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Georgia Democrats weigh what's next after losing race for governor again

Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams lost the election this year by a larger margin than she did 4 years ago, leading to questions about the future of the party in the state.
Associated Press
Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams lost the election this year by a larger margin than she did 4 years ago, leading to questions about the future of the party in the state.

Updated November 21, 2022 at 12:13 PM ET

ATLANTA – For many Democrats, Georgia has come to symbolize the party's future. But after one of its brightest stars, Stacey Abrams, lost her second bid for governor last week by a roughly 7-point margin, Democrats are beginning to dissect what happened up and down the ballot.

The question is not only pressing for future Democratic campaigns in one of the country's newest swing states, but it's important right now. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the only statewide Democrat who remained standing on Election Night, still has to win a Dec. 6 runoff with Republican Herschel Walker.

"Could it be that [Abrams' campaign] was too insular, saying let's just run the same playbook from four years ago and that's going to work?" asks Tammy Greer, a professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University.

Unlike 2018, the White House is now occupied by a Democrat, President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings have sagged in Georgia, partly because of inflation. On the campaign trail, Gov. Brian Kemp constantly emphasized his handling of the state's economy, from reopening businesses and schools early in the pandemic to pausing the state gas tax amid rising prices.

"Gov. Kemp being an incumbent was going to be difficult to beat," says Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson. "He ran a very disciplined campaign. His message was really succinct. I can repeat it because he kept saying it over and over."

That economic-focused message may have helped Kemp win some of the independent and Republican-leaning voters who also voted Democratic for Senate. Warnock has been making specific appeals to split ticket voters in the runoff, boosted by some voters' discomfort with Walker.

But demographer and Democratic strategist Fred Hicks says Georgia's overall turnout rate also fell from 2018.

"It wasn't that you saw a whole bunch of Democrats in the [Atlanta] metro area come out and vote for Brian Kemp, but they did not come out and vote," he says.

Specifically, Georgia's Black and Hispanic turnout rate dropped from the last midterms, while the turnout rate for white and Asian American voters improved. That's according to an analysis of state voter history by Bernard Fraga, a professor of political science at Emory University. Historically, Black voters in particular have formed a core part of the Democratic coalition in Georgia.

It's too early to know exactly why turnout lagged.

Some Democratic operatives complain that Abrams' message was muddled, that voters were turned off by her national profile or that the top of the ticket didn't deploy its resources efficiently. Abrams' campaign and her leadership committee raised well over $100 million for her bid.

But Greer believes Democrats didn't do enough direct voter outreach this election, like phone calls and door knocks. That could affect the Senate runoff election, when the candidates have to get voters back to the polls in a very short window.

Warnock's campaign is hiring an additional 300 paid staffers and says they will knock on more doors during the 4-week runoff than the entire general election campaign. The Republican-aligned Senate Leadership Fund has meanwhile inked a deal to deploy Kemp's turnout operation to get out the vote for Walker.

Greer says Democrats, who in recent cycles gained significant ground in Georgia by engaging new and irregular voters, assumed that Georgia's growing and diversifying population would help carry them more than it did.

"There was a complete hubris to the demographic shift," she says. "Huge hubris."

In 2018, Abrams came within a 1.4 point margin of becoming the country's first Black woman governor. Last cycle, Georgia elected a Democrat for president for the first time since 1992 and sent two Democratic senators to Washington, delivering the party control of the chamber. But when Abrams ran again four years later, she lost by an even greater margin – about 7.5%.

"We may not have made it to the finish line, but we ran that race," Abrams told her supporters on Election Night.

Democrat Jen Jordan's unsuccessful campaign for attorney general had the narrowest margin of any Democrat beside Warnock. Her team has been closing up campaign headquarters, packing up signs and organizing supplies into neatly-labeled boxes.

Like Abrams, Jordan talked about abortion rights on the campaign trail. But Jordan made it the centerpiece of her campaign. Kemp signed a restrictive abortion law in 2019 banning most abortions after about six weeks. Jordan's Republican opponent, incumbent Attorney General Chris Carr, has fought to uphold the law in court.

Jordan says that focused message did move the needle – just not enough to counter other dynamics at play.

"I don't think that the really negative impact of the law has kind of bubbled to the surface yet," she says. "I think there was kind of a disconnect, right?"

Nationwide, voters rejected GOP candidates who were endorsed by former President Donald Trump and embraced his false claims about election fraud. In Georgia, Democrats found it difficult to paint their opponents as extremists on democracy. Kemp and Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger became known for refusing Trump's demands to help overturn the 2020 election result in Georgia.

"While in other states, Republicans were very involved in all of the things that were happening and loud and proud about their connections to Trump, really the opposite was happening here," Jordan says.

As Democrats regroup, some also wonder what the losses mean for the party's bench. Abrams has been seen as a top talent, but she's now lost twice statewide. The Abrams campaign didn't respond to a request for comment.

Lis Smith, a Democratic operative and top staffer on Pete Buttigieg's unsuccessful presidential campaign, says building Democratic power can take many forms, like Abrams' decade-long project to make Georgia competitive.

"There are many different avenues where these talented people, like Stacey Abrams, Tim Ryan in Ohio, Beto O'Rourke in Texas, can direct their energy and we need to stop acting like holding elected office is the only thing that matters in politics," Smith says.

But before looking too far ahead, Democrats and Republicans alike say they are focused on the task in front of them – the Senate runoff election next month.

Copyright 2022 90.1 WABE

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.