ATLANTA – For many Democrats, Georgia has become a symbol of the party’s future. But after one of their brightest stars, Stacey Abrams, lost her second run for governor last week by a margin of about 7 points, Democrats are beginning to analyze what happened up and down the vote.
The question is not only pressing for future Democratic campaigns in one of the country’s newest swing states, it’s important right now. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the only statewide Democrat to stand on election night, has yet to win a Dec. 6 runoff with Republican Herschel Walker.
“Could it be that? [Abrams’ campaign] was too taciturn and said, let’s just use the same script from four years ago and this will work?” asks Tammy Greer, a professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University.
Unlike in 2018, the White House is now occupied by a Democrat, President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings in Georgia have collapsed due to inflation, among other things. On the campaign trail, Gov. Brian Kemp constantly stressed his handling of the state’s economy, from reopening businesses and schools at the start of the pandemic to suspending the state’s gas tax amid rising prices.
“Gov. Kemp as incumbent was hard to beat,” said Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson. “He ran a very disciplined campaign. His message was really concise. I can repeat them because he said them over and over again.”
This pro-business message may have helped Kemp win over some of the independent and Republican-leaning voters who also voted for the Senate from the Democrats. Warnock made a targeted appeal to split-ticket voters in the runoff, compounded by some voters’ unease with Walker.
However, demographer and Democratic strategist Fred Hicks says overall voter turnout in Georgia has also fallen since 2018.
“It wasn’t like you saw a whole bunch of Democrats on TV [Atlanta] Metro Area come and vote for Brian Kemp, but they didn’t come out and didn’t vote,” he says.
Specifically, Black and Hispanic turnout in Georgia dropped from the last midterm election, while turnout for white and Asian American voters improved. That emerges from an analysis of the state’s 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 activists complain that Abrams’ message was muddled, that voters were put off by its national profile, or that the top of the map was not using its resources efficiently. Abrams’ campaign and her executive committee raised well over $100 million for her bid.
But Greer believes Democrats haven’t reached enough direct voters, like phone calls and door knocks, in this election. That could impact the Senate runoff when candidates have to get voters back to the polls in a very short window.
Warnock’s campaign is hiring another 300 paid staff and says they will be knocking on more doors during the 4-week runoff than during the entire general election campaign. The Republican-leaning Senate Leadership Fund, meanwhile, signed a deal to use Kemp’s turnout to get Walker’s vote.
According to Greer, Democrats, who had gained significant ground in Georgia in recent cycles by attracting new and irregular voters, assumed that Georgia’s growing and diversified population would help carry them more than was the case .
“The demographic change was characterized by complete hubris,” she says. “Huge hubris.”
In 2018, Abrams became the country’s first black woman governor by a margin of 1.4 points. In the last cycle, Georgia elected a Democrat president for the first time since 1992 and sent two Democratic senators to Washington to cede party control in the chamber. But when Abrams ran again four years later, she lost by an even bigger margin — about 7.5%.
“We may not have made it to the finish line, but we ran this race,” Abrams told her supporters on election night.
Democrat Jen Jordan’s unsuccessful campaign for attorney general had the narrowest margin of any Democrat, aside from Warnock. Her team has closed down the campaign headquarters, boxed up signs and organized supplies into neatly labeled boxes.
Like Abrams, Jordan spoke about abortion rights during the campaign. But Jordan made it the centerpiece of her campaign. Kemp signed a restrictive abortion law into law in 2019, banning most abortions after about six weeks. Jordan’s Republican opponent, incumbent Attorney General Chris Carr, has campaigned in court to uphold the law.
Jordan says the focused message moved the needle – just not enough to counteract other dynamics in the game.
“I don’t think the real negative effects of the law have surfaced yet,” she says. “I think there was some sort of split, right?”
Voters nationwide rejected GOP candidates backed by former President Donald Trump and embraced his false claims of voter fraud. In Georgia, the democrats found it difficult to portray their opponents as extremists of democracy. Kemp and Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger have been known to reject Trump’s demands to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election result.
“Whereas in other states Republicans have been very involved and spoke loudly and proudly of their ties to Trump, here the opposite really happened,” says Jordan.
As Democrats regroup, some are also wondering what the losses mean for the party’s bench. Abrams was considered a top talent but she has now lost twice nationally. The Abrams campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Lis Smith, a Democratic activist and top aide in Pete Buttigieg’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, says building democratic power can take many forms, such as Abrams’ decades-long project to make Georgia competitive.
“There are many different ways that these talented people, like Stacey Abrams, Tim Ryan in Ohio, Beto O’Rourke in Texas, can channel their energies, and we need to stop pretending that holding elected office is the only thing that matters in politics. ‘ says Smith.
But before they look too far ahead, Democrats and Republicans alike say they are focused on the task ahead — next month’s Senate runoff.