Georgia is always on my mind — I’m an Atlanta native — but now the rest of America gets to have the Peach State living in their heads rent-free too. After Biden shocked many, including me, by squeaking out a victory here in November, the state’s status as a political battleground is now underscored by two Senate runoffs that will decide control of the U.S. Congress. Today, I take you to my home state, exploring the unheralded people and trends to watch, while scanning the national map to see which states could become the next Georgia and how a Democrat- or Republican-controlled Senate will differ on policy under a Biden presidency. My first suggestion for y’all? Stop by the Varsity to fuel up with a Frosted Orange shake — and then enjoy the ride.
Nick Fouriezos, Senior Politics Reporter
bless your heart
Think you know Georgia politics because you’ve heard of Stacey Abrams? Nearly five years ago, we were among the first national outlets to profile the Harlequin romance novelist — and history-making gubernatorial candidate — but she’s just one of many names you need to know, starting with these.
1. Brad Raffensperger, 65 (R)
The Georgia secretary of state stuck to his guns and refused to toss out legal votes or claim fraud in the absence of evidence, despite reported pressure from both the Trump campaign and neighboring South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. That may make extremists in his party hate him now, but the conservative’s moment of integrity may be exactly what the GOP needs if they are to win back the trust of suburban voters — with Raffensperger at the very least securing his place in history as an unyielding defender of the democratic process.
2. Nikema Williams, 42 (D)
After John Lewis’ death in July, this trendsetting Black state senator was named his replacement to lead the Georgia Democractic Party — and Williams cruised to victory by 85 percent in the 5th Congressional District in downtown Atlanta. Now she faces her toughest organizing challenge yet: getting the same coalition of low-propensity voters of color and traditionally conservative suburban white voters that helped lift Biden to a slim lead in November to show up again (and vote blue) in the Jan. 5 runoff.
3. Marjorie Taylor Greene, 46 (R)
For better or worse, the controversial QAnon-supporting business owner is making herself known — becoming an immediate hero to the GOP base for being the first major Georgia politician to support Trump’s dubious claims of mass voter fraud. She followed by delivering a rallying cry against masks at the freshman orientation for new members of Congress, and then going viral while doing CrossFit in her hotel room as she complained about Washington’s COVID-19 restrictions. While Greene’s attacks are factually questionable, there’s no denying her appeal with certain members of the right … which will make her a populist force to contend with down the line.
4. Sam Park, 35 (D)
When first elected in 2016, Park was the only Asian man in the Georgia state Legislature — and the first openly gay man elected to the legislative body. Since then, he has been featured at the Democratic National Convention while backing Biden and representing Gwinnett County, a diverse, suburban county that played a key role in the president-elect’s victory. As Georgia evolves into a majority-minority electorate, Park’s ability to rally Black, Asian and Hispanic voters in the state’s second-largest county could make him a political powerhouse.
The GOP radio star has dedicated her career to getting more conservative women elected — and the next Congress will see 35 Republican women in office, compared to just 22 elected in 2018. Zoller was also a key organizer for the last three top elected Georgia Republicans: David Perdue, Brian Kemp and Kelly Loeffler — more on them later. That positions Zoller to be a kingmaker going forward … or maybe, one day, a top-of-the-ticket candidate herself.
The Nigeria-born Georgia Tech grad joined Abrams’ New Georgia Project in 2014 and as CEO has helped the nonprofit register nearly 425,000 new voters, including many people of color. Quoting Scripture and Jay-Z during interviews, the naturalized citizen and former labor lawyer was a key part in the record turnout that helped turn Georgia blue. She will be urging those same voters to turn out again in January, with control of the U.S. Senate at stake.
