Political almanac chronicles two turbulent years for Georgia and its governor

For more than five decades, the Almanac of American Politics has set the standard for political reference books. In July, the Almanac will be publishing its 2024 edition, with some 2,200 pages offering fully updated chapters on all 435 House members and their districts, all 100 senators, all 50 states and governors, and much more.

Once again, Saporta Report is offering the almanac’s chapters on Georgia and Gov. Brian Kemp. Louis Jacobson, a senior author of the Almanac and a contributor to seven volumes, writes the 100 state and gubernatorial chapters.

Readers can receive a 15 percent discount if they purchase the 2024 edition through the Almanac’s website and apply the code Saporta 15 at checkout. The offer is good through August.

First, Georgia:

Georgia, once a Democratic bastion like the rest of the South, went heavily for Republicans in the 1990s and much of the 2000s, in both federal and state races. But in 2020, Democrats surged not only to a victory in the presidential race but also in two Senate runoffs, followed by a 2022 election in which Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock won another runoff for a full term. Meanwhile, Republicans not aligned with former President Donald Trump also fared well in 2022, notably Gov. Brian Kemp, who was reelected by a healthy seven-point margin. Suburban voters, a slice of whom supported both Warnock and Kemp, have helped turn Georgia into a highly competitive state.

Georgia was the last of the 13 colonies to be founded, by British soldier and politicianJames Oglethorpe in 1733 as an “asylum of the unfortunate,” reserved for debtors and other outcasts from England. Oglethorpe, a humanitarian, forbade slavery, but the settlers rebelled and repealed his ban in 1750. In 1790, the first census showed Georgia—the biggest state by area—with the smallest population of any of the original 13 states except tiny Delaware and Rhode Island. It was only the fifth largest slave state when the Civil War began. Early in the 20th century, Georgia was still largely agrarian and sparsely populated. Then, beginning in the 1960s, the state shared in the growth explosion taking place in the South. By 2000, it was ranked among the top 10 most populous states, and it’s now the eighth largest. This is the result mainly of the stunning growth in metro Atlanta, which spreads out over the red clay hills, growing from 3.1 million people in 1990 to 4.2 million in 2000 and just over 6 million today. The Atlanta Regional Commission projects that by 2050, greater Atlanta will see its population rise to 8.6 million. Georgia’s median income is about $3,000 below the national average, but it exceeds that of its regional neighbors save Virginia and Texas.

Even before its demographic surge, Atlanta was in many ways the center of the South. Prior to the Civil War, the city, located near the south end of the Appalachian chain, was a railroad junction. Its capture by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in September 1864 and his scorched-earth March to the Sea did much to seal President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection victory in November 1864 and the Union victory over the Confederacy seven months later. Neither Atlanta’s rise to world eminence nor its role as the “capital” of the South was inevitable. A century ago, Richmond, Charleston and New Orleans all had stronger claims to being the cultural focus of the region. But in the 20th century, two figures imprinted Atlanta on the national imagination. One was Margaret Mitchell, whose 1936 novel Gone with the Wind inspired the 1939 movie (and has more recently been spurned for its sympathetic portrayal of the antebellum South). The other was Martin Luther King Jr., who was based in Atlanta for most of his career and who, with Atlanta-based organizations, ultimately led the civil rights revolution that changed the South and the nation.

Linking the two was Atlanta’s business community, notably Robert Woodruff, who headed Coca-Cola from 1923 to 1955 and made Coke—invented locally by John Stith Pemberton—a worldwide enterprise. Perhaps aware that a global company could not afford to be associated with racial segregation, Woodruff and William Hartsfield, the city’s mayor from 1937 to 1961, cooperated with Black leaders and promoted Atlanta as “the city too busy to hate.” Hartsfield’s successor, Ivan Allen Jr., elected in 1961 and 1965, supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964,as Peachtree Center and the first Hyatt Regency were going up in downtown Atlanta. And if geography made Atlanta, like Chicago, a natural rail hub in the mid-19th century, it was their mayors—Hartsfield in Atlanta, Richard J. Daley in Chicago—who built airports that made their cities major transportation hubs in the mid-20th century. Then, in 1996, came the last, great jolt that created the modern Georgia: the summer Olympics, which kicked off a wave of economic development and worldwide media exposure (although CNN, one of Atlanta’s great native companies, later gained new ownership and moved most of its operations elsewhere, and Coke has recently pursued rounds of local belt-tightening as the company grapples with health concerns that have lowered consumption of sugary drinks.) Today, the metro area’s diversified economy ranges from credit cards (some 70 percent of transactions are processed in the Atlanta area, employing an estimated 37,000 people) to television and film production, including such productions as Black Panther, The Walking Dead, and Ozark (in which Georgia stands in for Missouri). Georgia’s film industry—centered on such facilities as Tyler PerryStudios, Turner Studios, Trillith Studios, Blackhall Studios— has remained strong, even as the state’s tax-credit allowance has faced second-guessing by politicians. In fiscal 2022, film and TV productions spent a record $4.4 billion in the state.

