As Stacey Abrams enters governor’s race, Georgia becomes a key 2022 battleground

By and and Vanessa Williams,

Brynn Anderson AP

Stacey Abrams speaks to Biden supporters at a campaign rally for Biden at Turner Field in Atlanta last year.

When Democrat Stacey Abrams entered Georgia governor’s race last week, she cemented the state’s position as a key battleground, where contentious issues like race, voting rights and the continued influence of former president Donald Trump will probably dominate the campaign.

Abrams, who narrowly lost the Georgia’s governor race in 2018, could face a rematch against current Gov. Brian Kemp (R) if he is renominated despite his frosty relationship with Trump.

Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) is also fighting to hang onto the seat he won 11 months ago in a special election, becoming Georgia’s first Black senator. And a handful of other competitive congressional and state races could reshape politics in Georgia and control of Washington.

Taken together, these high-profile 2022 races will offer the third recent test of whether Democrats’ dominance among Black and Hispanic voters can blunt Trump-era Republican gains with rural White voters in this state. The results could offer the best indication of whether Democrats can have lasting success in the state.

“We will be at the center of the political universe again,” said M.V. Trey Hood, a professor of political science and director of the Survey Research Center at the University of Georgia. “Stacey Abrams will be able to motivate a substantial number of voters, especially minorities, to the polls, so I am looking at turnout again being very high here.”

Abrams, who is Black, registered tens of thousands of first-time voters in 2018. But she lost to Kemp by 55,000 votes — about 1.4 percentage points — after a tough campaign that included charges that Republicans failed to count thousands of ballots.

After her loss, Abrams, 47, launched Fair Fight Action with a goal of pushing back against restrictive voting laws that Republicans have passed at a frenetic pace in recent years. She continued to organize in Georgia, along with several other Democratic groups. Two years later, President Biden became the first Democrat in nearly 30 years to carry Georgia. A few months later, both Warnock and Democrat Jon Ossoff (D) narrowly won their Senate races, handing Democrats control of Congress.

Those Democratic victories, anchored in high turnout among Black residents and growing Democratic strength in Atlanta’s vote-rich suburbs, were widely viewed as a sign that the state is trending away from the GOP as it grows wealthier and more diverse.

But as Abrams begins her campaign, considerable questions remain about whether she can replicate her success in 2022, which even Democrats admit could be a tough year for their party.

Republicans performed well in battleground states across the country in November. Glenn Youngkin, for example, scored a close gubernatorial victory in Virginia, another state where Black voters and suburbanites form the backbone of the Democratic Party. Youngkin’s victory was all the more surprising since Biden carried the state by nearly 10 percentage points last year.

And the Republican Party says it has learned some lessons from its 2020 defeat in Georgia, and that it can do a better job of attracting voters of color in 2022. The front-runner for GOP nomination against Warnock, for example, is former NFL player Herschel Walker, who is Black and a close Trump ally.

‘A very competitive race’

Lauren Groh-Wargo, who is Abrams’s campaign manager, said she expects a “very competitive race,” but believes Abrams will have the advantage in a state that has added nearly 1.3 million registered voters since 2018, nearly half of whom are voters of color.

“The state is just continuing to grow, and the voter registration is continuing to grow in ways that should be favorable to the incumbent Sen. Warnock and Stacey Abrams and everybody down ballot,” Groh-Wargo said.

Abrams is also more well-known than she was in 2018, Groh-Wargo said. And unlike in 2018, when Kemp was secretary of state, Groh-Wargo said, Abrams will be able to challenge the governor on his record in office.

“We’re going up against an incumbent governor who’s had a failed response to a global pandemic that has whipsawed our state in terms of the infection rates of children, the death rates, the vaccination rates, hospital closures and economic inequality, racial inequality,” Groh-Wargo said. “By every single metric, he has failed the state.”

In a statement, the Kemp campaign previewed its strategy, saying it was “in the fight” against Abrams and her “woke allies.” The campaign also said it would focus on Kemp’s vision for “how to keep Georgia the best place to live, work, and raise a family.”

But Kemp, 58, also faces a challenge from within his party.

Robert Cahaly, a Republican pollster who heads the Atlanta-based Trafalgar Group, said Kemp could have trouble securing the Republican nomination.

After Kemp refused to support Trump’s false claim that Biden’s 2020 Georgia win was fraudulent, the former president has become a vocal critic of the governor and has been urging other Republicans to challenge him in the state’s May primary.

One Trump ally, former state representative Vernon Jones, has already entered the race. But the president continues to nudge other, more high-profile Republicans to compete as well. Former senator David Perdue (R-Ga.), who lost to Ossoff, is reportedly considering a run.

“The MAGA base will just not vote for [Kemp] after what he did with respect to election integrity,” Trump said in a statement Wednesday in response to Abrams’s announcement.

Cahaly said he thinks Trump’s efforts to torpedo Kemp could be successful in denying him the GOP nomination. And even if Kemp does prevail during the primary, Cahaly thinks 3 to 7 percent of Republican voters would refuse to support him in the general election, leading to an Abrams victory.

