- Democrats are in a crucial fight to maintain control of Congress.
- A Warnock reelection would significantly help Democrats brush back a Republican takeover.
- Warnock must overcome Biden’s low approval ratings, stubborn inflation and fears of a looming recession to replicate support in Atlanta’s suburbs.
JONESBORO, Ga. – Carl Cox Jr., a 31-year-old software developer from Dallas, Georgia, northwest of Atlanta, voted for Democrat Raphael Warnock in the 2020 special election to fill the remaining two years of a U.S. Senate seat. But this year, he’s having trouble getting excited about Georgia’s U.S. Senate race, in which Warnock is running for reelection for a full six-year term.
Cox pointed to the souring economy and his own “fatigue” with politics.
He called Warnock, a second-year senator, a “lesser of two evils” in his reelection campaign against Republican Herschel Walker. And he cited the senator’s support for abortion rights, not legislative accomplishments, as the main reason he reluctantly backs Warnock.
“It’s just more of, do I want to drag myself out of bed and do it at that moment?” Cox said of voting in the pivotal Georgia election that could decide control of the Senate. “I just haven’t seen outcomes from Warnock as much as I would have liked to.”
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Democrats can’t afford voters like Cox sitting on the sidelines as Warnock looks to re-create the coalition that helped flip the Peach State blue two years ago and hand Democrats control of the Senate. President Joe Biden, Warnock and fellow Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff assembled a coalition of minority, young and first-time voters, with an emerging Democratic stronghold – suburban voters like Cox – to win their elections and flip a once reliably red state.
To pull off the seismic shift, Democrats expanded their coalition to the suburbs around Atlanta, increasing support among college-educated white voters who historically voted Republican but rejected former President Donald Trump.
To do so this time, Warnock must overcome Biden’s low approval ratings, stubborn inflation and a looming recession.
Still, Democrats have two factors working to their advantage: the emergence of abortion as a potential issue to energize voters, particularly women, and Walker himself.
Walker, a Trump-backed former University of Georgia football star, has been hampered by a string of controversies, including allegations that he paid for his ex-girlfriend to have an abortion despite his anti-abortion position as a candidate.
“Where this could easily be decided is: What do white, college-educated voters do?” said Charles Bullock III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “And what we saw in 2020 and in the 2021 runoffs is that Democrats don’t have to get most of the group’s vote, but they probably need about 40% of that group.”
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Democrats are in a crucial fight to maintain control of Congress. They hold slim majorities in the House, with only an eight-seat advantage, and even slimmer control in the 50-50 Senate.
A Warnock reelection would help Democrats brush back a Republican takeover. The race is widely considered a toss-up. A poll last week from Quinnipiac University found Warnock ahead of Walker 52%-45%, but most polling has shown a tighter race. A polling average by analysis site FiveThirtyEight has Warnock ahead by 3.7 percentage points.
Suburban voters are just one piece of a winning formula for Democrats. They also need Black and young voters to match or come close to turnout of 2020 and 2021. Although stakes are high, even Warnock’s supporters are worried voters might not show up.
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“We got to get these young folks out here to vote. We have to keep the momentum going,” said Sheila Clark-Blake, 57, a nurse practitioner. She spent a Saturday this month volunteering for Warnock’s campaign in Jonesboro, about 20 miles south of Atlanta.
“They are our future, and we have got to get them out here,” she said, gesturing to the lack of younger volunteers at an event Warnock was hosting.
For some Georgia Democrats, the abortion debate alone is enough to get them fired up. Martha Shockey, 68, an administrative assistant at Emory University in Atlanta, said reproductive health is important to voters, especially mothers. Shockey’s daughter gave birth in August, just two months after Roe v. Wade was overturned.
“I was so worried that if something went wrong during childbirth that it could be really bad. And I could lose my daughter. And I could lose my grandchild,” she said
A University of Georgia survey commissioned by the Georgia News Collaborative found nearly 62% of Georgians are opposed to the state’s anti-abortion law, and 54% are strongly opposed. For Black voters, the numbers are starker: 86.4% strongly oppose the law. An August poll of Latino voters in Georgia by UnidosUS found 70% of Latinos believe abortion should remain legal, yet it still ranked below the economy, inflation and gun violence among their top issues.
Georgia law bans abortions starting at about six weeks of pregnancy, well before most people know they are expecting.
“The economy has always been a primary concern for Latinos every single election cycle. So that’s not anything that’s different,” said Jerry Gonzalez, CEO of GALEO, a Latino civic engagement organization in Georgia. “The thing that is different, that is important, is that abortion access and sensible gun control are issues that are front and center.”
But in a troubling sign for Democrats nationally, inflation and economic fears – not abortion – top concerns of midterm voters. In Georgia, 43% of voters in the Quinnipiac poll said inflation is their top concern, compared with 14% who said abortion. Walker has the backing of 77% of voters who ranked inflation their top issue.
Matching the Republican playbook in other battleground states, Walker’s team has slammed Warnock and Biden over immigration, crimeand inflation, Republican senators who have stood behind Walker amid his controversies have framed a vote for Walker as a way to stop Biden’s agenda.
“If you like paying double for gas, vote for Warnock, because he and Joe Biden did that,” said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in a swing last week to Georgia.
Many Georgia Republicans are sticking behind Walker despite his controversies. Quinnpiac’s poll, which has a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points, found that 90% of Republicans would vote for Walker if the election were today.
