The 2020 election was closer than you remember. If Donald Trump had flipped 60,000 votes from blue to red in Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, he would be president right now.
Placing loyalists in positions to impact a possible run in 2024 is the most obvious explanation for why Trump has endorsed challengers this year to Georgia incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and Attorney General Chris Carr, all of whom he has repeatedly (and falsely) blamed for costing him the state’s 16 electoral votes in 2020.
Early voting is underway in Georgia, and primary election day is May 24.
“Trump isn’t backing incumbents in Georgia—he’s backing challengers—and it won’t be easy for him,” Greg Bluestein, a political reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, told The Daily Beast. “We don’t know how much clout Trump still has in Georgia, but we’re about to find out.”
Bluestein documents Georgia’s shift from solid red to legit battleground over the last decade in his new book, Flipped: How Georgia Turned Purple and Broke the Monopoly on Republican Power, and offers some context for where the state may be headed in 2022 and 2024.
Bluestein sat down with The Daily Beast to talk about the book.
Stacey Abrams ran for governor of Georgia in 2018 and lost by 55,000 votes. If the main levers that shift elections over time are demographics, turnout, and party affiliation, what has changed in Georgia over the last four years?
One thing that’s changed is that there are 1.2 million new voters. Many of them are younger and more diverse than Georgia’s overall electorate, so Stacey Abrams would say that the case for a Democrat winning this year is a little bit better than it was four years ago. Democrats have been saying for 20 years that they’re going to flip Georgia, but now they can point to 2020 and say they’ve done it with Joe Biden winning Georgia.
Is that enough to cover 55,000 votes in a midterm election year?
Overall, Abrams’ argument has been that demographics is not destiny, that the state will not be Democratic just because it’s trending younger and more diverse. Just because there’s a Black candidate doesn’t mean that Black voters will vote. Abrams says you have to give people a reason to vote.
What reason is Abrams offering?
In 2018, she played to the Democratic Party’s liberal base. In 2022, the electorate is different, but her standing is also different. She doesn’t have to worry about a primary opponent or cementing herself as the liberal to the party’s base. She already has that. She has the luxury now of aiming to a broader electorate by focusing on Medicaid expansion, which she thinks is the big issue.
Having a contested Senate race on the ballot should help with turnout.
It will, and Raphael Warnock got more votes than Jon Ossoff did when they were both running in 2020, so Warnock has proven already to be a very popular candidate. I think he’ll help broaden the Democratic electorate, but the Democrats know they’re facing headwinds. This will not be an easy year to win statewide races.
So Stacey Abrams lost by 55,000 votes in 2018, Joe Biden won by 11,000 votes in 2020, and Warnock won a runoff by 100,000 votes in January 2021. What accounted for that shift?
Some of it was the candidates. Joe Biden stuck to his message, and the Senate candidates stuck to their message. The electorate changed. And Trump was a big factor. Kelly Loeffler, who lost in the runoff to Warnock, had a database with tens of thousands of names that her campaign classified as “GOP, not voting.” No matter how much they appealed to those voters, they bought the lies about election fraud and did not vote in the runoff.
Hillary Clinton flipped two suburban Atlanta counties—Cobb County and Gwinnett County—in 2016 and was the first Democrat running for president to win either of those counties in many years. Cobb County was Newt Gingrich’s home base. How have those counties changed demographically in the last decade?
People have a stereotypical notion of suburban Atlanta as these lily-white areas. That’s just not the case anymore, particularly with Gwinnett County becoming one of the most diverse big counties east of the Mississippi River. These counties have gotten diverse, they’ve gotten younger, and some Republican voters in those counties were turned off by Donald Trump and have started voting Democratic.
The surprise of the 2016 election in Georgia wasn’t that Trump won the state—he and Hillary Clinton didn’t even campaign here—but that he only won by five points and was the first Republican to lose Cobb County and Gwinnett County since the Jimmy Carter era. Those had been solidly Republican counties, and Stacey Abrams has to hold those counties to have any chance of winning this year.