Today, Georgia is 33 percent Black, 10.2 percent Hispanic and 4.6 percent Asian.That’s the third-highest African-American percentage of any state (behind Mississippi and Louisiana) and the second-lowest percentage of whites east of the Mississippi River (after Maryland). Projections from the Atlanta Regional Commission find that the Atlanta area’s white population is set to fall from 47.5 percent in 2015 to 31 percent in 2050. More than one of every 10 Georgians is foreign-born, up from 2.7 percent in 1990.

Metro Atlanta’s population features wide belts of prosperity, along with top-flight cultural institutions, a large millennial population and a vibrant LGBTQ community. African Americans have been moving to middle-class, suburban counties west and southeast of the city, while Hispanics have been clustering along Interstate 85 in Gwinnett County and Interstate 75 in Cobb County to the north. Gwinnett is home to hubs of Korean, Cuban, Indian, Vietnamese and Mexican residents, such as Duluth, where Asians account for about a quarter of the population; non-white children account for three of every four students in Gwinnett’s school system, up from one in five two decades ago, according to the Washington Post. The FX television show Atlanta, a popular and critical hit, has given the diverse region some national cultural cred.

But in 2020, two incidents in Georgia helped fuel outrage not just locally but nationally. One was the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man in Brunswick, after three white men pursued him, thinking he was a break-in suspect; in 2022, the state legislature passed a resolution establishing “Ahmaud Arbery Day,” one day after a federal jury convicted three white men of hate crimes in the case. The second high-profile case was the Atlanta police shooting of a Black man, Rayshard Brooks, who was shot while fleeing after he had fallen asleep in a Wendy’s drive-through lane. Then, in March 2021, a white shooter killed eight people, including six Asian American women, in a rampage at massage parlors.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s rural outstate regions have struggled. Georgia has the third-highest rate of uninsured residents in the nation, trailing only Texas and Oklahoma. This, in turn, has led to a rash of rural hospital closures and counties without practicing physicians. Georgia’s increasingly efficient agriculture sector ranks first or second in the production of broilers, pecans, cotton, and peanuts (today’s output would have put Jimmy Carter’s to shame). Georgia has also been making strides in electric vehicles. Hyundai Motor Group broke ground in 2022 on a $5.54 billion,17 million-square-foot factory a half-hour west of Savannah, while another electric-vehicle producer, Rivian, is readying a $5 billion factory. Both are scheduled to start production in 2025.

Georgia cast the second-highest Democratic percentage for president in 1960, but in the next two elections, Georgia voters swung sharply, backing Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George Wallace in 1968. Statewide election contests were typically fought out in Democratic primaries that pitted Atlanta-supported moderates against rural-supported segregationists or conservatives, and the latter usually won. Then came change with the emergence of Carter,a former two-term state senator who was elected governor in 1970 with a rural base. After taking office, Carter proclaimed racial reconciliation and installed a portrait of King in the state capitol. Carter thus became one of the first politicians from the rural South to celebrate and honor the civil rights movement, and in the process, set himself on the road to being elected president in 1976. Carter was followed by a series of Democratic governors with connections to rural parts of the state—George Busbee, Joe Frank Harris, Zell Miller and Roy Barnes. In March 2023, Carter went into hospice at the age of 98.

