Election Day in Georgia came and went much like 2020: with no clear winner in the U.S. Senate race, triggering the campaign equivalent of overtime. The state’s quirky election rules dictate that if no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the vote, everyone gets cut except for the top two finishers — in this case, incumbent Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker — and the race keeps going until that threshold is met in a runoff. This means that, by the likely next matchup on December 6, Georgians will have voted on at least 17 separate Election Days this year, counting the early voting period that started on October 17. More than 2.5 million people cast their ballots before November 8, a state record for early vote turnout in a midterm. The Warnock-Walker race alone has cost $142.7 million so far, the most expensive Senate contest of 2022.
If there was any doubt that the monumental stakes of voting had been internalized by the state’s electorate over the last decade and put to effective use by organizers, these facts should erase it. Here in Georgia, we are up to our necks in election material. Rare is the mail delivery that doesn’t feature a stack of pamphlets. You can’t open YouTube without hearing about Warnock’s reckless spending in Washington, D.C., or Walker threatening to start a shoot-out with cops. As I type these words, my wife is at our front door talking with a canvasser. Is this pleasant? No. But it’s a condition that liberal voters have embraced because it affirms that Democrats are competitive, which they weren’t for almost two decades. It typifies Georgia’s new prominence as a state whose electoral fate could determine that of the country — which it may again, with Senate races in Nevada and Arizona still undecided.
It’s no surprise, then, that since acquiring this purple tint our politics have gotten uglier, if perhaps in ways that aren’t intuitive. When I spoke to Nsé Ufot last month about what it would take to keep Warnock’s seat in Democratic hands, the CEO of the New Georgia Project, a voter-outreach organization founded by Stacey Abrams, told me that persuasion is overrated. “I don’t know who is left to be persuaded,” she said. “It will be a battle of the bases — who will turn their voters out?” The answer to that question isn’t clear yet, though the total number of voters is set to exceed 3.95 million. But stiffer polarization and regular opportunities for either side to wrest back whatever power they might’ve ceded in the last election mean that, for Republicans especially, there’s been little incentive to moderate like in years past — even as the right has benefitted from the standards for being moderate shifting in their favor.
What we have instead is a persistent reactionary thrum from the northern mountains to the Florida-border swamps. It has made it so that, a mere two years after Georgia Republicans surrendered two U.S. senate seats and four years after Abrams came historically close to winning the governorship, conservative excess has only gotten more pronounced. They may lose another winnable race in the bargain, but the likelihood of a course correction is getting dimmer by the day, with implications for how the national party behaves now that the prospect of a red midterms wave has vanished.
Governor Brian Kemp, who ushered in the most comprehensive voter-suppression regime in the country when he was secretary of State, won the governorship in 2018 with campaign ads that featured him pointing a rifle at his teenage daughter’s boyfriend and showing off his pickup truck for rounding up “illegals.” Now, having signed into law a draconian six-week ban on abortion, he’s regarded as a pillar of sober restraint for not putting maximum effort into handing the 2020 election to Donald Trump. Brad Raffensperger, Kemp’s successor as secretary, currently oversees much the same voting regime but is regarded as something of a folk hero for declining to fabricate 11,780 votes for the same twice-impeached president.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s most famous Republican in Congress remains the newly reelected Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Crossfit gym owner turned QAnon conspiracist who verbally harasses her Democratic colleagues in the Capitol hallways. Kemp was viewed as an extremist, Raffensperger slightly less so, and Greene is unhinged. Each won reelection handily last night.
Walker combines the worst of his GOP predecessor and then some. Kelly Loeffler was a typical cronyism hire, a big donor with no political experience who got appointed by Kemp because of her patronage. But if she was a normal-seeming senator at first and grasped for Trumpier straws when the numbers turned against her, then Walker marks a suspension of standards altogether. As far as his qualifications go, he got famous playing football for the University of Georgia and hopped on the Trump train early, exploiting their shared history in the USFL and on NBC’s The Apprentice. He believes abortion is murder and supports a total ban with no exceptions for rape or incest. He has also, by his own admission, held a gun to his former wife’s head while in thrall to dissociative identity disorder, which led him to believe that 12 different people occupied his body at the same time.
There are myriad ways in which his bid has coarsened the election, in part by being so rife with lies and scandal that even Kemp won’t campaign with him. But a neat distillation was when Nikki Haley — known for her prudence in having the Confederate flag removed from the South Carolina statehouse when she was governor there and for her refinement as the least scandal-ridden member of Trump’s administration — called for Warnock to be deported. “Legal immigrants are more patriotic,” she proclaimed at a recent Walker rally.
This is not a chastened party smarting from a historic defeat two years earlier. It is a party that understands itself to operate with near impunity, insulated from democratic will and enabled by its own continued restriction of the franchise. In March 2021, Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature passed Senate Bill 202, known as the “Election Integrity Act,” which outlawed giving water to people waiting in line to vote and allows the legislature to appoint the state election board chair instead of voters. Two poll workers in Fulton County, the state’s largest and home to much of Atlanta, were removed just before the polls opened because they’d participated in the January 6 attack on the Capitol — a sign of the sway that 2020 election denialism still holds.
Warnock may yet emerge as the rare bright spot in a spate of Democratic defeats here, but it’s a cold comfort. The national picture shows a better-than-expected outcome for President Biden, having staved off the sort of opposition-party wipeout that characterizes most midterms. Yet while this suggests that Republicans are being penalized for their extremism — and their position on abortion in particular — extremism in Georgia has mostly been rebranded as relative temperance. If 2020 marked a local sea change, highlighted by the blue wave that engulfed the Atlanta metro area, the GOP did not interpret it as a shift that required appeasement but as an opportunity to dig in their heels. Ticket-splitting has allowed Warnock to outperform his fellow Democrats but has mainly advantaged Republicans. The GOP’s big takeaway from 2020 seems to be that the pastor turned politician is a special candidate whose success says little about Georgia’s partisan inclinations or their own need to adapt. Nothing that happened in this election is likely to change that.