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Battleground: Ballot Box | 22 political storylines to watch in Georgia 2022
This year, Georgia has an outsize role in deciding the next steps of several big developments in American politics.
We’ve got a U.S. Senate race that could decide control of the chamber again; Republican primary battles that could decide former President Donald Trump’s role in the GOP and the 2024 presidential race; a governor’s race that could decide Democrats’ next crack at a winning coalition; and Georgia will remain on the frontlines of deciding how easy or difficult voting should be.
On today’s episode, we look at nearly two dozen storylines and predictions for Georgia politics in 2022.
1. Can Stacey Abrams win this time?
First, the biggest question on many peoples’ minds centers around the Georgia governor’s race.
After losing by about 55,000 votes in 2018, Democrat Stacey Abrams became a national name for her work on voting rights as well as registering voters and organizing them to participate in elections.
This time around, she’s got huge national support, a formidable fundraising operation and a message that is laser-focused on Georgia and not her national celebrity.
"I want to see us have one Georgia, and that means being willing to serve everyone, including those who don’t always agree with you, and we have not seen that at the state level," she said in an interview with GPB News.
Her campaign seems geared toward rural Georgia and tackling issues she says Republican leadership has failed to address in the past two decades of controlling the state.
GOP attacks that paint her as an extreme liberal who wants to California-fy the state may not carry as much weight the more she talks about rural health care and broadband and increased education spending. But then again, Abrams is quite the effective boogeyman to unite Republicans against her.
Still, for reasons discussed below, the governor’s race seems like it could Abrams’ to lose. And that brings us to our second question:
2. Will Gov. Brian Kemp survive a primary challenge?
Gov. Brian Kemp is the first lifelong Republican to lead Georgia since Reconstruction. In his first three years in office, he has championed a number of conservative causes, from strict abortion legislation to shrinking the size of state government to signing not one, but two massive election law overhauls. He’s also been a champion for statewide issues that resonate beyond Atlanta — the "not-Atlanta" part of the state.
"I’ve also held my commitment to fight for rural Georgia, to strengthen rural Georgia… we have created a promise of a rural strike team; we have been laser focused on rural broadband," he said at his reelection campaign kickoff in Perry last year.
And yet, Kemp is facing at least three primary challengers — including Trump-backed former U.S. Sen. David Perdue — because he did his job in certifying President Joe Biden’s November 2020 election in Georgia. It’s a complete 180 from the 2018 election, when Kemp, the underdog, defeated then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in a primary runoff with the support of Trump.
But Kemp’s support appears stronger in conservative circles than a small but vocal minority wants you to think.
He has a massive campaign war chest, endorsements from tons of local elected officials and lawmakers who represent key areas of the Republican base. And he has an extensive record overseeing a growing economy to prove to those voters he should stay the nominee. Plus, he’s already beat Stacey Abrams once — a fact Kemp touts on the campaign trail.
Internal polling from the Perdue campaign suggests we may see a close race — and it is a long way until the May primary — but a Kemp-Abrams rematch is the most likely outcome we will see in November.
3. Will any of Donald Trump’s primary challengers win?
In the aftermath of the 2020 election, the Georgia GOP has broadly split into two camps: those who support Trump and believe the election was stolen, and those who do not.
In four key races, the former president has endorsed primary challengers to upend the status quo and continue to fight on his behalf: David Perdue for governor, Sen. Burt Jones for lieutenant governor, former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker for U.S. Senate and U.S. Rep. Jody Hice for secretary of state.
But a Trump endorsement might not carry as much weight as it used to, and the primary candidates have varying degrees of campaign infrastructure set up to get that endorsement in front of actual voters.
Jones faces Senate Pro Tem Butch Miller in the race to lead the state Senate, and the two will battle over legislation during the 2022 session. Herschel Walker is the financial frontrunner in the U.S. Senate race to challenge Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. But Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black has an army of endorsements from local lawmakers, mayors, city councilors, county commissioners and nearly half the state’s sheriffs. And Rep. Jody Hice wants to unseat Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who has also gained Trump’s ire for not overturning the election, but former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle is running an aggressive statewide campaign with catchy digital ads that could give Hice a run for his money — or leave Hice out of a runoff altogether.
While we can’t predict the future, it’s clear that the success of Trump-backed candidates would be one litmus test for the strength of Trump’s message heading into the 2024 presidential race.
4. The Georgia Secretary of State race
One related storyline to watch will be what happens in the race to be Georgia’s chief election official. Incumbent Brad Raffensperger garnered bipartisan goodwill for defending the state’s thrice-counted election results and pushing back against false claims made by Trump and fellow members of his party. He faces a tough primary battle against Rep. Jody Hice and former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle, and, despite being one of the most conservative statewide elected officials, is regularly accused of being a RINO: a Republican in name only.
But Raffensperger has doubled down on a tightrope of defending the 2020 election results while also attacking Democrats’ proposed federal voting rights laws, Stacey Abrams, and insisting there need to be new constitutional amendments banning non-citizens from voting, despite that already being the law. That messaging could be enough to win him a primary runoff.
