Georgia voters might not hold the power this time around to dramatically flip control of the federal government, but even so, the once reliably red state will stay at the center of national politics this year.
It was just a little more than a year ago when a record five million Georgians turned out to vote and helped put President Joe Biden in the White House – narrowly choosing a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in three decades.
And a good many of them – and more Black voters and fewer Republicans – came back to the polls a couple months later to send a pair of Democrats to represent them in the Senate. The upset wins unexpectedly handed Democrats tenuous control of all three branches of government and set a new spending record for Senate elections.
The stakes are not quite that high for this year’s midterm elections, but the national implications are still there. Many candidates have already announced their campaigns, but their candidacy will become official early next month when qualifying begins.
For one, there is a Trump-endorsed candidate in four statewide races, with even the sitting governor facing a rare intra-party challenge after refusing to overturn President Joe Biden’s slim victory in Georgia. The GOP primaries on May 24 will test former President Donald Trump’s hold on the Republican party.
About 31% of likely Georgia Republicans said they did not know Trump endorsed former U.S. Sen. David Perdue when asked earlier this month, according to a poll from the Trafalgar Group that showed Gov. Brian Kemp with 49% support to Perdue’s 39.5%. Other polls also show Kemp with the edge.
A Trump rally or two in Georgia, though, could make a difference. It would at least shrink the number of people who say they do not know who Trump’s preferred candidate is to lead the state.
“If Kemp wins, it’s a kind of a chink in the armor of the Trump endorsement. It’s a chink in the armor of his control over the party,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist in Georgia. “If Perdue wins, by May this year we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Trump’s grip on the party is strong as steel.”
Robinson, who predicts a close race, said he is also watching to see whether pro-Trump super PACs come to Perdue’s rescue to help close the widening fundraising gap between Kemp and Perdue, who has centered his campaign on Trump.
The former president has also endorsed former University of Georgia star running back Herschel Walker for U.S. Senate, state Sen. Burt Jones for lieutenant governor and Congressman Jody Hice for Secretary of State.
At the top of the ballot, whoever wins the GOP primary will go on to face Democrats U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is the state’s first Black senator, and former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who has only burnished her national star power since losing to Kemp by about 55,000 votes in 2018.
This year’s elections will also feature other quirks that will keep Georgia at the center of the national politics.
If the state’s new district maps survive multiple court challenges, the new congressional boundaries increase the likelihood of Republicans gaining one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia as the GOP attempts to wrest away control of Congress.
And this is also the first major election since Georgia Republicans passed controversial voting rules in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, which critics argued were designed to dull minority political influence in an increasingly diverse state where the GOP’s margin of victory has steadily shrunk over the years. Last year’s municipal elections were seen as a test run of the new state law.
Two years ago, Democratic Congresswomen Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux were rare bright spots for House Democrats, who otherwise had a dismal showing in the 2020 congressional elections. McBath held onto her seat with a solid win over former Congresswoman Karen Handel in her purple-ish district, and Bourdeaux managed to flip her district after former Republican Congressman Rob Woodall did not seek re-election.
But this year, one of the two suburban Atlanta Democrats will be defeated before the first ballots are cast in the November 2022 election, thanks to a congressional map drawn by state Republicans in last year’s redistricting process likely to shift Republicans’ congressional majority in Georgia from 8-6 to 9-5.
McBath’s 6th District, including portions of Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties north of Atlanta, was redrawn to stretch into more Republican-leaning Forsyth, Cherokee and Dawson counties.
Bourdeaux’s 7th District, farther to the east and comprising chunks of Forsyth and Gwinnett counties, sheds some of its more conservative Forsyth precincts, creating a safer Democratic seat.
Just as the Georgia House had finished debating the map, which passed on party lines, McBath announced she would seek re-election in Bourdeaux’s district, arguing that while Bourdeaux has represented parts of the new 7th District, she did not live there under the updated map. Georgia members of Congress are not required to live in the districts they represent, though most do.
Bourdeaux may have the home field advantage, but McBath has plenty of advantages of her own, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.
“I suspect she probably has better overall name recognition, she’s been in office two years longer than Bourdeaux, and then she has a particularly compelling story, so it will probably be a tight race,” he said.
McBath began speaking out on gun safety after her son, Jordan Davis, was murdered in what would become known as the loud music case.
“I suspect McBath will also probably find it easier to raise money now, it always becomes easier once you’re an incumbent as opposed to being a challenger,” he said. “At least in the past, McBath’s strong position on gun regulation has been a very effective magnet for drawing money. Former New York Mayor (Michael) Bloomberg has contributed generously to a previous campaign, and he probably will do so again.”
Bourdeaux has called on McBath to reject campaign funds from Protect Our Future, a super PAC she said has “a record of making it easy for criminals to launder money and commit fraud and links to the Trump Administration.” But for the most part, both campaigns have avoided the type of personal attacks the GOP gubernatorial candidates have leveled.