But countervailing political trends transformed Georgia, for a long historical moment, into a mostly Republican state. Affluent voters in metro Atlanta became generally Republican, while white voters outside metro Atlanta became Republican stalwarts; for years, Georgia’s most prominent politician nationally was Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich, who became House speaker. George W. Bush carried the state 55%-42% in 2000, and for the next three elections, Republican presidential nominees carried it with between 52 percent and 58 percent of the vote. With help from party switchers, Republicans captured the state Senate in 2002 and the state House in 2004 and have maintained large majorities in both chambers ever since. The GOP dominated statewide and federal races for the better part of two decades.
But the changing demographics and partisan trends in the Trump era changed everything. In 2016, Donald Trump won the state, but three metro counties that had supported Mitt Romney in 2012 shifted to Hillary Clinton—Gwinnett, with a 15-point swing, Cobb, with a 14-point swing, and Henry, with a seven-point swing. Clinton carried several other metro counties, including Fulton, Douglas, Rockdale and DeKalb, by margins that were eight to 13 points higher than Barack Obama four years earlier. After a close loss to Kemp in the 2018 gubernatorial race, Democrat Stacey Abrams, an African-American former state House minority leader, focused on voter registration in the state, especially of Black voters. In the 2020 presidential election, Biden turned Clinton’s five-point deficit into a victory of fewer than 12,000 votes. Like Clinton, Biden won the nine core counties of the Atlanta area, but he prevailed by even bigger margins. “If you jumped into a car at the state capitol, it would take nearly a half-hour’s drive, in any direction, to find a precinct won by Trump,” Dave Weigel wrote in The Washington Post. Trump increased his margins in whiter, more rural parts of the state, but “there simply weren’t enough Republican votes in rural Georgia to make up for those Democratic gains,” Weigel wrote.

Still, Biden’s victory was narrow, and even after a hand-recount confirmed it, Trump tried to strong-arm Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Kemp, and other Georgia officials to “find” enough votes to put him over the top. It only became known after his death in 2022 that longtime House Speaker David Ralston also had a phone conversation with Trump, politely holding off Trump’s request. Trump’s obsession with losing the state was widely believed to have contributed to the GOP’s loss in the two Jan. 5 Senate runoffs, to Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. Warnock, a prominent Black pastor from King’s Atlanta church, and his allies were able to supercharge Black turnout, including voters in rural areas, while Republican support dipped modestly in some of Trump’s strongest regions. 

After the election, Georgia Republicans drew up legislation to overhaul the state’s voting rules. The measure passed on party-line votes, and while the final version left out some of the more controversial changes, Democrats assailed it, with Biden and others calling in “JimCrow 2.0,” and Major League Baseball deciding to move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta. This characterization would eventually become less than convincing after turnout remained high in 2022; Raffensperger later said that Abrams and Biden “lied to the people of Georgia and the country for political gain.”

Meanwhile, Trump—under pressure from a lengthy grand jury investigation over alleged election-interference led by Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis—tried to influence the state’s 2022 primaries, endorsing challengers to both Kemp (former Sen. David Perdue) and Raffensperger (former Rep. Jody Hice). But Kemp and Raffensperger won their primaries with 74 percent and 52 percent, respectively—a clear repudiation of Trump. Both of the Republican nominees went on to win the general election with relative ease; in a rematch, Kemp defeated Abrams by a comfortable seven points. Trump was also humbled in the Senate contest, in which his endorsed candidate against Warnock, retired football star Herschel Walker, experienced a seemingly endless series of personal scandals, eventually losing the runoff to Warnock by almost three points. A crucial segment of voters, especially in the Atlanta area, supported both Warnock and Kemp: Warnock outran Abrams by more than 13 points in Gwinnett, 11 in DeKalb, 10 in Henry, eight in Douglas, more than seven in Newton, and five in Cobb. The common thread boosting both Warnock and Kemp, it appeared, was a willingness to stand up to Trump. By contrast, in down-ballot races in which Trump wasn’t as big a factor, Republicans prevailed consistently; in seven row-office contests in 2022, Democrats only managed to win between 44 and 47 percent of the vote. 

Georgia is on track to remain highly competitive between the parties. Indeed, when Democrats rearranged their presidential primary schedule in 2023, they put Georgia fourth in line. However, Raffensperger dashed that possibility in May 2023 when he set the 2024 primary date for March 12, about a month later than Democratic officials were seeking.