“The problem for Kemp is there is a segment of the Republican who are still very upset with him, rightly or wrongly, and they are not forgiving,” Cahaly said. “I don’t think he can turn out Republican voters at full strength.”

But Republicans allied with Kemp’s campaign dismiss suggestions that the governor is vulnerable in the GOP primary.

GOP officials noted that Kemp in 2019 signed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, which essentially bans abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy. A federal judge has blocked the legislation from taking effect, pending ongoing Supreme Court deliberations over the future of Roe vs. Wade
.

The governor also signed legislation that bans local governments from cutting police funding. And Kemp’s campaign believes he will find success running on his economic record, including his decision to keep Georgia businesses relatively open and free of restrictions during the pandemic. Georgia’s unemployment rate stands at 3.1 percent, more than a percentage point lower than the national rate.

“The governor has been where a lot of Republican voters are on these issues, and he has been leading the fight,” said Tate Mitchell, a spokesman for the Kemp campaign. “We have no reason to expect that the Republican ticket won’t be unified coming out of the primary.”

Republicans also believe that the GOP has halted, at least for now, Democrats’ gains in Atlanta’s suburbs.

They note that Republicans have won several contested races in suburban Atlanta this year, including keeping a state legislative seat in Cobb County in a district that Biden carried last year.

“We have a lot of stories to tell on the economic front, and a long list of accomplishments for conservative and middle-of-the-road folks, including fighting crime and standing with law enforcement,” Mitchell said, noting that crime and gun violence continues to dominate the headlines in the Atlanta media market.

‘Demographics are not complete destiny’

Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, which Abrams started in 2013 to educate and register voters of color, said Abrams and her allies realize the campaign ahead won’t be easy.

“The battle for the future of Georgia will be a bare-knuckle brawl,” Ufot said.

Hood, the pollster from the University of Georgia, has a couple of ideas why.

Although Georgia continues to diversify, Hood is skeptical that Abrams will be able to broaden the electorate more than she already has.

And he said the recent Atlanta mayor’s race, which fewer than 3 out of 10 registered voters participated in, shows some Democrats are experiencing election “fatigue.” Hood said Democrats will also have to maintain high levels of support among Hispanic voters, who shifted to the right in Texas and Florida last year.

“The state has been changing for quite some time demographically, but demographics are not complete destiny,” Hood said. “There have to be a lot of assumptions to be true, for that hypothesis to pan out.”

According to an analysis of Georgia voter registration records by The Washington Post, the Georgia electorate is now only slightly more diverse than it was in 2018, highlighting the challenge facing Democrats.

White voters make up 53 percent of Georgia’s active registered voters, down from 53.4 percent in 2018. The portion of registered voters who are Black also dipped slightly, from 30.3 percent in 2018 to 29.5 percent this month.

The percentage of Hispanic and Asian American voters has grown, to 3.7 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively.

Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, said GOP strategists are already working to make Georgia — along with North Carolina and Pennsylvania — the focus of Republicans’ nationwide push to peel non-White voters away from Democrats.

“We’re going to make a very, very aggressive and ambitious push to make further inroads into communities of color, particularly among Latinos and African Americans,” Reed said.

But Hood said Republicans could have challenges too.

The party will have to work hard to turn out voters in rural north Georgia, which could be complicated by Kemp’s uneasy relationship with Trump.

After Trump lost the presidency, Hood noted some of those voters did not vote in the Senate runoffs, which helped propel Warnock and Ossoff to victory.

“A majority of Republicans in this state still believe the 2020 election was won by fraud,” said Hood, who conducts many of his polls in conjunction with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If you believe that, are you less likely to turn out next year? I don’t know the answer to that, but that could be the linchpin to whether Republicans can hold ground.”

‘There’s still a sense of possibility’

One thing political analysts and campaign staffers agree on is that the next 11 months will be an expensive slog for both parties.

Candidates and outside groups spent more than $800 million on the Senate seat races a year ago, a figure that most expect will be eclipsed by the competition next year.

On the Democratic side, some of that money will be steered toward educating voters on Georgia’s controversial voter law, which some party strategists believe will make it harder for infrequent voters to participate in the election.

The law, which the state’s Republican legislature and Kemp approved earlier this year, shortened the amount of time that voters had to request and return an absentee ballot. Voters are also required to submit a state identification or driver’s license number to receive a ballot.

But Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, which worked to turn out voters in Georgia in 2018, still feels confident that Abrams can be successful next year, although she said it will take readjustments to her strategy.

She noted Abrams’s 2018 campaign occurred just one year after Black voters powered former senator Doug Jones (D) to victory in a special election in neighboring Alabama.

In 2018, “you had hope, you had Black voters believing that all things were possible and that we could win historic elections,” Shropshire said.

This year, she said, 2022 feels “daunting” for many Democrats after the loss of Virginia’s governor’s mansion. But Black voters in Georgia were still proud of having elected Warnock and were hoping that Abrams would again make a bid to become the nation’s first Black female governor.

“Even though there’s the sense of sort of dread, in some ways, at the national level, there’s still the sense of possibility in Georgia,” she said.

Lenny Bronner contributed to this report.

The Washington Post