Georgia primary could foreshadow what’s to come in November

Election Day in downtown Clayton. (Credit: David Spears)

Key Points
  • Strategists: Both parties must solidify core support after poor primary turnout.
  • Turnout Tuesday was 50% lower than it was in the 2020 primary.
  • Getting voters to the polls in November may be an uphill battle.

The Gist

With the state’s primary election in the rearview mirror, the hard work begins for Democrats and Republicans, especially when it comes to getting voters to the polls, political analysts say. 

Tuesday’s election had the lowest voter turnout in recent years, serving as a gauge of what to expect in the Nov. 5 general election.

“What this low turnout indicates is it’s going to take a lot more to encourage even your partisans to go and vote,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor who has been tracking Georgia politics for over 50 years.

What’s Happening 

In 2022, Georgia voters ushered in the most diverse group of legislators in recent history, after several years of national and state high-profile, contentious, partisan battles.

The Georgia General Assembly opened its 2023 session with 10 new senators while the House got 43 newcomers. Both the House and Senate gained new leadership, as well as a new Speaker of the House, for the first time in 12 years.

That level of political and civic activity that put those newcomers in place appears to have wilted. 

But not for everyone. For 55-year-old Fayetteville voter Aletha Rumley, state elections are more important to her than presidential elections.

“They make a direct impact on your life on a daily basis, whereas presidential elections, though important, don’t make immediate changes for my daily life,” said the registered nurse, who is a manager for a medical device firm. She declined to say how she voted on Tuesday. 

Voter turnout — including absentee and early voting — for Tuesday’s primary barely crossed the one million mark by late afternoon, according to state election officials. That’s a 50% drop from 2020, when 2 million, or 28.5% of registered voters, cast ballots during the primary. In the 2022 primary, 1.8 million — or 25.7% of registered voters — cast ballots.

Rep. Carl Gilliard, D-Savannah, chairman of the 74-member Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, said he’s not seeing grassroots engagement that was present statewide and nationally four years ago. 

At that time, the national and statewide campaigns were high-profile with big-name players who spent unprecedented amounts on campaigns. 

The 2020 elections saw nine of the 10 most expensive Senate races ever, with Georgia’s U.S. Senate contests — including the runoff — taking the top two spots, according to Spending for those two races combined topped $800 million.

Also, in 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was surging, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man murdered while jogging in Glynn County, and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by Louisville, Kentucky police serving a no-knock warrant for drug suspicion, led to more than 450 protests nationwide and on three continents. In Georgia and other U.S. cities, it led to Black youth rallying for change.

That same year, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams led an effort to increase the voter rolls for the 2020 presidential election. Fair Fight and the New Georgia Projects, two groups Abrams founded, registered more than 800,000 new voters. 

Similarly, Kemp got Republican voters to turn out in large numbers for the gubernatorial race in 2022 during his second contest with Abrams who lost.

Now, Gilliard said, “People don’t really know what’s going on.” 

According to Bullock, “Both parties should be going out there and laying the groundwork for [a] grassroots movement.”Democrats and Republicans, he added, should spend the next several months “identifying individuals who they’re sure are going to vote for their candidates and collecting data on that.”

Closer to the fall when voters are thinking about the November general election, Bullock said, both parties need to revisit those voters and begin sending them information on where candidates stand on such issues as education or health care. Then, he suggests, track those voters all the way to the polls.

On the state election front, there’s not much up for grabs congressionally or legislatively, Bullock said. And redistricting essentially assures “Republicans are going to continue to be running the state.”

“But in terms of what kind of national administration we have and what its attitudes are with regard to health care, conflict in the Middle East, conflict in Ukraine, abortion and all those things. Yeah, it’s going to make quite a bit of difference,”said Bullock.

The Road Ahead for Democrats

For Republican communications consultant Brian Robinson, Tuesday’s turnout and results indicate Georgians are satisfied with the status quo. In fact, he noted, Georgians beat back attempts to make abortion a referendum in the state Supreme Court race by returning incumbent Andrew Pinson to his seat. 

