Georgia Can’t Be Reduced To One Political Color

ATLANTA — I have a confession to make. My editors tasked me with flying out to Georgia to cover the state’s Senate runoff and asked me to assess what was creating a recent (and seemingly) nonstop cycle of neck-and-neck political contests. But before I even set foot on the plane, I was skeptical that one runoff alone could serve as a crystal ball to predict the state’s political future. Runoffs are their own animal.

Yes, I expected voter fatigue — how many runoffs can one state take? But when I landed in Georgia late last week, the state’s voters didn’t seem especially tired. There was record early voting and that remained high through Election Day: Turnout in the runoff was 89 percent of the November turnout from last month. On top of that, in-person events for both candidates were packed. “There is excitement here because we want to continue pushing policies that a lot of people, especially young people, find important — like climate change, and canceling student debt, and ensuring women’s reproductive rights,” 20-year-old Shruthi Mohana Sundaram, the president of College Democrats at Georgia Tech, told me. 

In the end, Sen. Raphael Warnock prevailed. By a slim margin of roughly 3 percentage points, the incumbent Democrat eked out a win over Republican Herschel Walker in a nail-biter election night. It was another high-profile statewide victory for Democrats, who, during the 2020 election cycle, managed to flip Georgia’s two Senate seats and win its 16 electoral votes for the first time in almost three decades

Georgia is a magnet for political attention because the state has become a microcosm of the nation’s intense political polarization. More than any other state, it has seen the biggest increase in its share of Black Americans 18 years or older, and there’s been substantial Democratic growth in Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs. Mixed into the state, though, are older, rural, Republican voters, and, arguably, all of those residents come together to personify the diversity of both the state and the nation. This melting pot effect has made the state fertile hunting ground for both political parties.

Given Georgia’s surprisingly pivotal role in the 2020 election, political prognosticators (including my colleagues and I) have spent a lot of time assessing what runoff results mean for the broader political environment: Is Georgia now purple (or perhaps — if you’re feeling generous to Democrats — periwinkle)? Or, is it a red state — evidenced by every other statewide Republican, save for Walker, winning their election this fall — that, due to the specifics of the last two elections, happens to have two Democratic senators?

The truth — as it so often does in politics — lies between the two narratives. Runoffs are kooky, and Warnock’s victory tells us as much about the importance of candidate quality, turnout and campaign strength as it does about the state’s political future. The state’s hue is likely to vary depending on who’s running, how much money they have and how energized voters feel. Warnock’s second runoff victory is definitely a sign that the state is getting more competitive. Put plainly: Georgia’s statewide Republicans can’t coast here anymore. But Warnock also had some important factors (like incumbency) working in his favor, and Democrats will need both luck and skill to keep up their winning streak. 

“This process of becoming a competitive state is two steps forward and one step backward,” said former Gov. Roy Barnes, who held the post from 1999 to 2003 and was the last Democrat to lead the state. “And I think that Georgia is on the march toward being a state in which either side can win depending on the quality of the candidate and the financial backing they have to get their message out.”

Georgia voter Selden Deemer shared photos from his rural polling place, where the line for early voting stretched far outside the front door.

I was skeptical about drawing too much of a conclusion about Georgia’s future based on the runoff results, in part because runoffs are really a relic of Georgia’s past. The state law mandating that one candidate surpass the 50 percent vote threshold on the first ballot has racist roots and was created as a means of preserving white political power in a heavily Black state by making it harder for Black candidates to prevail. This effort to suppress the franchise of people of color continued in the lead-up to Tuesday, too: A new state law significantly shortened the runoff campaign period, despite research showing that a shortened early voting window adversely affects voters of color. Moreover, state officials and Republican groups tried to argue that a section of Georgia law prohibited early voting the Saturday after Thanksgiving. (Democrats won a court challenge blocking the effort).

So runoffs already carry a lot of baggage — and for years, Republicans overwhelmingly prevailed when they happened. But Georgia is getting more competitive for Democrats, in part thanks to demographic changes. It’s just not clear how competitive. 

“If you look back through the last few election cycles, Republican governor and presidential nominees normally won with about 51 to 53 percent of the vote. That has pretty much stayed consistent,” said Kaaryn Walker, a GOP consultant in Atlanta and founder of Black Conservatives for Truth. “All that’s to say is that we are a red-purple state, we’re not one of those dark-red states where Republicans are consistently winning by double-digits.”

Three dot plots showing the share of Georgia voters who cast their ballots for Republican and Democrats in the U.S. Senate, governor and presidential elections from 1998-2022.
Three dot plots showing the share of Georgia voters who cast their ballots for Republican and Democrats in the U.S. Senate, governor and presidential elections from 1998-2022.

As the chart above shows, Democrats have made gains in some statewide races over the past few cycles — and Republicans have found it more difficult to win. For most Senate and presidential contests that took place between 1998 and 2016, Republicans easily won their elections — oftentimes by double-digit margins. That changed during the 2020 cycle when President Biden carried Georgia and Warnock and now-Sen. Jon Ossoff narrowly defeated their opponents. This year, Warnock emerged victorious again.

Partisans, including ones I spoke with for this story, will tell you a simplified story about Georgia’s politics, often spinning facts about the state’s political leanings to fit a certain political narrative. But the problem is that two things can be true at once: Georgia is getting more competitive, and it’s also still quite red.

