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How Republicans Blew It in Georgia

Plus a look at how redistricting reduces competition; why Trump remains the price of admission into GOP primaries; and, the trouble Democrats are in ahead of the midterms.

Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock tap elbows
Jon Ossoff (L) and Raphael Warnock (R) of Georgia tap elbows during a rally for supporters prior to the runoff election of Jan. 5, 2021.
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How Republicans Blew It in Georgia: Jan. 6, 2021, continues to loom as the most significant date in recent political history, but what happened the day before has continuing relevance also. On Jan. 5, Democrats managed to take two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia runoffs, giving them control of the chamber and the federal agenda. Without those victories, for instance, Ketanji Brown Jackson would almost certainly not have been confirmed to the Supreme Court last week.

Greg Bluestein tells the long backstory behind the Democrats’ victory in his new book, Flipped: How Georgia Turned Purple and Broke the Monopoly on Republican Power. As his long subtitle suggests, Georgia Republicans had little to fear as the 2020 election season got underway. True, Stacey Abrams had nearly defeated Brian Kemp in the 2018 governor’s race, but the GOP had not lost a statewide contest since 2006 and no Democrat had carried the state in a presidential race since way back in 1992.

So, what changed? Bluestein, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, mostly keeps his focus tight on politicians, offering sometimes delicious stories about their motivations and rivalries, but it’s clear that demographic shifts among voters played a major role. Suburban counties north of Atlanta had long served as fortresses for the GOP but, as in other parts of the country, they turned against the party during Donald Trump’s presidency. And the state has grown less white. Between 2000 and 2019, the Black share of the electorate grew faster than in any other state, with Black voters heavily targeted for registration and turnout efforts by Abrams and other organizers. In the Senate runoffs, Georgia Democrats reached a “30-30” target that had long eluded them, capturing 30 percent of the white vote, with Black voters making up 30 percent of the electorate.

Those were the conditions that made Democratic victory feasible, but Republicans helped things a lot by engaging in self-sabotage. They failed to define (aka, attack) Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock ahead of the runoffs, giving him a free pass that a Democratic consultant called “completely crazy malpractice.” Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the Democratic nominee for the other Senate seat, developed a bromance, closely linking their messages and turnout efforts. Republicans, by contrast, engaged in civil war.

The GOP primary for one seat was contentious and ultimately damaging, but the real problems developed due to Trump himself. His obsession with overturning Joe Biden’s victory in the state – including the notorious phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, just three days before the runoffs, in which the president demanded that 11,000 votes be found to hand him the state’s electoral votes – not only proved a distraction but convinced some conservative voters they should not even bother turning out. “Stop the steal” became a bigger concern than keeping the Senate seats. “Absolutely, it’s his fault,” GOP Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan told Bluestein. “Republicans didn’t show up because they were told to believe the elections were rigged.”

The dispute has had a long hangover. Kemp faces a primary challenge from David Perdue, one of the defeated senators who has Trump’s blessing, while Duncan isn’t bothering to run for re-election. Polls show that Kemp is likely to prevail in the May 24 primary, but Raffensperger is a decided underdog in his race against Trump-backed Congressman Jody Hice.

Democrats had to get every break to achieve their narrow victories two years ago. One strategist compared it to “winning the World Series – by pitching four perfect games.” Georgia’s controversial election law changes will make it more difficult for them to pull off the kind of organizing that was a key to their success. And Warnock, who has to face voters again this year, is widely considered one of the most endangered incumbents in the country. His loss alone could be enough to restore Republican control of the Senate.
Georgia state Capitol
The Georgia state Capitol in Atlanta.
Where Redistricting Reduces Competition: Even if this weren’t shaping up as a Republican year, Democrats would have a hard time gaining ground in the Georgia Legislature. Majorities of seats in both the state House and Senate are solidly Republican. “The median seat in the state Senate is 16 percentage points redder than the state as a whole, and the median seat in the state House is 10 points redder, meaning Democrats would have to win the statewide popular vote by double digits in order to be favored to flip either chamber,” according to FiveThirtyEight.

The publication cites Georgia as “the most egregious example” of a state that’s competitive overall but uncompetitive at the legislative level due to redistricting, along with Republican-controlled states such as Florida, Texas and Wisconsin. Not much attention gets paid to legislative redistricting, compared to the fights over congressional seats, but new maps will make chambers more competitive in Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, thanks to commissions and courts.

Arizona is a rare example where chambers are competitive, both prior to and after the latest redistricting. At least in theory. Democrats have failed to recruit candidates even to run in some winnable districts. “All hell is breaking loose in the Democratic Party right now,” a party strategist told the Arizona Republic this week. “Incompetence I can deal with. But stupidity just does not make sense.”

Not Just Georgia: At least tacit acceptance of Trump’s repeatedly disproven claims that the last election was stolen from him was always going to be the price of admission in GOP primaries this year. Polls have consistently shown solid majorities of Republicans believe the election was rigged. But it’s becoming increasingly clear this will be a major issue not just in 2024, when Trump seems certain to run again, but in this year’s contests as well.

“The fake news, big tech and blue state liberals stole the election from President Trump,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who faces a GOP primary challenge next month, claims in a new ad.

On Tuesday, Trump released a statement denouncing Bill McSwain, a former prosecutor who has been touting his closeness to Trump, in the Pennsylvania governor’s race. “He was the U.S. Attorney who did absolutely nothing on the massive Election Fraud that took place in Philadelphia and throughout the commonwealth.” After the “anti-endorsement,” the main group that’s spent millions backing McSwain released a statement saying it would have to “assess” the race.

Not only Trump’s approval but approval of Trump remains key for Republicans. GOP candidates have spent $24 million on ads featuring Trump over the past two months, according to AdImpact Politics.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul will face no minor party challengers this fall. (TNS)
A Democrat by Any Other Name: It’s a sign of how much trouble Democrats are in ahead of the midterms that even in a blue state like New York they’re worried about running under the party’s banner.

New York has an unusual system where candidates can run as the nominee for multiple parties – both the Democratic and Working Families parties, for example. Jay Jacobs, who chairs the state Democratic Party, has been floating the idea of creating a new “independent” ballot line, allowing Democrats (in theory) to capture support from some voters who don’t want to support a Democrat.

On Monday, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul tentatively blessed the idea. “This is about winning in November, and so we are going to weigh all our options,” she said.

The New York Post is not impressed. “The Jacobs-Hochul plan … tells you not only that they’re desperate,” according to the newspaper’s editorial board, “but that Democrats are out of new ideas even when it comes to conning the voters.”

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Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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