Next, Gov. Brian Kemp:

Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican governor, had a roller-coaster first term in office. In 2018, Kemp narrowly defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams in an ideologically charged gubernatorial race, with strong support from President Donald Trump. But when Trump narrowly lost the state in the 2020 presidential race, Trump lashed out at Kemp and other top officials for certifying Joe Biden’s presidential victory, even fomenting a GOP primary challenge to his one-time ally. But Kemp prevailed in the 2022 GOP primary, and his distance from Trump drew enough support from Atlanta’s suburbs that he easily defeated Abrams in a rematch, even as Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock was winning a full term.

In office, Kemp has managed to maintain his socially conservative image while wooing one of liberals’ favorite industries—electric vehicles—and continuing to defy Trump, a unique framing for a Republican politician today.

Growing up, Kemp worked on a farm near Athens. His ancestors include a Revolutionary War major, George Washington’s postmaster general, and several state legislators. He graduated from the University of Georgia—the fourth generation in his family to do so—earning a bachelor’s degree in agriculture. Kemp found financial success in homebuilding and real estate, although some of his ancillary investments in agriculture struggled. Frustrated in his interactions with local zoning rules, Kemp ran for the state Senate in 2002 and won in a strong Republican year. In 2006, he ran unsuccessfully for agriculture commissioner, but four years later, Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed him to the vacant secretary of state post. In that position, Kemp enacted a voter registration system that allowed voters to register online and by mobile app. But critics accused him of overzealously purging voters from the rolls. Kemp was also in office during a data breach of private information, including Social Security numbers that affected more than 6 million voters.

In 2017, Kemp became the first major Republican to announce a bid for governor, in anticipation of an open seat left by two-term Republican Gov. Nathan Deal. Of the candidates seeking the nomination, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle had the most establishment support, although several other candidates ran as well—former state Sen. Hunter Hill, consulting firm executive Clay Tippins, and state Sen. Michael Williams. Each aggressively courted the Republican base, but Kemp was perhaps the most uncompromising. In one ad, he pointed a shotgun at a “young man” who was “interested in” one of his daughters. In another, he promised to personally “round up illegal criminals” using his pickup truck. Late in the primary campaign, Cagle miscalculated by attacking Hill in the hope of facing Kemp in a runoff. Cagle got what he wanted—he finished first in the primary with 39 percent, while Kemp finished second with 26 percent—but Cagle ran into some controversies, and the two-man runoff only emphasized the base-vs.-establishment dynamic, and that ended up boosting Kemp. The coup de grace was Trump’s tweeted endorsement of Kemp. He won, 70%-30%.

The Democratic nominee was Abrams, who defeated Stacey Evans 76%-24% in what became known as the “two Stacey’s” primary. Abrams, who is Black, was born poor, but in a family with a strong educational drive. Abrams earned degrees from Spelman College, the University of Texas and Yale Law School. Abrams served as deputy city attorney in Atlanta, started two businesses, and in her spare time wrote romance novels under a pen name. In 2006, Abrams won a seat in the state House; four years later, she was elected minority leader, becoming the first woman to be chosen to lead a caucus in either chamber. Abrams took charge of the shrunken Democratic ranks, at times shrewdly cooperating with the Republican majority. She won the gubernatorial primary by energizing less-frequent voters, many of them non-white.

Despite some feints toward the center, the general election developed as a battle between clashing ideologies. The candidates divided sharply over Medicaid expansion, abortion, immigration, gun policy and marijuana legalization; Trump actively supported Kemp. The closing weeks of the campaign were dominated by unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud—an issue of special sensitivity to Kemp because he refused to step down as secretary of state as he was running for governor. When the votes were counted, the margin was close enough that Abrams refused to concede (and never really did before the 2022 election). Kemp won by 55,000 votes out of 3.9 million cast, and he had only an 18,000-vote cushion above the threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