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In the initial count, Biden won Georgia by about 14,000 votes — while incumbent Georgia Sen. David Perdue, a Republican, won by about 86,000 votes. That’s a 100,000 vote swing, which makes this clearer than a Southern day: Some people were willing to split their ticket on Election Day. Perdue has the advantage of the incumbency, while Kelly Loeffler may face sexism as a female candidate. However, Jon Ossoff (pictured) could also stand a better chance of mounting an upset (against Perdue) than his fellow Democrat Raphael Warnock does (against Loeffler). Sermons by Warnock perceived as anti-Israel and anti-military have recently drawn scrutiny. And, inevitably, racism could be used as a cudgel against Warnock, the Black pastor of the church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached.
2. Dynamic Duos
In 1992, California Senate candidates Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer ran as a “Thelma & Louise” package deal — and both won. Can Ossoff-Warnock form a buddy cop duo to save the Senate for Democrats, channeling, say, their inner Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith for a Men in Black redux? Or will Perdue and Loeffler, both successful business leaders, form the C-suite that becomes the GOP sweep?
Georgia has been called the Hollywood of the South while also aggressively recruiting TV studio investment — but now, Gov. Brian Kemp would rather see those Hollywood stars and Silicon Valley tech bros stay home. When Andrew Yang announced that he was moving to Atlanta to campaign for the runoffs, Republicans freaked out. However, Democrats planning to move so they can vote in Georgia do so at their own peril: Attorney General Chris Carr, the puzzle-playing Metallica lover we profiled in 2017, has announced any Johnny-come-latelies could face felony charges.
They deserve credit, of course. But while metro Atlanta stood out in terms of substantial Black turnout growth from four years ago, the real numerical shift came primarily from white voters in Atlanta’s suburbs who defected from Trump. That matters because Atlanta is …
5. The City Too Busy to Hate
Georgia has always been conservative, but with a more fiscal bent than many of its Southern neighbors. Even in the pre-civil rights era, Atlanta’s leaders emphasized business bona fides over the cultural racism and antagonism of, say, nearby Birmingham. Which makes those suburban figures worrisome for Ossoff/Warnock: Trump defectors who backed Biden may not be as ruffled about a Sen. Perdue or Loeffler, both outsider business folks without (as many, anyway) troublesome tweets.
6. Fun Fact
Hillary Clinton actually won more Georgia counties than Biden, despite losing the state by nearly 6 points to Trump. Biden won only 31 of Georgia’s 159 counties — compared to Clinton’s 32. He survived barely losing Burke County, an Augusta suburb, thanks to larger winning margins in Atlanta suburbs like Gwinnett and Cobb counties, as well as narrowing the GOP advantage in the further exurbs as well.
7. The Georgia-Wisconsin connection
You knew that Stacey Abrams helped win Georgia but did you know she also helped Biden win Wisconsin, another crucial swing state the president-elect eked out by just 20,000 votes? That’s according to Ben Wikler, the Wisconsin Democrat Party chair, who said Abrams helped build their “massive, supercharged voter protection teams” early.
Trump lost big in Maine in 2020, by nearly 9 points after losing by just 3 points in 2016. But it remains a very rural, white, elderly state — demographics that tend to lean Republican — and Susan Collins showed that a more moderate candidate can win statewide even while being drastically outspent.
After years of getting hyped, the Lone Star State’s nearly 6-point Trump victory was disappointing for Democrats. But that’s still an improvement on the 9-point defeat Clinton had in 2016. A recipe for a turnaround still exists: Democrats must win the Rio Grande Valley next time. To do so requires convincing Hispanic voters — many of whom broke surprisingly hard for Trump, which says, among other things, that they liked his signed COVID checks — that the Democrats have their back. For a model, they should look to what Latino organizers did in Arizona.
In the election aftermath, political TikTokkers couldn’t help but notice that the map showing the states with the “most highly educated voters” directly correlated with which states Biden won. Yet Nevada stuck out like a sore thumb — with the 46th-worst education rates, yet still supporting Biden by a thin margin (34K votes as of now). As Republicans increasingly become the working-class party and see gains with Hispanics, the GOP could soon turn Nevada red.