Georgia Democrats are also looking toward southwest Georgia, where long-time Democratic Congressman Sanford Bishop’s District 2 is set to lose some of its Black, Democratic-leaning voters. The Black voting age population is set to decrease from 49.5% to 45.8%
That’s far from the immediate threat facing Democrats in the 6th District, Bullock said, and Bishop has won in his district while it was majority white years ago. But should the 75-year-old congressman decide to retire, Republicans will likely see the open seat as a major target.
And because the 2nd District was the most underpopulated in the state going into redistricting, Bishop will have plenty of new voters to introduce himself to. Bishop created a campaign Twitter account last month.
In the state Legislature, Republicans have drawn themselves into slightly safer districts, especially in competitive metro Atlanta, where they hope they can hold out for the next decade.
State Sen. Michelle Au, the state’s only Asian-American female senator, appears to be at the most risk from the redrawn lines, with her Johns Creek district set to change from 36.8% white and 59.2% Democratic to 50.9% white and 51.6% Republican.
Other Democrats are seeing smaller shifts, and at least one Republican seems likely to lose his seat. Sharpsburg Rep. Philip Singleton, whose hardline conservative beliefs have put him at odds with members of his party like House Speaker David Ralston, is set to watch his district go from 72.4% Trump voters to 66.6% Biden voters.
The bitter battle over boundaries has also seeped into the once-routine redrawing of local district lines. In counties including Cobb, Gwinnett and Richmond, Republicans are overriding maps approved by the majority-Democratic local delegations and replacing them with maps that are friendlier to Republicans for county commissions and school boards.
Democrats call the effort an attempt to defy the will of minority voters.
In one tense exchange, House Governmental Affairs Committee Chair Darlene Taylor, a Thomasville Republican, called security on House Minority Whip David Wilkerson, a Powder Springs Democrat, after Wilkerson expressed disgust with the plans at a committee meeting.
“You very rarely hear me mention race, but today, let me be very clear. This is about making sure people of color stay in their place and do not have a seat at the table,” Wilkerson said at a Capitol press conference.
Whether or not Georgia’s electoral maps disempower minority voters will soon be tested in court. U.S. District Judge Steve Jones is set to decide on whether the maps deserve to be thrown out or remain in place.
The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed for partisan redistricting, but drawing maps on the basis of race violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Earlier this month, the high court ruled in favor of an Alabama map a lower court said harmed Black voting power, which could indicate justices are becoming less receptive to race-based redistricting complaints.
“There is a huge question mark over these maps,” Bullock said. “The hearing before Judge Steve Jones might conceivably result in those maps being thrown out and new maps having to be drawn, and the maps that would be redrawn would probably be more favorable to Democrats. If Jones puts that on hold, or the appellate court does, there might not be a decision until after the election. As we’ve seen in Georgia often happen, districts don’t last for a decade because the courts invalidate them.”
Demographic shifts, voting overhaul
The state’s demographic changes have favored Democrats with a population boom during the last decade driven largely by a younger voting bloc around metro Atlanta and more minorities calling Georgia home, with a 13% increase in the Black population, 32% for Hispanics and a 53% more Asian residents.
Those shifting demographics played a role in a statewide electorate reaching a record 7.6 million registered voters for the 2020 presidential election, up from slightly under 7 million when Kemp defeated Abrams nearly four years ago.
Since 2018, Georgia’s number of registered voters has increased to 7.8 million residents on its voter rolls with active voters accounting for 6.9 million of them. Overall, those voting demographics break down like this: 3.7 million white voters, 2 million Black voters and a combined total of about 450,000 Hispanic and Asian active voters.
Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political science expert, says the same population shift caused primarily by migration will likely take a series of elections to see the full transformation to a majority Democratic state.
“There are things that are going on in terms of national politics that have an impact as well, so 2022 being a midterm election year, Biden not being very popular, people are upset about inflation, we could see Republicans and make some more of a comeback,” he said.
Georgia’s voting law overhaul will also face its first major test this year with millions of residents set to choose their preferred candidate for governor, U.S. Senate, Congress, the state Legislature and on down to local seats.
Republicans passed the controversial Senate Bill 202 last March that has been criticized by Democrats and civil rights groups as voter suppression attempts targeting Black voters and other marginalized groups ahead of the 2020 general election.
Eight pending federal lawsuits – including one by the U.S. Department of Justice – claims that Georgia’s law discriminates by requiring a state ID for absentee voting, preventing provisional ballots from being cast in the wrong precinct before 5 p.m., limiting absentee drop boxes, and other restrictions. The ongoing legal battle over the new law will likely go on for years.
Republicans tout the law instead for expanding weekend voting, requiring more notice to voters when polling places are changed, and replacing subjective absentee signature verification with a government-issued ID number.