On the Democratic side, state Rep. Bee Nguyen is the frontrunner in a crowded primary field. She rose to prominence by debunking claims of voter fraud in legislative hearings.
And, regardless of which candidates win the primaries, Raffensperger and his team will still be the ones to oversee and certify the November 2022 election results.
5. The U.S. Senate race
The other big race to watch this year is the U.S. Senate contest. Democrat Raphael Warnock is seeking a full six-year term after winning a special election to fill the rest of former Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. Warnock has made voting rights and health care central tenets of his time in office so far, and is looking to continue to hit those topics on the campaign trail.
His opponent will most likely either be Herschel Walker, Trump-endorsed former football star, or Gary Black, the state’s popular agriculture commissioner. So far, Walker is not tested, has plenty of negative information about himself out there and isn’t really campaigning much. Black may have to skew farther to the right to beat Walker and might turn off enough voters to lose in the general election.
Warnock is one of the more vulnerable U.S. senators up for reelection in this battleground state, and a national environment that looks downright miserable for Democrats in the 2022 midterms could drag him down, too.
Expect a lot of money, a lot of ads and a lot more to come about this race.
6. What is going on with the Georgia GOP?
For more than a year, we've reported in-depth on the state of the Republican Party in the Georgia. To say it’s fractured is an understatement. A record number of occasional voters and grassroots supporters are now active in the party — but most have been mobilized by Donald Trump and lies about the 2020 election.
This in turn has taken the direction of the Georgia GOP as an institution away from a moderate pro-business party into a farther-right, Trump-loyal entity that threatens to cut off its nose to spite its face. The state’s changing demographics and recent election results have point to Georgia flipping Democratic sooner than later, but the past few election cycles suggest the GOP could be steering the Titanic towards the iceberg and accelerating that trend.
7. through 11. Bills in the state legislature: From base-pleasing stunts to guns and state spending
2022 will be an important year for lawmaking under the Gold Dome. And with more than a dozen lawmakers vying for higher office, plenty of long shot, base-pleasing bills will dominate discussions. But Republican House and Senate leadership have announced other priorities.
“I think I've been pretty clear about that,” House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) said recently. “We've got some important things to get done — public safety, mental health, the budget. These are things that I think we can make a difference in the lives of Georgians in doing. I'm not going to be distracted by what other people are doing in their campaigns.”
Some of those "distractions" could pop up in legislation that would ban so-called critical race theory, “obscene materials” and other culture war issues, more crackdowns on voting rights and Democrats’ seemingly never-ending push for Medicaid expansion.
One of the few big priorities for the year that will also be plenty talked about: Gov. Brian Kemp supporting so-called constitutional carry for gun owners.
"I believe the United States Constitution grants the citizens of our state the right to carry a firearm without state government approval," Kemp said in early January. "For law-abiding Georgians, their carry permit is the founding document of our nation, and I look forward to working with the members of the House in the Senate... to get constitutional carry across the finish line this legislative session."
For all of this, UGA professor Charles Bullock says, consider the bills through the lens of it being a primary performance: “Whatever one sees playing out in the legislature probably should step back and say, ‘Okay, … is this being motivated by someone's efforts to better position themselves or their ally for the upcoming elections?’"
There’s also the big issue of the $27 billion state budget that could include pay raises for teachers and state employees, funding for things like mental health care and foster care changes, and what to do about income taxes because of recent surpluses.
Another thing I’m watching? What legislation might arise from Georgia welcoming a massive Rivian electric vehicle factory as the state’s prominence in the EV industry continues to grow.
12. and 13. Atlanta's suburbs
Georgia just finished the once-a-decade redistricting process, which changes the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. The two biggest changes come in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, where the GOP-led mapmaking process created one safe Democratic seat and one safe Republican seat out of two districts represented by Democrats.
The 6th District now runs from just north of Atlanta all the way to Dawsonville and contains a wide range of voters — mainly Republican. The primary there represents multiple stripes of conservative ideology — with candidates running on everything from full-Make America Great Again Trumpism to more moderate establishment vibes.
Next door in the 7th District, which is now almost entirely Gwinnett County, there will be a Democratic battle between two sitting congresswomen: Current GA07 Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux and Lucy McBath, exiled from the newly redrawn 6th. The new district is super Democratic, but that could spell trouble for Bourdeaux after her more moderate record in Congress so far has angered some progressive activists.
14. and 15. A changing Georgia
Speaking of Gwinnett County, another thing to keep tabs on this year is a demographically and politically changing Georgia, represented especially well by Gwinnett’s rapid diversification and population growth. It’s flipped to Democratic control in recent elections, and is home base for a growing South Asian voting bloc. It’s been ground zero for discussions about voting, redistricting, school boards, transportation and other key issues.
