Democrats look to defy political headwinds in Georgia

Democrats are bracing for an uphill battle in Georgia, where crucial top-of-the-ticket races are slated to test the resiliency of the coalition and organizing efforts that powered Democratic victories in the state less than two years ago.

With Stacey Abrams running unchallenged for the Democratic nomination for governor and Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) facing only nominal opposition in Tuesday’s primary, the party is already turning its focus to the November general elections. 

But unlike in recent years, when Democrats made steep gains powered by aggressive voter mobilization efforts and opposition to former President Trump, they’re facing a much bleaker political environment in 2022, one that threatens to undercut the party’s hopes of strengthening its foothold in Georgia.

“I think the thing that’s really unfortunate, but that we’re still going to have to live with, is that everything is nationalized right now,” one Democratic strategist said. “Democrats have done a really good job putting in the work in Georgia and it’s paid off and it can pay off again. But I think we also need to be realistic about what we’re up against.”

Abrams, a former state Senate minority leader who was once considered a possible running mate for President Biden, came within 55,000 votes of defeating Gov. Brian Kemp in 2018, while Warnock successfully ousted former Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) in one of two runoff elections in Georgia last year that helped Democrats recapture the Senate majority.

Warnock’s win, as well as that of Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), who defeated former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) in a simultaneous runoff election, came on the heels of Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. 

This year, however, Abrams and Warnock are at risk of being swept up by the brutal political headwinds that threaten Democrats nationally. 

Biden’s approval rating is deep underwater; a poll from The Associated Press/NORC released on Friday found that only 39 percent of U.S. adults approve of his job performance. At the same time, Americans are consumed by anxiety over rising inflation, skyrocketing gas prices and a spike in crime.

Then there’s the historical reality that the party in power almost always loses ground in Congress in midterm elections.

“You have to have good candidates, you have to have a good amount of money and you have to have a good environment,” said Jay Williams, a Georgia-based Republican strategist. “They might have two of those, but the last one — well, I don’t see any type of momentum for Democrats right now, especially after the last couple years.”

Georgia is slated to hold its primaries on Tuesday, though the general election is already taking shape. Kemp appears poised to defeat Perdue in the race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination despite Trump’s efforts to dispatch him in the primary, setting him up for a likely rematch against Abrams in November.

Likewise, former NFL player Herschel Walker, whom Trump has also endorsed, is the heavy favorite to win the Republican Senate nod. 

In anticipation of that match-up, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has already booked $7 million in fall ad reservations in an effort to defend Warnock, while its GOP counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), has taken out $9.5 million in ad reservations in the state.

Georgia Democrats, meanwhile, are already eyeing Kemp as their main target in the governor’s race and are planning a three-pronged plan of attack that seizes on his signing of a so-called constitutional carry law allowing residents to carry firearms without a permit, his refusal to expand Medicaid and his efforts to restrict abortion access in Georgia.

On Friday, the Georgia Democratic Party unveiled a new ad accusing Kemp of lifting COVID-19 related restrictions too quickly and “making it easier for criminals to carry handguns – just to pander to the far right.”

Democrats also argue that, if Kemp wins the nomination, he could struggle to galvanize the support of Trump loyalists, potentially jeopardizing his chances of winning a second term in November.

“Even if Kemp survives and doesn’t have a runoff, he’s going to have lasting damage from this primary, particularly on Trump’s attacks, and I think he will really struggle trying to consolidate Republican voters,” a Democratic official said.

Abrams, in particular, has sought to make reproductive rights a central theme of her campaign. After the leak of a draft ruling indicating that the Supreme Court may be poised to overturn Roe v. Wade earlier this month, Abrams pivoted away from raising money for her campaign and instead began soliciting donations for a handful of abortion rights groups in Georgia.

She has also vowed to veto any attempt to ban abortions in Georgia if she is elected governor in November.

But unlike the last time Abrams and Warnock were on the ballot, Democrats will be missing a key foil: Trump. While the former president has remained an active force in Republican politics since leaving office early last year, there are questions about just how effective a campaign tool he will remain for Democrats now that they control the levers of power in Washington.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we have to be able to generate our own excitement without Trump being on the ballot,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist close to people in Abrams’s orbit. “I think no doubt that the former president gave people a reason to vote against something and at the same time vote for us. This time around, we have to give them a reason to vote for us and with us at the same time.”

Williams, the Republican strategist, said that it may be particularly difficult for Democrats to tie Kemp to Trump. A one-time ally of the former president, Kemp became one of Trump’s top midterm targets after he rebuffed his efforts to overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.

“In Kemp’s case, you can’t even hang Trump around him because he’s public enemy No. 1 to Trump,” Williams said. “All of the typical tools they would have available to them aren’t available to them in this race.”

The deciding factor in Georgia, according to strategists on both sides of the aisle, will be each party’s ability to turn out their voter bases. 

The state has already seen record early-voting turnout. As of Thursday, more than 710,000 Georgians had cast ballots in the primary elections, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office. At the same point in 2020, that number sat at just over 263,000. 

Early Republican turnout has so far outpaced that of Democrats, though Democrats have fewer competitive primaries on Tuesday’s ballot. 

Still, Democrats are aware of the hurdles they’re facing this year. Early polling in the match-up between Abrams and Kemp shows the GOP incumbent leading in the race. An April survey from The Hill and Emerson College found Kemp with a 5-point advantage over Abrams. 

The same poll found Warnock trailing Walker by 4 percentage points. 

For Democrats, the stakes of the midterm elections in Georgia are perhaps just as symbolic as they are practical. While Republicans need a net gain of just one seat in the Senate to recapture control of the upper chamber, the once-red state also stands as a success story for Democrats, many of whom see it as their most pivotal win in 2020.

“If it had not been for Georgia, I don’t think the tectonic plates in this country would have shifted the way they had,” Seawright said. “All the things we’ve been able to do in this country are a result of Georgia.”