Stacey Abrams is more invested in issues than she is identity politics. She can go into rural counties with largely the same message she has in Atlanta. Has that been a net plus for her?
In Georgia, the conventional wisdom for Democrats used to be to steer clear of guns and national Democrats. In 2006, in 2010, in 2014, Georgia Democrats largely ran as NRA Democrats who didn’t want to give Republicans a wedge issue. In 2018, Stacey Abrams boasted about her F rating with the NRA, which signaled to me how drastically things had changed.
Abrams would go out to red, rural areas and appeal to the liberal Democrats in those areas. She would go to Chamber of Commerce groups and mainstream Republican groups and remind them that she worked with Republicans in the Georgia legislature on Hope Scholarships. She showed a pragmatic side that put some moderate Republicans at ease about her.
Brain Kemp is the Republican governor of Georgia. He beat Stacey Abrams in 2018 and is running again in 2022. How’s that going?
He’s still facing a lot of the Trump dynamics we saw in 2020. Donald Trump blames Kemp for his election defeat; he says Kemp didn’t do enough to illegally overturn the election. Donald Trump wanted Brian Kemp to call a special session of the legislature to refuse to certify the election in Georgia and refuse to sign the paperwork validating the election in Georgia.
Trump has spent more time campaigning against Kemp in Georgia than he has against any other Republican running in this cycle. He recruited David Perdue, the former U.S. senator from Georgia to run against Kemp. He recruited a candidate to run against Brad Raffensberger, who famously refused Trump’s demand to find enough votes to overturn the election. He has recruited candidates to run against Kemp-backed candidates in down-ballot races.
How do you think Trump’s endorsed candidates will do in Georgia?
I think Georgia is the biggest test for Donald Trump’s influence in the entire nation. It’s not because of the big number of candidates he’s endorsed—he’s endorsed six candidates for statewide election in Georgia—but because those candidates are in for such a challenge in Georgia’s primaries on May 24.
Trump is putting Georgia Republicans in a terrible position. If few or none of his endorsed candidates win, how enthusiastic are Trumpy Republicans supposed to be about the general election in November?
In September 2021, Trump said at a rally in Georgia that he’d rather see Stacey Abrams as governor than Brian Kemp. At his most recent rally in Georgia, he predicted that Georgia Republicans would not help Brian Kemp if he does get the party’s nomination and that Herschel Walker, the Senate frontrunner, would also be damaged by Kemp running for governor.
Herschel Walker will likely be the Republican nominee to face Sen. Raphael Warnock in the Senate race. How’s his campaign going?
Walker has a history of violence against women including his ex-wife that has been well-documented in the press. It will be all over Raphael Warnock’s TV ads in the fall if Herschel Walker is the nominee. On the campaign trail, Herschel Walker has done only tightly scripted events, hasn’t done many interviews with outlets beyond conservative media and sports media, and he did not attend the first Republican primary debate.
The fact that he was a football legend at the University of Georgia gives him almost universal name recognition all over Georgia, which has helped raise his visibility immensely. I saw people jumping over each other at a recent rally just to get a closer look. He was the one Trump endorsement in Georgia who didn’t need it, but he has certainly welcomed it.
Like several other states, Georgia has passed laws since the 2020 election to make it more difficult to vote. Do you think the new restrictions will matter?
We’ll see the first test with the primary elections. There are tighter deadlines to submit absentee ballots, and there are more restrictions on ballot drop boxes. People are living in different districts because of redistricting. There’s a photo ID requirement for people casting absentee ballots. There are a lot of changes, so we don’t know what the impact will be. If there’s a tight race, the changes could have a significant impact.
Fulton County is investigating Donald Trump for election law violations. What’s happening there?
The trial of Donald Trump would be the biggest story in the country if it moves forward. We’re not hearing a lot from the District Attorney’s office right now, but there’s a special grand jury underway and we expect a regular grand jury to be summoned soon. I don’t know whether Donald Trump will be indicted, but it would put the Fulton County Courthouse in the center of national news later this year if it happens.