lagged behind most other U.S. states, and Gov. Brian Kemp came under fire from Democrats and epidemiologists for not taking stronger 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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In November, Max Cleland became the first of two former U.S. senators from Georgia to die in 2021. Johnny Isakson followed in December.

In November, Max Cleland became the first of two former U.S. senators from Georgia to die in 2021. Johnny Isakson followed in December.
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In November, Max Cleland became the first of two former U.S. senators from Georgia to die in 2021. Johnny Isakson followed in December.

Two former senators die

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.

A month later, Republican Johnny Isakson’s death focused attention on his role in 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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Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, and Gov. Brian Kemp were once allies, but Perdue answered former President Donald Trump's call to challenge the governor in May's Republican primary. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, and Gov. Brian Kemp were once allies, but Perdue answered former President Donald Trump's call to challenge the governor in May's Republican primary. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
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Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, and Gov. Brian Kemp were once allies, but Perdue answered former President Donald Trump's call to challenge the governor in May's Republican primary. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

In 2022, Georgia faces many questions

Will Donald Trump ruin the Georgia GOP’s chances in 2022?

Can Georgia Republicans call a truce on their civil war? The ugly infighting between state Republicans starts with former President Donald Trump and his obsession with overturning his election defeat in Georgia.

Trump recruited former U.S. Sen. David Perdue to wage an intraparty challenge against Gov. Brian Kemp, wooed Herschel Walker to run for an open U.S. Senate seat, and intervened in down-ticket races for lieutenant governor and secretary of state over incumbents who rejected his conspiracy theories.

Along the way, Trump has defied predictions that his grip on the party’s base — and its rank-and-file officials — would fade. Instead, some of the former president’s biggest opponents in the Georgia GOP are themselves endangered species.

The internal fissures were sparked by Trump, but others in the state have deepened the divides. Activists have scapegoated Republicans who didn’t give in to Trump’s demands. Top-tier candidates spoke at “Trump Won” rallies and promoted his election fraud claims.

Republican officials don’t want to invite further scorn from the former president and his followers. But that tightrope act will get more perilous by the day, as Perdue and another former Republican U.S. senator, Kelly Loeffler, can attest, particularly in the Atlanta suburbs that the GOP is desperate to win back.

“Sometimes Republicans are our own worst enemy,” said state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton. “I hope that the internal drama doesn’t prevent us from moving Georgia forward. But election-year politics are pretty tricky.”

Can Georgia Democrats overcome a souring national climate?

In the last election cycle, state Democrats ended decades of defeats in presidential contests and U.S. Senate races. Now they’re trying to win another round of statewide seats, this time without a polarizing presidential election on the ballot.

But the political climate doesn’t appear inviting for Stacey Abrams, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and other Democratic candidates.

Voters tend to cast their ballots against the party in power during a midterm election, and President Joe Biden is already grappling with souring approval ratings, growing questions about his economic agenda and conservative pushback against his social policies.

What’s more, Democrats have their own internal fissures, starting with a battle between U.S. Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux and Lucy McBath for a suburban Atlanta congressional district that will be framed as a proxy fight between centrists and liberals.

Democrats also have reason to cheer. More than 1.2 million new voters have joined the state’s rolls in recent years, many of them people of color who tend to favor their party.

And of course, they will try to take advantage of the GOP infighting that has imperiled Gov. Brian Kemp’s standing even if he wins the nomination. Abrams and other Democrats are trying to stay above the fray, for now at least, as they attempt to turn that rift into a gift.

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Raphael Warnock gained a high profile in the nation's politics following his win and that of fellow Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff in the January U.S. Senate runoffs. Now, as he pursues a full six-year term, Warnock is considered the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the Senate. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Raphael Warnock gained a high profile in the nation's politics following his win and that of fellow Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff in the January U.S. Senate runoffs. Now, as he pursues a full six-year term, Warnock is considered the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the Senate. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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Raphael Warnock gained a high profile in the nation's politics following his win and that of fellow Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff in the January U.S. Senate runoffs. Now, as he pursues a full six-year term, Warnock is considered the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the Senate. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Can Raphael Warnock rebuild the coalition that fueled his 2021 win?