For example: Democrats haven’t narrowed the margins everywhere — especially in governor’s races. Since the 2000s, Republicans have dominated the state’s executive office and have often won those seats by high single-digit margins. That wasn’t the case in 2018, when Republican Brian Kemp eked out a 1-percentage-point win over Democrat Stacey Abrams for the open governor’s seat. But there were other factors at play that year — including the presence of former President Donald Trump in the White House — and this year reverted back to the status quo. Kemp, now an incumbent, sailed to reelection last month, beating Abrams by roughly 7 percentage points. 

Indeed, Walker’s showing on the first ballot and the subsequent runoff was a historic outlier. He was the only statewide Republican to not win outright in November, and on top of that, his vote share was the lowest of any Georgia GOP candidate in a Senate, governor or presidential race since 2000.

A bubble chart showing the number of votes Democrat and Republican candidates got in this year’s statewide races in Georgia’s election. Hershel Walker got the least votes of any Republican candidate at 1.91 million votes and Raphael Warnock got the most votes of any Democratic candidate at 1.95 million votes.
A bubble chart showing the number of votes Democrat and Republican candidates got in this year’s statewide races in Georgia’s election. Hershel Walker got the least votes of any Republican candidate at 1.91 million votes and Raphael Warnock got the most votes of any Democratic candidate at 1.95 million votes.

Walker did have his fans. William P., a 79-year-old retiree who I met at a Walker campaign event at the Governors Gun Club in Kennesaw, Georgia, early Monday evening said he’s followed Walker’s career trajectory since his football days. “If he was running for president, I’d vote for him,” William said. “I mean, why not? He stands out. What he’s saying makes sense. He’s not going to kiss up to anybody.” But that sentiment wasn’t shared among all Republicans. The state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, who did not seek reelection this year, made headlines for saying he didn’t vote for either candidate in this year’s runoff election. He also called Walker “one of the worst candidates” in GOP history.

That particular claim might be hard to prove — but Walker was definitely a flawed candidate. Prior to November, he was beset with numerous controversies, including allegations that he encouraged and/or paid for multiple women to terminate their pregnancies (which Walker denies), despite once campaigning on a platform that included a total ban on abortions. And in the lead-up to Tuesday, CNN reported that Walker is receiving a tax exemption on his home in Texas meant for primary residents of the state, while running for Senate in Georgia.

Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker told Georgians that a vote for him was a vote against President Biden. But his case for himself felt curiously empty.

So one takeaway from this race has nothing to do with the fundamental makeup of Georgia. It’s simply that parties need to avoid nominating problematic candidates. “I think it’s fair to say that both political parties in Georgia are going to see more vetting of candidates for major races going into the future,” said Mark Rountree, the president of Landmark Communications, Inc., a political consulting and polling firm based out of Georgia. “There were a lot of congressmen and other candidates who have already been vetted in previous campaigns, who could’ve run and had fewer issues than Walker.”

And campaigns matter too. Walker had the bad fortune to go up against Warnock, a relatively popular incumbent and a fundraising behemoth. In fact, Warnock had so much money that he was able to spend it reaching out to voters in parts of the state that would normally never even consider voting for a Democrat. Selden Deemer of Lumpkin County, a rare Democratic-leaning independent who cast a ballot for both Warnock and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in the general election, said he received more Warnock mailers than Walker mailers in the lead-up to the runoff. And Lumpkin County, he said, feels very far from the safely blue Democratic enclaves like Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb counties. “A bear ran off with our trash can once, so it’s a very different experience from Atlanta,” he said. A more relevant — but less ursine — difference is that unlike the counties surrounding Atlanta, former President Trump won Lumpkin County by large margins in 2016 and 2020.

And in a state where turnout is the defining factor in close races, Warnock’s message may have been more compelling. I was struck by the differences in how the two candidates interacted with voters: At the Students for Warnock rally, the pastor gave an energizing 25-minute speech in which he ticked off a list of congressional accomplishments that he said would’ve been impossible without the support of young people — including his own election to Congress. “I want you to vote like it’s an emergency,” he said. “Vote like health care depends on it, vote like a women’s right to choose depends on it — because it does.” Walker, meanwhile, let his surrogates do a lot of the talking for him. In fact, his own speech at one of the last stops on his “Evict Warnock Bus Tour” capped at just about 6 minutes. 

Standing in the audience at each event, it was striking to hear the candidates make their pitch. Sure, both men were steadfast about framing a win for them as existential in nature: A vote for Warnock went toward preserving democratic values, while a vote for Walker gave voters a ticket to place checks on Biden. But in a political world in which every election is presented like the end of days are upon us, it did feel like Warnock’s speech was more tailored to his chosen audience, while Walker’s had less heft. The former football star took a common tack, framing the race in national terms: “A vote for my opponent is a vote for Joe Biden and a vote for Chuck Schumer.” But his pitch for himself was curiously empty — a vote for Walker, for example, said nothing about the GOP’s standard bearer, Trump. “A vote for me is a vote for Georgia values,” he said. But he didn’t elaborate on what those values actually were.

All of this left me with the inescapable conclusion that Georgia just can’t be colored with a single political dye — at least not yet. Everyone still wants to answer that pesky question: Is Georgia red? Purple? Indigo? Violet? Periwinkle? The real answer is probably “all of the above.” It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which factors were most responsible for Warnock’s win, but they don’t seem to have been present in any of Georgia’s other statewide races. In short, Warnock’s victory is more proof that Georgia can go blue. But whether it will go blue in the future remains to be seen.

CORRECTION (Dec. 8, 2022, 1:40 p.m.): A chart in a previous version of this story misspelled former Georgia Sen. Zell Miller’s name as “Zen Miller.”

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