In his first two years, Kemp signed hate crimes legislation that had stalled in previous legislative sessions; the debate came amid outrage over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man pursued by three white men in Brunswick who said they thought he was a burglary suspect. “We witnessed a horrific, hate-filled act of violence,” Kemp said during the legislative debate. “We saw injustice with our own eyes.” (The defendants were later convicted for the crimes.) During the coronavirus pandemic, Kemp ended restrictions on many types of businesses, including gyms, tattoo parlors, and movie theaters. The move was opposed by public health specialists and local elected officials, and its speed and scope even prompted Trump to say, “I was not happy with Brian Kemp. I will tell you that.” But later, Kemp, like other Republican governors, would trumpet vindication, saying that his early moves toward reopening bolstered the state’s economy. After Trump lost Georgia in the 2020 election, the ousted president turned his ire on the state officials who refused to overturn the election results, including Kemp, who had already irked the president by appointing Kelly Loeffler to a vacant Senate seat rather than Trump’s pick, Doug Collins. Trump called the governor he had once endorsed a “clown” and a “fool,” and he retweeted a call for Kemp to go to jail. Kemp said Trump’s attacks had prompted a wave of social media hatred against him and his family, including death threats. 

In 2021, Georgia remained in the nation’s political eye, as lawmakers passed, and Kemp signed, an election-law overhaul that Democrats decried, leading Major League Baseball to pull the All-Star Game from Atlanta. However, some of the most controversial proposals didn’t make the bill’s final version, and Kemp and others would eventually claim vindication in 2022 as voter turnout remained high in the primaries, the general election, and runoffs.

In the run-up to his 2022 bid for reelection, Kemp weighed in on some divisive issues. He signed a bill preventing cities and counties from making large cuts to their police budgets; a bill to allow residents to carry concealed handguns without a permit; a “parents’ bill of rights” to allow parents’ greater oversight of K-12 teaching materials; curbs on teaching “divisive concepts” such as race; and a barrier to transgender athletes participating on sports teams that do not conform to their birth gender. Meanwhile, working off the state’s fetal heartbeat abortion ban—which Kemp had signed in 2019 and was in force despite legal challenges—the state revenue department released guidance that said any fetus with a detectable heartbeat would be eligible for a tax exemption. Some of Kemp’s most significant accomplishments, however, came on less controversial matters, namely economic development. He helped reel in Hyundai Motor Group and Rivian, two electric vehicle manufacturers, to build separate $5 billion factories, as well as a $2.6 billion factory for SK Battery and a major facility for solar-panel manufacturer Hanwha. He cited these projects in his second inaugural address, promising to make Georgia “the electric mobility capital of America.”

Trump, still steaming over Kemp’s actions after the 2020 election, convinced former Sen. David Perdue to challenge Kemp in the GOP primary. But Perdue was underfunded and lackluster on the campaign trail; Kemp ended up demolishing him, 74%-22%. Tensions between Kemp and Trump continued to fester, including an order to testify before a grand jury investigating Trump’s election interference (though a judge agreed to delay the testimony until after the 2022 election).
In the general election, Kemp faced Abrams again, but the rematch proved to be less than titanic, as Kemp led comfortably the entire campaign. While Abrams sought to energize voters unhappy with the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, Kemp’s continuing opposition to Trump was appreciated by a crucial sliver of suburban Republicans who had backed Biden in 2020 and were unhappy with the Trump-backed, scandal-laden 2022 Senate candidate, Herschel Walker. Kemp ended up defeating Abrams 53%-46%. (This time, Abrams did concede.) The incumbent’s raw vote total rose by more than 133,000 while Abrams’ declined by more than 110,000. In blue-trending Cobb and Gwinnett counties outside Atlanta, Kemp lost by smaller margins than he had in 2018 (by 4.5 and 3.5 points, respectively) and in greater Atlanta, Kemp consistently outran Walker—who Kemp formally backed but kept some distance from—by between 5 and 14 points, explaining why Kemp won and Walker lost. “If Mr. Kemp’s electoral victory over Stacey Abrams was decisive … his psychological victory over Donald Trump was devastating, in ways you cannot measure in votes,” NewYork Times columnist Michelle Cottle wrote. Indeed, Kemp’s skillful navigation of currents both inside and outside the Republican base elevated his national profile, with party leaders courting him for a possible challenge to Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff in 2026, or perhaps a future presidential run.

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