For the past two years, Republicans everywhere were comforting themselves with the supposition that now-President Joe Biden’s victory over then-President Donald Trump in typically red Georgia in 2020 was a fluke. Biden defeated Trump by a mere 11,779 votes. Many Republicans presumed the outcome the byproduct of a nice-guy Democrat perceived as a centrist benefiting from a historic spike in mail-in balloting fueled by a once-in-a-century pandemic and running against a uniquely polarizing GOP standard-bearer.
Warnock’s victory over Walker on Tuesday, amid Biden’s low job approval ratings and rampant voter anxiety about the economy and public safety — even with the help of Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who won a landslide reelection over Democrat Stacey Abrams on Nov. 8 — has dispelled the notion Georgia is anything but a bona fide swing state. That has significant implications for Electoral College math as both parties turn the page on the midterm elections and prepare for 2024.
“You basically have a scenario where both parties’ candidates are guaranteed 45% of the vote here in a head-to-head scenario,” said Mark Rountree, who owns Landmark Communications, a polling firm in Atlanta. “Almost every election is going to be a single-digit election.”
Rountree said the change in Georgia’s voting patterns is all about demographics. In 1996, when the Republican nominee defeated President Bill Clinton in the Peach State 47% to 46%, with Reform Party nominee Ross Perot garnering 6.4%, whites made up 77% of the electorate, with blacks making up 19%. More than a quarter century later, white voters are 62% of the Georgia electorate, while blacks are 30%.
Leading up to the 2020 presidential election, Republicans had captured Georgia’s Electoral College votes in eight of the previous nine quadrennial White House contests, with a Democratic nominee (then-Arkansas Gov. Clinton) last winning the state in 1992. The Peach State, a GOP stronghold that elected Republicans up and down the ticket by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, transformed from red to blue during those years.
Even after Kemp narrowly defeated Abrams in their first matchup in 2018, a Democratic wave year, Georgia and its valuable 16 electoral votes were presumed safely in Trump’s column heading into his reelection bid versus Biden in 2020. Only in the home stretch of that campaign did the state begin to show signs of competitiveness, a development belied by the Trump campaign’s late focus on the voters there, although Biden would visit only once before Election Day.
Some might argue Georgia earned its swing state wings in 2020. Not only did Biden top Trump there, but the Democrats also flipped control of both of the state’s Senate seats, with Warnock and now-Sen. Jon Ossoff ousting Kelly Loeffler (R), a Kemp appointee, and David Perdue (R) in a pair of Jan. 5, 2021, runoff contests. But Trump had a little something to do with that, admitting he discouraged Republicans from voting in the runoffs essentially out of spite.
So, it was 2022 that was supposed to reassure Republicans that Georgia was still, for all intents and purposes, a red state. Yet even amid Biden’s struggles, a set of issues favoring the GOP, historical midterm election trends, and Kemp’s coattails, the Senate race was still a dogfight. And Warnock still finished on top. Indeed, his win over Walker, for decades a Georgia folk hero, ensured the Democrats would increase their ranks in the Senate.
“Republicans continue to dominate at the state level but haven’t won a federal race statewide since Johnny Isakson in 1996,” lamented a Republican operative in Georgia. That Isakson, who resigned from the Senate for health reasons in 2019, was the last Republican elected to federal office, and that his victory was more than six years ago, is striking. Until recently, Georgia routinely elected only Republicans to the Senate, in waves red and blue.
The emergence of Georgia as contested territory at the outset of the 2024 cycle is among the factors altering a path to the presidency for the eventual Democratic and Republican nominees that existed for the better part of two decades.
Arizona emerged from the midterm elections as a decidedly competitive battleground after decades of voting reliably red in federal contests. Florida, a perennial purple state, looks a shade redder after Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) led his party to a wave of victories across the state’s 2022 GOP ticket — the outcome Republicans were expecting elsewhere on Nov. 8 but that eluded them. Both developments could affect the race for the White House in 2024.
However, this next presidential election will be the first in more than 30 years with Georgia considered competitive from day one and in a way that presents fresh opportunities for the Democrats. At Biden’s behest, the Democratic National Committee is on the cusp of including Georgia in its new and reordered group of early primary states. This will help balance the scales on a transforming map of presidential battlegrounds that until recently had been tilting toward the GOP.
Dating back to 2000, the struggle to win control of the Oval Office in an evenly divided United States had generally boiled down to roughly a dozen states. In the Trump era, two of those states, Iowa and Ohio, moved firmly into the Republican column, while Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin became more winnable for the GOP, with Minnesota threatening to follow suit and Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, worth one electoral vote, already doing so.
Loeffler, unseated by Warnock in a runoff two years ago, does not completely subscribe to the determination made by so many other Republicans that Georgia is no longer a red state. But through her efforts with Greater Georgia, a group she founded to help improve GOP voter turnout versus a well-organized and effective Democratic ground game in the state, Loeffler is tacitly acknowledging that Georgia is no longer the Georgia of old.
“I continue to believe that the only way for Republicans to defend our state is to work year-round to grow our movement through voter registration and engagement,” she said. “If we can’t outraise them, we have to outwork them.”