Six Lessons For Georgia Republicans Following This Year’s Elections

This week’s Courier Herald column:

The elections are now mercifully over.  We should now move on to the part where we govern and are governed, after a brief break for a political ad free holiday season.  Before we do, let’s take a look at some lessons from this election cycle, with an emphasis on Georgia’s runoff that returned Raphael Warnock to Washington for a full six-year term.

Independent voters do exist.  

Too often this group is confused with or identified as “undecided voters”.  Too many within the GOP, still clinging to the idea that Georgia is “bright red” and that these voters are “really Republican,” deny their existence.  That helps GOP consultants and candidates justify their standard mode of operation which is to throw unlimited amounts of red meat to the base.

Who are these independents?  They’re college educated and high income earning.  They’re clustered in the northern Atlanta suburbs, but are increasingly found in places like the greater Savannah area.  They’re younger than the average Republican voter, tech savvy and environmentally conscious.  They’re racially and religiously diverse. They have low tolerance for race-baiting or anti-immigrant slurs. 

The key to understanding this group is that they generally know what they want. Often, it’s to preserve the status quo and to be left alone.  They are high achieving, and are annoyed with different aspects of each party that threatens their current economic situation or lifestyle.  More and more often, they’ve voting against whichever party is overreaching the most.

These swing voters want stability, and find that in centrist leaders.

Too help illustrate this, look at the 2018 campaign of Governor Brian Kemp versus his 2022 re-election bid.  In 2018, fresh off a brutal primary where candidates spent over a year trying to “out conservative” each other, it was easy to paint Governor Kemp as a right wing reactionary gun-nut.  This image certainly didn’t hurt in conservative rural Georgia, but it didn’t sell well in the independent heavy suburbs. 

In 2022, Kemp had to win a primary that allowed him to successfully stand up not only to Donald Trump, but many of the same GOP “leaders” that seem to exist only to criticize elected Republicans.  With these folks to Kemp’s right, and Stacey “Georgia is the worst state in the country to live” Abrams to his far left, Kemp and his record of leadership through the pandemic and economic successes of re-opening was the stable, sensible choice. 

Independent voters don’t like Donald Trump.

Many others have spilled much more ink on this point than I’m willing to here.  Suffice it to say that there was significant polling showing independent swing voters across the nation are fed up with many of the overreaches of the Biden Administration and Democrats over the last two years.  The “red wave” failed to materialize because these same voters seemed to hate Donald Trump – and every candidate associated with him – even more.

Coalitions win elections.

When the Tea Party was rising to power over a decade ago, a close friend and political mentor shared with me one sentence that helped me internalize the need for a big tent.  “Conservatives provide our soul and our core, but the moderates are what give us power.”  A party without a soul is just a mob with muscle.  But a party without a majority is just an organization that perpetually needs $25 (Now with a triple match!) before midnight tonight to stoke their anger and grievance machine.

If Republicans want to replicate the success of Brian Kemp and the rest of the state level GOP ticket for national offices, they’re going to have to understand that it will take both movement conservatives and moderates to assemble the votes needed.  In short, Republicans need to decide if they want purity or power. 

Candidates, and their records, matter.

Both parties should be ashamed of this Senate campaign.  The standard line, from paid ads to social media commentary from grassroots, was identical from each side.  “There’s no way you can vote for that other guy.”  No one seemed to want to say out loud that we were constantly being asked to choose which person with history of domestic abuse we preferred more.

Party only matters to partisans.

Independents don’t care about partisan constructs.  They also don’t have to show up and vote at all when there’s only one binary choice on the ballot, and they dislike both choices equally.  They certainly aren’t motivated by people screaming “RINO!” at them when they don’t even identify as Republicans.

2022’s elections were mostly successful for Georgia Republicans, but the Senate race demonstrated both glaring weaknesses and a missed opportunity.  It’s up to the partisans to decide if they want to maintain their current path or just hope things work out in two years.  They’ll have regular reminders of their 2022 missteps for at least six more years.

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