Look, we’re probably headed for a divided government, because even if Democrats win the Senate, they will do so with a razor’s edge majority that will have to be navigated. In the spirit of Southern hospitality, here are some considerations on issues that politicians can join together on, no matter what happens.
1. If Republicans Win Control of the Senate …
... expect pared-down legislative goals for a Biden administration that had hoped to bring in meaningful, nationwide Democratic change after four years in the wilderness. There is already progress on a bipartisan retirement reform bill called the Secure Act 2.0. Plus, a Second Step Act — building on the cross-party work of the First Step Act passed by Trump — could be in the works. Earlier this week, House Democrats and Republicans introduced a telehealth services bill that would expand the list of remote health care providers eligible for Medicare reimbursement. Plus, Pennsylvania Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey proposed a nursing home accountability bill that could gain traction. And this list doesn’t include other long-wished-for agenda items, such as a national infrastructure investment bill or a more focused (and less abuse-prone) version of Trump’s Opportunity Zone program.
2. If Democrats Win Control of the Senate …
... then the legislative playbook opens up for Biden, who, as he’s suggested, will start with a more aggressive CARES Act II to protect small businesses and struggling families during the pandemic-fueled economic crisis. A friendly Senate would give Biden more breathing room on his Cabinet picks and allow him to approve more progressive federal judges to counteract the GOP dominance in filling the courts during Mitch McConnell’s reign as majority leader. A Democratic Senate could shore up the Affordable Care Act to permit more subsidies to expand its providers. Democrats would only have a slim Senate lead, so an aggressive Green New Deal-style program would likely be a hard sell to swing-state Democrats like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin … but maybe a law aimed at reducing emissions using more conservative, free-market-based approaches like those proposed by former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis could gain traction.
on the horizon
You can leave the South, but it never leaves you. So rather than say goodbye, we’ll just say see you next time — and send you on your way with a glass of sweet tea, a slice of pie and some final thoughts to chew on.
That may seem like a strange assumption, considering that Baker is the GOP governor of Massachusetts and Warren is its Democratic senator. But with Biden, at best, having a 50-50 split in the Senate, he can’t afford to nominate Warren … which would allow Baker to select a Republican as her replacement, a scenario the Boston Globe spells out clearly. So while progressives would love Warren as the Treasury pick, they shouldn’t get their hopes up.
2. Goodbye, Kamala Harris. Hello, Two New California Senators?
Elected in 2016, Harris is moving on to bigger things as the incoming vice president, sparking rumors about who Gov. Gavin Newsom will choose to replace her — with Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Rep. Karen Bass (pictured) the trendy options. The former would make history as the first Latino senator in Hispanic-heavy California, while Bass would keep a Black woman occupying the seat. Whoever loses may not have to wait long for another shot: It’s difficult to imagine Dianne Feinstein, California’s other senator, finishing her term after she turns 87 in June.
There are so many ways this could play out that it almost seems foolish to try, but if Republicans win their Senate races, then the GOP could dig its heels into obstructionism while continuing to claim Biden’s victory was illegitimate. The tactic would ensure that Biden, or his successor as Democratic nominee, would have a difficult platform with few legislative wins to run on. But if Georgia is now firmly blue, well, that would further narrow the Electoral College paths to victory for a Trump 2024 reunion tour — whether that race sees Trump, Donald Trump Jr. or Trumpism’s spiritual successor on the Republican ticket. Regardless, it would be quite the sight, that is if Georgia’s red clay truly is running blue.
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Voting may be the cornerstone of our democracy, but the reality of how voting works in America is not as fair or clear-cut as we like to tell ourselves. In a new limited series podcast, Turnout, award-winning journalist and KCM co-Founder Katie Couric explores America’s voting record with the help of activists, historians, politicians and luminaries. On this week’s episode, she gets a peek behind the curtain at Georgia’s manual recount of nearly 5 million ballots with Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Listen now.