And speaking of suburbs, it’s time to reconsider what we mean when we say “suburbs.” Atlanta’s suburbs are not the white Republican strongholds of yesteryear. Most of the counties that ring the city are majority Black, majority Democratic and emblematic of the next generation of residents, and the ideological shifts happening in other suburbs like in Virginia are not the same here.
16. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Georgia’s 14th District
Redistricting also has placed part of Black suburban West Cobb County into Georgia’s 14th Congressional District across northwestern Georgia, a heavily white Republican area represented by Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Greene is a fundraising juggernaut, says inflammatory and conspiratorial things and doesn’t really do much in the legislating department. But voters and conservative constituents love her, so she’ll probably win her primary again and represents a certain future for a segment of the GOP. She has multiple Democratic challengers, and the probable frontrunner is Democratic Marcus Flowers, who has also raised a ton of campaign cash convincing people he will somehow beat Greene in an overwhelmingly Republican district.
Further review of his campaign finance reports show Flowers has spent most of his mountain of money paying digital consultants and not on the type of local campaign infrastructure that could slightly cut the margins and help statewide candidates.
17. Buckhead City
One thing that probably won’t happen this year, no matter how hard some of the people pushing it want it to be true, is the governor signing legislation to allow voters in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta to vote on splitting off from the city.
No lawmakers that represent the area support the bill. The typical cityhood study process wasn’t followed, with a feasibility study performed by Valdosta State University leaving more questions than answers. The decision would likely have dire financial consequences, upend schooling for area children and would set a precedent that could open the door for wealthy enclaves to secede from already existing cities.
The head of the movement says it’s about stopping crime, something new Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens has made a top priority in addressing. Plus, the voting behavior of Buckhead residents suggests it could be a losing prospect on the ballot — if it were to make it to that point.
18. Redistricting and voting law aftermath
While we’re on the subject of ballots, the local impact of redistricting is something to keep an eye on. Counties have to work frantically to assign voters to their new state House, state Senate and U.S. House districts, as well as make any tweaks to voting precincts and polling places ahead of the 2022 election cycle.
Since the new maps were signed after the residency requirement for qualifying, it’s worth keeping an eye on who ultimately decides to run or not run in new races. And Senate Bill 202 is in effect, with numerous changes to just about every part of how we vote. This will be the first major election cycle under new laws that could be confusing to officials and voters alike.
Redistricting and election laws are also one of many topics that have multiple lawsuits pending. At least four federal suits have been filed challenging Georgia maps, with most focusing on the tweaks to Georgia’s 6th and 7th Districts and how the lines are drawn northwest of Atlanta. Plus, there are eight different suits challenging parts of Georgia’s new election law, including a big suit by the Justice Department.
Other suits to watch include national challenges to President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates and abortion legislation.
20. Will Republican voters stay home?
It’s a cliche to say election results all come down to turnout, but one of the data points to watch will be how many Republican voters stay home in the primary or the general election because they still don’t believe in Georgia’s election system or the Republican nominees for top offices.
The 2021 Senate runoffs saw Republicans reap the results of the distrust and misinformation they spread about the security of absentee ballots and voting machines and Georgia’s tight — but accurate — election results.
And with a close election expected again, every voter who stays home essentially counts as two votes for their opponent’s margin.
21. The downballot bellwether
If you’re looking for a lesser-known race to watch and see how the parties are faring, look to Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner. Republican incumbent John King is Georgia’s first Hispanic statewide constitutional office who was appointed after former Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck was indicted for fraud. King is a moderate, no-nonsense guy who played an important role in outreach to Georgia's Latino community in the early days of the pandemic and during the Census process.
There’s also nothing especially Trumpy about an office that does fire safety and elevator inspections and insurance stuff, and the race is far enough down the ballot that if he loses, 2022's elections will end up a likely rout against Republicans. His likely opponent is Democratic State Rep. Matthew Wilson (D-Brookhaven), who would be the first openly LGBTQ statewide official in Georgia history.
22. It all comes down to GA02
Finally, Southwest Georgia is the place to watch if you want to get a broad picture for how the November election will go. Democrat Sanford Bishop has enjoyed comfortable victories in the 2nd Congressional District with some crossover appeal. But Republicans are targeting his seat and have several challengers lined up in a primary. Plus, the 2nd District GOP has been working harder than any other part of the state to organize local parties and build campaign infrastructure to get out Republican votes.
But all that attention on Southwest Georgia and the Black Belt that makes up a crucial part of the Democratic base could backfire on Republicans. In 2020 and 2021, Democrats made the region a key focus of their campaigns, and messaging around rural health care, internet access and the economy resonated strongly there and across the state.
While Republicans want to paint Democrats and Stacey Abrams as an out-of-touch radical, focusing on rural Georgia could likely play into Abrams’ hands with her new 2022 messaging and could be the decisive battleground for a Democratic victory.
All that said, buckle up for an interesting 2022.
Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Our producer is Jess Mador, our editor is Wayne Drash. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger, who also wrote our theme music. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.