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock emerged as a breakout star in national politics last year after he and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff swept the U.S. Senate runoffs to flip control of the chamber.

Now up for a full six-year term, Warnock’s campaign promotes him as the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the Senate in 2022. But, just like Stacey Abrams, he’s not veering from the liberal policies and stances that fueled his political rise.

He’s embraced an expansion of voting rights as his top priority. He supports the roughly $2 trillion social spending plan that’s the centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s agenda. And he was a reliable Democratic vote on every other major issue that surfaced in his first year in office.

Republicans will try to turn that record against him in 2022 to back up their attacks in 2020 that painted him as a “radical socialist.” First, though, they’ll have to slug it out amongst themselves in a primary.

Herschel Walker became the de facto GOP front-runner thanks to his towering name recognition and his tight alliance with former President Donald Trump. Most big-name Republicans were so fearful Walker would move back to Georgia to run that they steered clear.

But despite entering the race in August, the former football star has yet to account for persistent issues that have shadowed his campaign: a history of violence against women, questions about his academic credentials and concerns about his readiness for the job.

Several Republican rivals, led by Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, will try to leverage those vulnerabilities to gain a spot in a runoff with Walker. If their efforts fail, Democrats are poised to bring those issues to the forefront.

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Georgia House Speaker David Ralston will likely be the man in the middle during the upcoming legislative session, acting as a gatekeeper on contentious bills, deciding whether they will die or go forward. Ralston has indicated that he doesn’t want to revisit some topics, such as another debate over abortion or transgender athletes, but he's open to the possibility of letting gun owners carry concealed weapons without a permit. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston will likely be the man in the middle during the upcoming legislative session, acting as a gatekeeper on contentious bills, deciding whether they will die or go forward. Ralston has indicated that he doesn’t want to revisit some topics, such as another debate over abortion or transgender athletes, but he's open to the possibility of letting gun owners carry concealed weapons without a permit.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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Georgia House Speaker David Ralston will likely be the man in the middle during the upcoming legislative session, acting as a gatekeeper on contentious bills, deciding whether they will die or go forward. Ralston has indicated that he doesn’t want to revisit some topics, such as another debate over abortion or transgender athletes, but he's open to the possibility of letting gun owners carry concealed weapons without a permit. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

How brutal will this legislative session get?

A vast expansion of gun rights. New limits on abortion modeled after Texas restrictions. A fresh debate over which books are allowed in public school libraries. New obstacles to voting. And legislation that could allow Buckhead to divorce itself from Atlanta.

Those are just a few of the polarizing issues on the table in 2022 as leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature try to energize the party’s base — and Gov. Brian Kemp looks for different ways to inspire conservatives.

In the middle will be House Speaker David Ralston, who relishes his role as a filter for the most divisive issues, letting some reach votes while relegating others to the Gold Dome’s dustbin.

“I spent a lot of years here trying to protect our brand and enhance the economic development stature of our state,” Ralston said, “and I don’t intend to be caught up in someone else’s campaign and put that in jeopardy.”

Ralston has indicated that he doesn’t want to revisit some topics, such as another debate over abortion or transgender athletes. But he’s open to other contentious measures, such as letting gun owners carry concealed weapons without a permit.

And he hasn’t ruled out allowing legislation to carve out a new city of Buckhead.

Democrats once again face the reality that they can do little to stop a united Republican front in the Legislature. But House Minority Leader James Beverly said Democrats can show they’re the “grown-ups in the room.”

“Everyone tries to find something to scapegoat. Republicans are now just creating cultural problems to blame for day-to-day issues,” he said.

“And that’s avoiding the real intractable problems we’re facing with health care, education and mental illness,” Beverly said. “We’ll be loud and clear on those issues.”

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