Cushman: Note to Georgia’s Republican Candidates: Be ‘For’ Something in 2022
This 2022 Georgia gubernatorial election is shaping up to be a rough one for Republicans. Democrat Stacey Abrams is opposing Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, possibly as a steppingstone to the White House. Former Sen. David Perdue, citing concern that Kemp can’t beat Abrams, is running against Kemp in the Republican primary. Former President Donald Trump endorsed Perdue this week, leading to neck-and-neck poll results for the contest between Kemp and Perdue. Both are already running ads that focus on stopping Abrams. Kemp defeated Abrams in the general election in 2018, but Abrams did not concede — and announced the next year in a speech that “we won” the campaign.
Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial primary will be a bloodbath, and so will its U.S. Senate race, where Trump-endorsed Republican candidate Herschel Walker is running for the chance to unseat Raphael Warnock, from Georgia. It’s going to be a wild ride. How did we get here? Let’s take a quick look back.
Over two years ago, Kemp appointed Georgia businesswoman Kelly Loeffler to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Sen. Johnny Isakson, who retired. Loeffler, who personally funded her own campaign, seemed to be a good pick: female, smart, attractive, hardworking and self-financing. But Trump was advocating for Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, to be appointed. Kemp took Loeffler to Washington to meet with Trump, but the meeting did not lead to Trump’s endorsement. That left Kemp with three options: cave to Trump and appoint Collins; stick to his guns and appoint Loeffler; or work with Trump to appoint a third person, thereby allowing both Kemp and Trump to back off their hard stances.
Kemp pushed ahead and appointed Loeffler. (Full disclosure: Your columnist had also thrown her hat in the ring.) Due to the timing of the appointment, a special election was to be held for the seat at the same time as the 2020 general elections, with no prior party primaries. The winner would have to win over 50% of the vote to avoid a Jan. 5, 2021, runoff.
Collins declared his candidacy for the seat, and the Democrats in Georgia chose Warnock, who was then pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had preached. Warnock had no political experience, but a great personal story. A runoff was assured.
Republican Loeffler ran as “more conservative than Attila the Hun.” (Yes, that was how her campaign described her in an actual advertisement.) The only people who did well in the race and runoff were her political consultants, who must have made millions providing terrible strategic advice and ridiculous commercials. She did partially self-finance, putting $24 million into her campaign.
In March, the arrival of the pandemic put a damper on election events and led to the use of drop boxes under emergency rules that no longer exist in Georgia.
In the meantime, the presidential election campaigns were also in full swing. The result in November in Georgia was 49.5% for now-President Joe Biden versus 49.3% for Trump. The new use of drop boxes in unwatched locations, and vote-counting processes, which stopped and restarted in Fulton County, led many to question the outcome of the 2020 elections.
Loeffler did well enough in November to make it to the runoff against Warnock. The other U.S. Senate seat for Georgia, held by Perdue, was up for standard primary and then general election in 2020. Perdue squared off against now Sen. Jon Ossoff. Neither topped 50% during the November 2020 election, so that election was also decided in the Jan. 5 special election.
Pollster John McLaughlin asked Georgia voters soon after the general election: “Do you approve or disapprove of Gov. Brian Kemp calling a special session of the Georgia State Legislature to require signature verification for every mail-in ballot for the Jan. 5 run-off election?” More than half (58%) of respondents said they approved, while 38% disapproved, according to the poll, which was conducted from Nov. 21-24. The Georgia Legislature was out of session and could be called back to session only by Kemp. He didn’t call them back.
The turnout for the January runoff elections was lower for Republicans than for Democrats, and both incumbent senators lost. Some blamed Trump for bashing the Georgia elections; some blamed Kemp for not calling a special session to ensure election integrity. The candidates should blame themselves for running uninspiring, negative campaigns.
Why do we care about this history? Because it sets up 2022 to be a fiercely competitive election. My hope is that the Republican candidates focus more on what they are running for than on whom they are running against. This was what they failed to do in 2020, which led to their defeat. To win, they must be for something specific that Georgians care about.
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