Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock’s narrow re-election win in Georgia’s runoff puts a historically Republican state up for grabs in 2024, giving President Joe Biden an early opening in his bid for a second term.
Warnock defeated GOP challenger and former football star Herschel Walker late Tuesday, giving Democrats a crucial 51-49 majority and a cushion on close votes where senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia might break party ranks.
Yet the win will have a far more lasting and significant effect on future elections, starting with the presidential race of 2024. It means Republicans will be forced to spend millions in a former bastion turned battleground. Moreover, it offers Democrats a blueprint for other states, like North Carolina, where President Donald Trump edged Biden by 1.4 percentage points in 2020.
“It’s a state that’s proven to be anti-Trump,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist.
Trump took the brunt of the blame for Republicans’ underwhelming midterm performance in an otherwise favorable environment. Well before ballots were cast on Nov. 8, GOP strategists pointed to Walker’s scandal-ridden candidacy as a prime example of the former president’s elevation of flawed candidates who would struggle to woo independent voters.
Democrats began their push in Georgia in 2018 with voting rights activist Stacey Abrams’ narrow loss to Republican Brian Kemp in the gubernatorial race.
In 2020, Biden defeated Trump in the November presidential election and Warnock and Jon Ossoff prevailed in January 2021 runoffs over Republican incumbents.
Biden was the first Democratic president to carry Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992 and it had been decades since both the state’s senators were Democrats. Republicans called it a fluke, blaming it on voters’ weariness of Trump, who unsuccessfully berated state officials there to overturn his loss in the aftermath of the presidential election.
But Warnock proved them wrong on Tuesday, indicating that Republicans can no longer take Georgia’s 16 electoral votes for granted. That limits their ability to expand their electoral map and robs them of resources to dispatch in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona.
Of course, Trump was still in the background of the race, given that Walker was his hand-picked candidate. Walker tried to capitalize on his statewide star power, but allegations of domestic abuse, struggles with mental illness, rhetorical gaffes and accusations that the anti-abortion candidate paid for several abortions all made enough Georgia Republicans forget their party affiliations to give Warnock the victory.
Even so, the results signal that winning Georgia in 2024 won’t be a slam dunk for Democrats.
Walker, a Heisman Trophy winner, dragged Warnock into a neck-and-neck runoff and carried nearly all of the state’s rural areas and performed well in some suburban districts.
That left the urban vote to Warnock, the pastor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
David Johnson, a Republican strategist, cited Walker’s baggage and pointed to Kemp’s easy re-election win in a rematch with Abrams last month as evidence.
As the runoff neared, other elements showed new advantages for Democrats in 2024. The Democratic National Committee on Dec. 2 acceded to Biden’s wish to push South Carolina, where the majority of Democratic voters are Black, to the front of of the nomination calendar, replacing Iowa.
Black South Carolina voters helped revive Biden’s struggling 2020 Democratic primary campaign. The timing of the change in the calendar also sent a signal to Black voters in Georgia, strategists and organizers said.
The next day, Trump deepened his false stolen 2020 election claims, calling for the U.S. Constitution to be “terminated” in order to reverse his loss to Biden. Trump last month announced a third White House campaign and though he’s shown signs of weakening politically after Republicans’ poor midterm performance, polls show him as the GOP’s presumptive front-runner in 2024.
Waiting in the wings, however, is Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, who gives the party a right-wing candidate without Trump’s drawbacks.
The Georgia runoff also showcased the Democratic machines that are emerging in the American South. Barack Obama, the first Black U.S. president, visited the state a second time during the cycle to campaign for Warnock. First Lady Michelle Obama recorded robocalls for him.
Coincidentally, she appeared at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre on Dec. 3 along with popular Black film director and star Tyler Perry as part of a book tour. Director Spike Lee attended Warnock’s victory party.
The two parties poured millions into Georgia to sway the race. Spending on the runoff, alone, dwarfed the amount of cash spent there on the 2020 presidential election.
Warnock and allied groups spent $58.8 million in advertising in the runoff compared to $28.1 million by Walker and the GOP super-PACs supporting him, according to AdImpact.
The 51st seat in the Senate gives Democrats a one-seat majority on all committees and more budget for staffs. Democrats could act without GOP consent to issue subpoenas from committees like Intelligence, Armed Services and Foreign Relations.
It also reduces Democrats’ reliance on Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties. The biggest impact would be on confirmations of appointees, which need just a simple majority.
Warnock’s successful campaign unfolded amid warnings by Democrats, including Biden, that a 2021 law signed by Kemp narrowing the runoff window, among other measures, made voting in the state more restrictive.
Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, partnered with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Working Families Party and the local branch of the NAACP to host a get-out-the-vote event in Atlanta.
On a sidewalk near a downtown Atlanta metrorail station, a sign was sprayed on the sidewalk telling people to “Vote Warnock” and encouraged early voting. On street poles near a historic restaurant there were posters of the late civil rights figure and Georgia U.S. Representative John Lewis, alongside Obama and King.
“Here in Georgia, here in Atlanta in particular, what we see is what can happen when you bring together that legacy of the civil rights movement,” Albright said, “That’s when the magic happens.”
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