ATLANTA – Fresh off Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock’s runoff victory, Georgia Democrats are embracing — and Republicans are reluctantly accepting — the state’s transition from GOP stronghold to a premier battleground as the political calendar turns to the 2024 presidential cycle.
Democrats and Republicans alike are parsing their victories and defeats after an extended midterm campaign season that ended with Tuesday’s runoff election. Warnock's win came a month after Gov. Brian Kemp led the GOP’s general election sweep of Georgia's statewide constitutional offices.
“You win some and you lose some, and then the odds for the next round are basically a coin flip,” said Democrat Charlie Bailey, who celebrated Warnock's defeat of Republican challenger Herschel Walker after losing his own bid for lieutenant governor in November.
“That’s what it looks like to be a battleground,” Bailey said.
Looking ahead to 2024, Democrats want to leverage their recent success in the state, which includes President Joe Biden's win in 2020 and twin Senate runoff victories in 2021 that gave the party control of the Senate. The Democrats are eyeing a move up into the party’s presidential nominating process in 2024, as Biden has recommended, and Atlanta already is a finalist for the 2024 Democratic National Convention.
“We're just getting started,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, chair of the state Democratic Party. “We are not a blue state or a red state. We are reflective of the country, and we are not leaving the spotlight anytime soon.”
Republicans insist they maintain the overall upper hand in Georgia, if only they could smooth out internal party rifts and nominate candidates without the kind of personal baggage that weighed on Walker.
Looming above it all is a potential rematch between Biden and former President Donald Trump in 2024. Biden won the state by just 11,779 votes in 2020, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate in three decades to carry Georgia.
The dynamics put Georgia alongside Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania as the most likely determining states in the 2024 general election — with the added possibility that Georgia could become a pivotal presidential nominating ground for one or both parties, as well. Among those closely divided states, Georgia stands out with its racial and ethnic diversity spread across urban, rural and suburban populations, including a massive metro area in Atlanta that is a fundraising font for both parties.
If the recent run of close elections offers a mutual lesson, it’s one rooted in basic political math: Kemp and Warnock — and Biden in 2020 — turned out their parties' base voters while connecting with enough of those in the middle. Walker and Trump, meanwhile, struggled mightily with independents and even moderate Republicans.
Yet there’s still no agreement on how best to reach the middle, especially when Trump is involved.
Kemp took a swipe at Trump, who endorsed a primary challenger to the governor, in his Nov. 8 victory speech, lumping in “a former president” with a litany of his critics. “This election proves that when Republicans stay focused on real-world solutions that put hardworking people first, we can win now, but also in the future, y’all,” Kemp said.
Dan McLagan, a veteran Republican campaign leader, argues Georgia isn't truly a tossup state — or, at least, it shouldn't be.
“We only lose when we nominate the worst possible candidate,” McLagan said, alluding to Walker, a former University of Georgia football star who later played in the NFL.
Walker’s shortcomings included repeated lies about his biography, allegations of violence against his ex-wife and at least one son, and accusations that he paid for the abortions of two ex-girlfriends.
Walker denied he paid for abortions, but tea party organizer Debbie Dooley said she heard from “too many Republicans worried about whether it was true." She noted that Warnock outraised Walker by about 3-to-1 and used that money to produce ads that “made him more likable than Herschel.”
Dooley insisted that Trump-aligned candidates, and Trump himself, can win at the top of the ticket in Georgia. She pointed to runoff turnout in overwhelmingly Republican north Georgia, where Walker’s margins improved from the general election. Trump won the state in 2016.
Republican officials largely acknowledge they’ve been helping Democrats in the Trump era by nominating candidates whom moderate voters see as extreme.
“Republicans, we’ve been hit in the head with a two-by-four four times over the last two years,” said Cody Hall, a top Kemp adviser. “We’ve lost three Senate races and a presidential, and at some point, we have to wonder why we keep hitting ourselves in the head with a two-by-four.”
Warnock was more than happy to accept the circumstances by framing his contest as a binary choice between candidates, rather than part of the national struggle to control Washington.
“Sen. Warnock ran a base-plus-plus strategy,” said Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson, noting that Warnock distanced himself from Biden and tagged Walker as unfit for office.
But even independent of Walker’s troubles, Warnock campaign manager Quentin Fulks said the senator deserved credit for emphasizing his work in the Senate and his personal qualities as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Winning twice in two years, against two different candidates, means Warnock did more than just get lucky in drawing Walker, Fulks said.
In the closing weeks, Fulks said, “We kept the race focused on ’the reverend versus the running back,” but that was possible only because Warnock established himself as a senator who’d worked with Republicans and was willing to communicate directly to Republican-leaning voters.
Johnson and Fulks both avoided directly criticizing Democrat Stacey Abrams, who lost to Kemp in November by almost 8 points, much worse than her 1.5 point loss to him in 2018. But Johnson said the results show Abrams wasn’t as effective in reaching the middle.
Some campaigns facing a candidate like Walker in a state like Georgia, Fulks said, would try to “run as far left as we can,” but “we did not do that.”
With their victories, Kemp and Warnock remain the highest-ranking, highest-profile members of their respective parties in their state, and that means Republicans and Democrats in Georgia will have power centers who embrace the state’s battleground status and what it requires to win.
Kemp already has opened a federal political action committee account to leverage his higher profile and help the GOP compete with the voter turnout network that Abrams helped build for Democrats over the past decade.
“Our donors have to realize that if we would like to stay in charge, we’re going to have to start investing year-round, consistently and generously, like the Democrats do,” Hall said. “We cannot continue to take a knife to a gun fight.”
Fulks said Warnock, after spending two-plus years running for office, now has the space not just to be a full-term senator but also to take on a different political role: “He’s now the leader of the Democratic Party in Georgia.”