Florida 2000, Ohio 2004, Pennsylvania 2020 – now Georgia, with its changing demographics and fight over voting rights, looks set to be the bellwether
Last modified on Sun 12 Dec 2021 02.03 EST
To understand the forces shaping American politics, one state will be impossible to overlook in 2022: Georgia.
The Peach State will offer the biggest litmus test yet of former US president Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican party, and the persistence of his false claims of election fraud, as well as a guide to whether Democrats can expect the nation to move in their direction.
It will also offer something of a laboratory experiment for new voting restrictions and the threat they pose to democracy.
“Georgia enters into the realm of Florida 2000, Ohio 2004, Pennsylvania 2020 as the pivotal state,” said John Zogby, an author and pollster. “It’ll be a benchmark for 2024. It’s important demographically because it’s in a state of balance right now. It’s having its moment.”
The southern, socially conservative state was a bulwark of the Confederacy during the civil war. But it is now home to a film industry dubbed the “the Hollywood of the south”. It produced Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights hero. But it also produced Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right conspiracy theorist.
Its outsized role came into focus last year when Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential nominee to win it since Bill Clinton in 1992. Then, in January, Democrats won two Senate runoff elections, giving Biden an unexpected majority and dramatically scaling up his ambitions.
Now the plotlines that have dominated US politics for the past decade are set to converge in Georgia again. Trump supporters have turned out in force at local Republican meetings and sought to gain control of the state party apparatus, purging officials deemed insufficiently loyal.
The ex-president has also inspired a slate of devotees to seek statewide office including former senator David Perdue, who this week launched a challenge against incumbent Republican governor Brian Kemp.
Trump has fumed against Kemp over the governor’s refusal to overturn the election results last year, even after several recounts and audits affirmed Biden’s victory.
Perdue has immediately grabbed on to the mantle of baseless election lies, telling Axios this week he would not have voted to certify the election, then joining a lawsuit seeking to prove he and Trump were cheated out of election victories. Kemp said last year he was required by law to certify the election.
The former president called Kemp “a very weak governor” in a statement endorsing Perdue on Monday, citing nothing specific in his opposition to the sitting governor apart from his position on “election integrity”. “Most importantly,” Trump said of Kemp, “he can’t win because the MAGA [Make America great again] base — which is enormous — will never vote for him.”
If he is proven wrong and Kemp prevails, it would be a humiliating defeat for Trump, offering a sign his influence over the Republican party is slipping. Such a rebuke might even help dissuade him from running for president again in 2024.
Eric Erickson, a conservative writer and radio host based in Georgia, said: “It certainly would impact his electoral college map in 2024 and it would definitely suggest that the voters are ready to move on. When you look at the polling, I think people are looking towards 2024 and maybe they’re ready to look at the future instead of the past.”
The primary for governor is not the only battle here with wider implications. Trump is backing former football star Herschel Walker in a Republican primary against state agriculture commissioner Gary Black. The winner will go forward to challenge Warnock.
Lower down the ballot there is also a high stakes election for secretary of state, Georgia’s top election official. Trump has endorsed Jody Hice, a congressman, in his bid to oust fellow Republican Brad Raffensperger from the secretary of state’s office. Trump has attacked Raffensperger ever since he refused to go along with the then president’s request to “find” enough votes to overturn the election.
Robert P Jones, chief executive and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), said: “We’ve got basically a Maga versus chamber of commerce battle going on and what makes it particularly poignant is the role that governor Brian Kemp and secretary of state Brad Raffensperger played in the last presidential election.
“They were two Republicans that stood on the side of democracy and resisted Donald Trump’s request to overthrow the fair results of the election. In that way, they’ve they’ve been put in the crosshairs by Trump and are being challenged from the right by David Perdue on the one hand and Jody Hice on the other, both of whom have repeated this big lie that Trump actually won in Georgia.”
“They’re essentially running on this Make America great again big lie, so it’ll be a real test to see how that plays out among Republicans in the primaries – before you even get to the general election.”
Which ever Republican candidate for governor emerges from months of infighting they will still have to face Democrat Stacey Abrams, a voting rights activist bidding to become the first Black female governor in American history.
Abrams narrowly lost to Kemp in 2018 in what proved a flashpoint election. It was a contest that encapsulated how Georgia is changing – Abrams, vying to be the first female Black governor in US history, symbolized a new progressive Georgia, while Kemp represented the old conservative guard.
Such trends surfaced again in January when Democrats Raphael Warnock, who is African American, and Jon Ossoff, who is Jewish, defeated Kelly Loeffler and Perdue, both of whom are white.
Jones, who was born in Atlanta, Georgia, added: “What’s also at play here is the changing face of the country and the kind of candidates that might represent the way the demographics are changing.”
“If you go back to right before the 2008 election, Georgia was 53% white and Christian. Today it’s 41% white and Christian. Just between the beginning when Barack Obama was running and today, things have changed quite dramatically. It also has this urban-rural divide that so many states, particularly southern and peripheral south states, have: Atlanta and its suburbs versus the rest of the more rural state.”
Just as she did in 2018, Abrams is likely to make voting rights a central issue. During that campaign, she highlighted serious election issues in Georgia, including the way the state was disproportionately flagging Black voters for potential removal from the rolls and a surge in polling place closures in the state.
Now the stakes around voting rights are even higher.
In March, Georgia Republicans enacted sweeping new voting restrictions, even though there was no evidence of fraud in the 2020 election. The new law gives voters less time to request an absentee ballot and requires them to provide information from a state ID on both the ballot request and ballot itself.
It also limits the use of ballot drop boxes to one box per 100,000 voters, and only allows them to be in use during early voting hours. The boxes were used for the first time in 2020, when they proved popular and were available 24/7. The new law adds an additional day of Saturday early voting and makes Sunday early voting optional.
Kemp has staunchly defended the measure, even as the state faced enormous pressure from Major League Baseball and other companies. The justice department and several other civic action groups are currently suing Georgia over the law.
Helen Butler, a longtime organizer in Georgia, said she is already seeing the effects of the new voting law on the ground there. During municipal elections earlier this year, she said her group, the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, had seen an uptick in people who wanted rides to the polls because they were wary of using an absentee ballot.
The new law also limited what kind of assistance her group could give voters with mail-in ballots, she said. “We’re tired of always seeing barriers put in place to us being able to exercise our right to vote. ”
Events in Georgia will be closely watched elsewhere. Trump has endorsed more than 60 midterm candidates across the country, including several running against Republican incumbents. Some strategists fear he could sabotage his own party as it seeks to regain the House and Senate. Democrats, meanwhile, have tried to learn from Abrams’ ability to generate enthusiasm.
Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, said: “There is a very real story in Georgia about Stacey Abrams organising and finding the Democratic voters and getting what people to turn out and vote. It was a story that started well before the 2018 cycle.”
“She’s going to want to try to continue to build on that momentum but what she’s facing is that Republicans know that’s what she’s doing. They are aware that she’s probably the best in the business at being able to get people to turn out to vote and they are going to match those efforts with their own get-out-their-own effort.”