OPINION - US Midterms 2022: Georgia on Americans’ minds as Republicans seek control of Congress

Former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley introduces Georgia Republican candidate for Senate Herschel Walker at a campaign stop on Sunday, November 6 (REUTERS)
Former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley introduces Georgia Republican candidate for Senate Herschel Walker at a campaign stop on Sunday, November 6 (REUTERS)

There’s a slogan you see often in the city of Atlanta, on posters, t-shirts, murals, and the occasional mug; it says simply, ‘Atlanta Influences Everything’.

The state capital of Georgia, and the unofficial Capital of The South, has plenty of claims to fame, as the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement and home to burgeoning movie and music industries.

But over the past two years the political role of this powerhouse metro area, now the eighth largest in the United States, has underscored tangible facts behind the braggadocio posturing. As the last day of voting in the crucial Midterm elections approaches, Georgia is on many Americans’ minds with good reason.

Back in 2020, there was a sense that the Republicans misread The Peach State. Having held on to it for almost three decades, the GOP seemed convinced that focusing on Trumpian values and appealing to conservative rural voters would carry the day there. But Atlanta’s rapidly growing, young, diverse population was among several key factors that swung crucial votes away from them.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, now a poster-girl for the shoot-from-the-hip opinions and wildly controversial rhetoric that characterise America’s right wing, joined seven other Republicans in the House; but Biden defeated Trump, and in the Senate there were momentous victories for the Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock. Taking Georgia was the key to the party’s wafer-thin majority in the upper chamber.

Raphael Warnock speaks to supporters as film director Spike Lee listens during a canvass event on November 6 in Savannah, Georgia (Getty Images)
Raphael Warnock speaks to supporters as film director Spike Lee listens during a canvass event on November 6 in Savannah, Georgia (Getty Images)

Ossoff’s seat will not be contested at these elections, but Warnock is back on the ballot after two widely praised years in Congress, during which time he carved out a reputation for reaching across the aisle and helped deliver eye-catching healthcare legislation. Now the charismatic pastor at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King himself once preached, is up against a highly unorthodox candidate: Herschel Walker, famous primarily as a star running back for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, is the Republicans’ choice to take on the incumbent Democrat.

While the former football star was beloved in the state for his time as a college player for the University of Georgia Bulldogs, Walker needed to move back to Georgia from Texas to even be eligible to run. But despite this and a series of gaffes and scandals that would have derailed most campaigns, the apparent success to date of his bid has caught many by surprise.

Recent polls indicate the race is almost neck and neck, even with controversies including accusations that Walker pressured women to have abortions, and multiple allegations citing violent and threatening behaviour. Interestingly, Warnock’s campaign has largely chosen to ignore these revelations, only recently homing in on Walker’s alleged hypocrisy on abortion. There is a sense that every vote may count, and perhaps the gloves now need to come off.

People participate in the Cherry Blossom Festival Veterans Day Parade in Macon, Georgia (Getty Images)
People participate in the Cherry Blossom Festival Veterans Day Parade in Macon, Georgia (Getty Images)

The other race gaining national attention is further down the ballot, where a rematch of the 2018 State gubernatorial race sees Republican incumbent Brian Kemp take on star Democrat Stacey Abrams.

The 2018 race was so close that Abrams refused to concede, and even accused her rival of voter suppression. Abrams has now distanced herself from those allegations, turning instead to issues such as Kemp’s radical policies on abortion rights and gun control for her attack points.

Kemp’s brash campaign of 2018 famously saw him brandishing a shotgun, letting off explosives, and talking about driving ‘criminal illegals to the border’ in his truck. Such excesses have been banished this time around, and the Governor has instead been laser focused on the economy, citing the relative success of his early end to Covid lockdown in Georgia among other achievements in office.

CNN Anchor and Correspondent Michael Holmes (CNN)
CNN Anchor and Correspondent Michael Holmes (CNN)

By this Wednesday more than 2 million Georgians had cast early midterm votes, a record in the state. The polls offer only glimmers of an indication which way voters are casting their ballots, but whatever happens in these two races will have national consequences.

Kemp is something of a litmus test for what a post-Trump candidate might look like for his party. The former president admonished him for certifying the 2020 election results and has continued to attack him ever since. Kemp would be living proof that the Republicans do not need Trump’s support to win elections, and that they can even stand up to him. Meanwhile, Abrams was talked about as a possible Vice President when Biden took office, and a win here would set her trajectory further skyward.

As for the Senate race, Walker is undoubtedly among the most controversial candidates on any ballot in America right now. If he were to unseat the moderate and respected Warnock, it would send a chilling message to the Democrats, remove their Senate majority, and undo years of hard work trying to turn Georgia blue.

Michael Holmes is an anchor and correspondent at CNN. CNN.com/election/2022