“As bad as the Democrats operate, he could actually murder somebody and I would still vote for him,” said Samuel Anthony, of Cumming, Georgia, a 63-year-old owner of a boat and RV storage facility.
Past as prologue? Or just past?
“I don’t believe none of it,” said Rosa Lamb, 70, said at the first rally Walker after the abortion news broke in Wadley, Georgia. “Because when somebody’s trying to do good, somebody always slanders you.”
Christina Hyde, 35, of Roswell, Georgia, a self-described independent who leans Republican, said, “What’s in the past is in the past.” Hyde, who works at an engineering firm, called Democratic leadership in Congress a “dumpster fire,” pointing to high gas and grocery prices, among other complaints.
Yet a sliver of Republicans breaking from Walker, even if it’s small, could swing a close race. Bullock said those voters have three options: vote for Warnock, vote for Libertarian Party candidate Chase Oliver, or skip the race altogether.
A vote for a third-party candidate would increase the likelihood of a runoff in January if no one gets 50% of the vote, while Warnock would benefit from Republicans who sit out of the race.
There’s evidence Walker’s abortion controversy has lost him at least some support. A FiveThirtyEight analysis of results from four pollsters found the race swung 3 percentage points in favor of Warnock since Walker’s abortion controversy erupted, shifting from a 47%-47% tie on average before the allegations to a 50%-47% Warnock lead.
The Quinnipiac Poll found Warnock has support of 7% of Georgia Republicans, but Walker is backed by just 1% of Democrats.
“How many Republicans can bring themselves to vote for Walker despite his problems?” Bullock said. “And for those who can’t bring themselves to vote for him, what do they do?”
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The ’30-30′ path for Warnock and Georgia Democrats
In Georgia’s race for governor, Democrat Stacey Abrams has struggled to match Warnock’s poll numbers in her bid to unseat Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. Warnock is performing better among white voters than Abrams. Bullock said suburban voters uneasy about Walker and Trump are more likely to still back Kemp, who refused to give in to Trump’s demands for him not to certify Georgia’s presidential election results in 2020.
“Brian is protected against the anti-Trump Republicans. And yet Brian has never said a bad word about Trump,” Bullock said.
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In Georgia politics, some analysts subscribe to a “30-30” model as the pathway for Democrats. To win, the math suggests, Democrats needs turnout from at least 30% of the state’s Black voters, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, and votes from nearly 30% of all white voters, not just those with college degrees.
In the 2021 Senate runoff race, Black voters cast 32% of the ballots, with 94% of them backing Warnock, according to the Associated Press VoteCast survey. Exit polls showed Warnock got the votes of 29% of white Georgians.
In contrast, although Black voters made up about 30% of the votes cast during Abrams’ narrow loss to Kemp in the 2018 governor’s race, Abrams won just 24% of the white vote.
This year, Warnock has support of 34% of Georgia’s white voters, according to the Quinnipiac poll.
Meanwhile, turnout among Black voters remains a question, even though Walker has shown no signs of peeling away Black voters from Warnock.
“That is the million-dollar question,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor from Emory University. “Democrats’ chances of winning any statewide office is bleak if Black turnout doesn’t meet or exceed expectations.”
Charles M. Schofield, 78, a retired GM employee, who is Black, said he’s backing Warnock over Walker because of Warnock’s authenticity. “Reverend Warnock stands on his own two feet,” Schofield said. “He’s a man of his word. And I can follow him.”
Schofield also said he’s trying to persuade more Black men, including those with whom he attends church, to show up and vote. “I’ve talked to a few, not like I should have. But I’ve talked to a few,” he said.
Georgia’s Democrats and organizers remain hopeful
An added wrinkle this year is Georgia’s new voting law, signed by Kemp, that includes new voter ID requirements for absentee voting, decreased access to drop boxes and prohibitions against offering water or food to voters in line, among other restrictions.
Voting rights groups slammed the bill as a continuation of the Jim Crow era and said it would create a barrier to voting for people of color. During Georgia’s primary in May, organizers documented delays in opening some polling sites, some machines not working and voters confused about where to cast their ballots.
More recently, conservative residents in Georgia challenged 22,000 voter registration records in part because Georgia’s election law allows voters to challenge the eligibility of unlimited numbers of their neighbors. Earlier this month, the Gwinnett County Board of Elections threw out the challenges, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
The new law hasn’t seemed to affect turnout in the midterm election.
Early voting in Georgia is on pace to smash records through the first three days as about 430,000 Georgians voted through Thursday morning, compared with 225,000 in 2018. It has even exceeded turnout of the 2020 presidential election, when 410,000 had voted early at the same point.
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Still, Keron Blair, chief organizing and field officer for the New Georgia Project, a voting rights group, said some voters are concerned. The group has trained volunteers on what interactions with voters in line are not permissible. In one example, Blair said, volunteers have been trained not to give out ponchos if it rains, to avoid unintentionally breaking any laws.
The New Georgia Project also is running several get-out-the-vote efforts, including mobilizing 180 field canvassers around the state, phone banking and partnering with more than 100 influencers to engage voters.
Benjamin Smith Jr., 61, of Atlanta, said he believes a new generation of voters will once again come to Democrats’ rescue.
“The old Jim Crow and good old boys, basically, they’re dying out,” said the retired forklift operator. “If you look at the generation between 18 and 45, there are more people of different races together and also with more democratic and progressive opinions. So yeah, I think Georgia will become a blue state.”
Reach Mabinty Quarshie at @MabintyQ and Joey Garrison @joeygarrison