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Columns Tom Baxter

In Georgia runoff’s wake, American politics looks different

Raphael Warnock. (Image by Megan Anderson.)

By Tom Baxter

Late Tuesday, as the mist and fog began to clear over much of Georgia, you could begin to make out the features of a new American political landscape.

The mountain called Donald Trump is still out there, but it doesn’t stand out nearly as prominently as other peaks come into view. Seeing the last of his handpicked candidates go down in defeat wasn’t even the worst part of the former president’s day Tuesday, as his company was found guilty of several counts of fraud. But it did come with a special irony.

In recent weeks, Gov. Brian Kemp has begun quietly putting together the apparatus that would enable him to put away money to run for the Senate or, let’s just say, president. Kemp has been the great beneficiary of Trump’s spitefulness. Trump will get the blame now for Herschel Walker’s defeat, and Kemp will get the credit for making this race as close as it was.

Noticeably absent from this new landscape is any second-day quarrel about the outcome. Walker, in the best moment of his campaign, demonstrated Tuesday night that he knew how to read a scoreboard better than Trump, or the Arizona election denier Kari Lake. Without conceding to Sen. Raphael Warnock directly, he acknowledged his loss and affirmed his loyalty to the Constitution. The outcome was clear, but Walker by his conduct left no room for pointless denials.

What is coming into focus instead is a newly inflamed issue for Democrats. Whatever legal justification Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger may have had for attempting to prohibit early voting on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, it was a gift to the Warnock campaign. The attempt to cut out an early voting day because it came after what used to be the holiday honoring Robert E. Lee got shot down in court. More important, it enraged Democratic voters just as the early voting period began.

After the 2020 election, majority-Republican legislatures across the country passed more restrictive election laws. This runoff campaign demonstrated how effective the Georgia law was in riling up Democrats and how ineffective it was in keeping them away from the polls. To the degree they force average voters to wait longer in line or go to more trouble to get an absentee ballot, each one of these laws is gold for the Democrats.

Warnock seemed keenly aware of this Tuesday night, in a victory speech the New York Times called “soaring” the next day.

“Let me be clear. The fact that millions of Georgians endured hours in lines – and were willing to spend hours in line – lines that wrapped around buildings and went on for blocks, lines in the cold, lines in the rain, is most certainly not a sign voter suppression does not exist,” Warnock said. “Instead, it is proof that you, the people, will not allow your voices to be silenced.”

Georgia has been described in recent years as a state becoming purple. As the fogs lift, what we see instead is a red state with two blue U.S. senators. The politics of this state has been uniquely shaped by the turbulence of the last few years, and with Tuesday’s result, it has produced two emergent national figures: Kemp, the architect of what you might call post-Trump Red State Republicanism, and Warnock, a minister who has proved himself to be the toughest campaigner Georgia Democrats have had in a long time.

It will be interesting to see what Warnock can do when he doesn’t have to run again for six years. It’s almost inevitable that in the wake of this victory he will be the subject of some short or long-term presidential speculation. This also would not be happening but for the blundering hand of Donald Trump.

Warnock raised a record amount of money and conducted an excellent campaign. If Gary Black — a Georgia Republican without charisma or a national name — had been his opponent, I’m not sure that would have been enough to put Warnock over the top. The Georgia Republican Party continues to generate a remarkable number of votes in places where the population is small in comparison to Metro Atlanta, but in all but the reddest and smallest rural counties, Warnock increased the Democratic share of the vote.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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2 Comments

  1. Drive Mad January 2, 2023 9:21 pm

    Warnock successfully raised an unprecedented sum of money and ran a stellar campaign. I’m not convinced Gary Black, a Georgia Republican without personality or a national reputation, would have been enough to push Warnock over the top if he had been his opponent instead.Report

    Reply
  2. J.Day January 4, 2023 5:52 pm

    Anyone that thinks there was voter suppression in Georgia, needs his head examined or is a liar or both. Record voter turnout, doesn’t support voter suppression. Warnock won simply because of slick and frequently dirty political ads, lots of out of state money, and a very poorly chosen Republican candidate.Report

    Reply

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