Why Georgia’s midterm could set the stakes for 2024

Georgia's top candidates, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams, from left, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker have run distinct campaigns this year, showing with their fellow party contenders.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Georgia's top candidates, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams, from left, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker have run distinct campaigns this year, showing with their fellow party contenders.

Georgia may be one of the nation’s most politically competitive states, but its midterm election doesn’t fit into the national narrative as a referendum of President Joe Biden or former President Donald Trump.

The state’s towering political personalities — each with a profile to rival elite national figures — and Georgia’s burgeoning status as a must-win battleground have elevated already important races that could reshape the next two years of Biden’s administration and set the stage for 2024.

The clash between U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker could determine control of the Senate and the fate of sweeping policies Biden promised after Democrats flipped Georgia in 2020 for the first time in decades and swept dual runoffs that gave the party control of Washington.

And the rematch between Gov. Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams pits two longtime rivals with different visions of state government who are sharply opposed on just about every crucial policy question in Georgia. A victory for Kemp, who is ahead in the polls, could make him one of the nation’s most influential Republican figures.

But the political journeys of both Kemp and Warnock also underscore why Georgia defies convention. Warnock is straining to avoid GOP efforts to turn the race into a vote on Biden, whose low approval ratings amid a wobbly economy have put Democrats on the defensive.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, center, campaigns Tuesday in Savannah with U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, left, a fellow Georgia Democrat. Warnock has spent much of the campaign reaching for voters in the middle. He has talked more during the campaign about partnering on legislation with Republicans such as Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz than working with Democratic President Joe Biden. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

He would seemingly rather talk about his alliance with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican conservative who has campaigned for his opponent, than his work with the Democratic president he helped elect in 2020.

And though Trump’s influence looms large in other battleground states, his role in Georgia is far more muted after the anti-Kemp rebellion he stoked earlier this year went down in flames.

Even Walker, a close ally, rarely invokes the former president on the campaign trail. And Trump has so far declined to rally in Georgia at the urging of senior Republicans who warn he could do more harm than good.

In a sense, both Kemp and Warnock are trying to write the playbook for how top candidates for office in Georgia could win despite headwinds from their party’s most polarizing figures.

The governor isn’t limping into the general election after defeating a Trump-backed challenger in the GOP primary. Instead, he holds a statistically significant lead over Abrams in almost every recent public poll.

And even though he’s the nation’s most vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbent — a label his campaign once trumpeted in fundraising appeals — Warnock remains neck-and-neck with Walker in polls that suggest the race could be extended to a December runoff despite the sour political climate for Democrats.

‘Who’s up? Who’s down? Who cares.’

The us-versus-them attitude that united Democratic and Republican tickets in last year’s Senate runoffs has been replaced this year by four candidates waging distinctly different campaigns with little overlap.

A crucial bloc of voters tends to see them as separate entities, too. Polls show a distinct split-ticket trend, with a large number of likely voters indicating that they’ll support both Kemp and Warnock. If that dynamic holds, it would contradict a long tradition in Georgia of mostly party-line voting at the top of the ballot.

Gov. Brian Kemp, left, and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue debate ahead of the GOP primary in May. Kemp came out of the primary strengthened by a huge victory over Perdue, who had the backing of former President Donald Trump. The governor has held a statistically significant lead over Democrat Stacey Abrams in almost every recent public poll. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Kemp did his job. Even though he was under pressure from Trump, he did his job. He did what was right,” said Donald Baker, a Glynn County handyman who plans to vote for the Republican for governor and mostly Democrats down the rest of the ticket.

Abrams is leaning further to the ideological left in the closing days of the race, bringing up subjects such as the merits of reparations and the need for broader affordable housing policies that even liberal Democrats often avoid in statewide races.

Along with dozens of other policies, including calls to expand Medicaid and roll back abortion restrictions, she’s pledged to wholeheartedly support Biden and welcomed the president to campaign with her in Georgia. When asked whether Biden should run again, she delivers a succinct answer: “Yes.”

While Warnock agrees with Abrams on many top issues — he labels himself a “pro-choice pastor” and echoes her pledge to add more Georgians to the Medicaid rolls — he’s eager to appeal to the moderate slice of the electorate who harbor concerns about Walker.

He’s peppered the airwaves with ads highlighting his opposition to a White House plan to shutter a military installation in coastal Georgia, and he boasts to crowds about badgering the president to back more expansive student debt relief. As for Biden’s future, Warnock says the premise of the question is flawed.

“The problem with the political conversation in America right now is that the politics have actually become about the politician. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s in? Who’s out?” he said at a Savannah stop, feigning exasperation. “Who cares? I don’t think that the people of Georgia are thinking about that.”

‘Nice guy’ no more

Likewise, the top Republicans also have different strategies that resist simple packaging.

After prevailing in one of the closest races for governor in state history, Kemp wants a clear mandate for a second term. Breaking from the rural-centric strategy he followed in 2018, Kemp has devoted resources to winning Black and suburban voters — and he’ll campaign with other GOP figures who represent a break from Trump.

Walker, by contrast, is still trying to win over core Republican voters. That’s why he spends his time on the campaign trail highlighting transgender sports policies, immigration and other red-meat issues that GOP candidates typically deemphasize after they win the party primary.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker, right, has been trying to shore up his support among the state's conservative core Republicans. This past week, he concentrated his efforts on North Georgia, campaigning with U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, a far-right firebrand who other state Republicans have avoided. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

The former football star leaned into that approach on Monday when he campaigned with U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right firebrand who other state Republicans have avoided. After she urged Republicans not to “sit out the fight,” supporters who packed a downtown Rome event gushed about their alliance.

“They are patriots,” said Gene Lamneck, a local GOP voter, “and they believe in the rights of the Constitution for people to govern themselves.”

To skeptical Republicans, Walker and his allies say a vote for the former football star is a vote against Biden. At a Friday stop in Statesboro, evangelical leader Ralph Reed said the GOP is poised to end “his presidency early.” Rich McCormick, the GOP nominee for a suburban U.S. House seat, made the same argument in Cumming.

“The one thing that matters to me when it comes to our next U.S. senator here in Georgia is that he votes right,” McCormick said. “Herschel Walker will vote right.”

The tone of the races has grown sharper, too. The governor’s race has always been a grudge match between two candidates who detest each other. But the Senate race has also developed a poisonous edge.

Republicans once cast Warnock as a “nice guy” whose voting record was bad for Georgia. Now Walker calls him a “Marxist” liar who equates with a video game character that wrecks everything he touches. “I’m running against a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Walker likes to say.

Warnock has swung right back, amplifying news coverage of Walker’s violent history, his pattern of lies and exaggerations, and most recently the accusation of a second woman who claimed the Republican pressured her to get an abortion.

“At the end of the day, an election is about a choice. And Georgians deserve to know the stark difference between me and my opponent,” Warnock said. “We will continue to make the case about the difference because the difference has consequences.”

Staff writer Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this article.


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