 “Georgians aren’t riled up right now,” Robinson told State Affairs. “They’re not angry and are probably happy with how things are being run here on the state level. It was not a ‘throw the bums out’ election. It was very much a ‘ratification of the path we’re on’ election.”

Robinson worked on Capitol Hill for former Republican congressmen Phil Gingrey and Lynn Westmoreland. He also served as former Gov. Nathan Deal’s deputy chief of staff. He has worked on numerous political campaigns and is now a co-host of WABE’s Political Breakfast.

Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson concedes his party has a big job ahead of the general election.

More Republicans than Democrats turned out for Tuesday’s primary, continuing a trend that has occurred over the last few years.

“Democrats have got to do a better job. We’ve got to localize our national message,” Johnson, chief executive of Paramount Consulting Group, told State Affairs

Johnson is the other co-host of Political Breakfast, providing the Democratic view. He has served as a senior advisor to the Biden-Harris campaign in Georgia and at senior levels of federal, state, and local campaigns, including for former President Barack Obama, the late Congressman John Lewis, former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, former Congressman John Barrow who lost his bid for Georgia Supreme Court and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond. 

Going forward, Johnson said, Democrats have to focus on issues that resonate with many voters such as hospital closings, Medicaid expansion, maternal mortality, jobs and criminal justice reform. 

Georgia ranks 46th in child health, 49th in maternal mortality — Black women in Georgia have the highest maternal mortality rate in the country — and 47th in access to mental health care, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. And during this year’s legislative session, state lawmakers briefly considered the idea of creating some way of expanding Medicaid, but it didn’t happen.

Raising money also is going to be a big task for Georgia’s Democrats and Republicans if they’re going to get noticed, especially once the din of presidential politicking in Georgia picks up.

“Georgia is an expensive state to campaign in these days,” Robinson said. “It’s going to be a lot of presidential campaign spending here. That’s going to suck up airtime and oxygen in the state.

“So, on the state House level, state Senate level, you’re going to see the Republicans need to spend enough to be able to have a parallel message to [former President Donald] Trump and [President Joe] Biden, with both candidates being unpopular with the electorate at large,” Robinson added. “Candidates are going to need to define themselves.”

Why It Matters 

Johnson got a glimpse this week while in Savannah of what it’s going to take to get voters to the polls in November. 

The Atlanta political strategist asked Uber Driver Ashley Toby if she was happy with President Biden. Toby, who was driving Johnson to the airport, promptly said no. She said she wanted to see more jobs in Savannah and a living wage. 

The two bantered back and forth about Biden with Johnson telling her Biden was responsible for bringing the Hyundai plant and other big companies to the area. He finally asked her if she planned to vote for Trump. She emphatically said no. 

The exchange was sobering.

“We’ve got to persuade and motivate her to go to the polls,” Johnson told State Affairs, which listened in on the conversation. “Democrats have got to do a better job, not only telling the story, as far as the accomplishments of this president; we’ve got to frame it in a way that working Americans understand. This is the thing that Georgia Democrats have got to do. We’ve got to localize our national message.”

Both parties also will need to focus on their most loyal constituents rather than branching out for new voters, political analyst and syndicated columnist Bill Crane said. For Democrats, that means Black women; for Republicans, it’s social conservatives, he said.

What’s Next?

First up is the June 18 primary runoff which will cement the remaining candidates for the Nov. 5 general election.

Court-ordered redistricting took effect this year, creating new electoral districts in some parts of the state. That means some voters have new congressional leaders, a new state senator, or state representative. They also may be voting at a new precinct. 

Check here to see what, if any, changes occurred in your area.

Ultimately what will matter, Crane said, is this: “Base turnout in the fall is going to determine the election.”

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Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Tammy Joyner on X @lvjoyner or at [email protected].

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