In addition to removing the secretary of state from serving as chairman of the State Election Board, the measure gave the board authority to temporarily remove a local election board based on a performance review.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who has frequently defended the integrity of the state’s elections against overwhelmingly disproven claims of fraud in 2020, has also been outspokenly supportive of the majority of the new election rules.
Raffensperger, Kemp and other Republicans have said that the minimal problems during November’s elections in Atlanta and other cities show how ridiculous the claims are that the law would disenfranchise voters are.
“It’s so easy to vote in Georgia that we’ve had record registration, record turnout and yet we somehow have been picked on by President Biden,” Raffensperger said at an Atlanta Press Club event this month. “We’re big people, we can fight back, we push back from political biases with things that just are supported by the facts.”
Yet, there are some early signs that the rule changes are resulting in a higher rejection rate for absentee ballot requests from 1% in 2020 to 4%, with the most common reasons due to a shortened deadline to request the ballots and not properly following the new ID requirement.
That higher rejection rate would disproportionately harm Black voters who turned in more than half the absentee ballots in 2020, according to Abrams-founded Fair Fight Action.
Absentee voting was one of the cornerstones of Abrams’ 2018 campaign and in 2020 a record 1.3 million Georgians chose to vote absentee in the Nov. 3 general election, as the pandemic changed how people cast ballots.
While SB 202 mandated for the first time that each of Georgia’s 159 counties provide at least one absentee drop box, it also restricted access to inside a polling place during business hours and limited their number based on how many registered voters live in the county.
The rule means dozens of counties, mostly in rural Georgia, will now have a drop box set up throughout early voting, but also means Democratic stronghold Fulton County will go from 38 boxes in 2020 to eight this year spread across its more than 70-mile length.
With only 12,000 votes separating Biden and Trump in 2020 and a gap of 55,000 giving Kemp the victory over Abrams in 2018, even rules that might curtail thousands of votes could be costly to candidates.
“It’s going to be important now for the candidates and parties to make sure that voters are educated about what’s required,” Abramowitz said. “I think a lot of these changes that were part of that bill, in the end, are not really going to have that much effect on turnout, just as we saw in the past when the state enacted that voter ID law.”
“There is reason to be concerned with when elections are very close because even small differences in turnout or rejection rates could make a difference,” Abramowitz added.
There is also the potential, though, for new election-related changes with the legislative session underway now through early April. One proposal would eliminate drop boxes entirely, while another calls for ending the no-excuse absentee system that’s been in place since 2005.
Republican Sen. Burt Jones’ bill includes the same plan to get rid of drop boxes as that of Sen. Butch Miller, his Republican opponent for lieutenant governor, but would deal a much greater blow to absentee voting by no longer allowing all voters to vote-by-mail for any reason.
Will voters show up again?
Organizers also saw last year’s local elections as a chance to adapt their get-out-the-vote strategies under the new law.
Fenika Miller, state coordinator for Black Voters Matter, a nonpartisan voter advocacy group, says there is significant anxiety surrounding the changes under the law, including a photo ID requirement for absentee voting and changes for how to request an absentee ballot.
Miller said her organization will continue to focus on early voting and educating the public on the changes resulting from redistricting and the state’s election law.
“We start earlier, and we go harder,” she said. “We’ve seen these tactics and these strategies before. They’re nothing new. When our ancestors were asked to count the bubbles on bars of soap, we went and bought bars and soap and ran water over and learn how to count bubbles.”
But Miller says one thing she isn’t worried about is voter fatigue, which she dismisses as a national talking point. She pointed to several local races across the state last year where voters put Black candidates in office, such as in Brunswick, Warner Robins and Cairo.
Miller says the answer to sustaining voter engagement is to stick to “hyper local” issues and races, right down to who sits on the local boards governing school districts and water authorities.
“This is our time where we have to really lean into our power – we’re not abdicating it to anyone – and build power from the ground up and not the top down,” she said.
Still, she said she thinks this election cycle will be “2020 on steroids” when it comes to the national attention that will be at least partly due to having both Warnock and Abrams, who could become the first Black woman governor in America, on the ballot.
There is usually a drop-off in turnout – especially among Democratic voters – from a presidential election to a midterm. But Bullock, the UGA professor, said he does not expect much of a dip this year, noting there was only a slight decline in turnout last time Abrams was on the ballot.
But the extent of voter turnout in either column may hinge on how often Trump visits the Peach State this year, Bullock said.
“The more that Trump campaigns in Georgia, that may have the perverse result of motivating Democrats more than Republicans to go to the polls, and certainly we saw that in January of 2021,” he said.
“Especially if Trump continues as he has been doing in other locations, where he’s been going to replay that 2020 election, to claim that in Georgia, it was stolen from him, the Georgia election system is rigged, it’s unreliable, if he keeps reiterating those messages,” he said. “It isn’t going to change the outcome of the 2020 election, but it may have the same effect as the January 2021 election, which would be to discourage some share of Republicans to go and vote.”
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