3 Takeaways from Georgia’s Runoffs

Illustration: New York Times

The Georgia runoff election is an important window into the political trends of both Georgia and the country at large. Although the individual characters of Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock are important, it is equally important to understand the larger movements at play, in order to inform a political strategy that advances the interests of the working class. 

Raphael Warnock is not a socialist. His voting pattern has been squarely in line with the record of Democratic Party leadership, although he has taken notably progressive stances on specific votes such as student loan forgiveness. However, it is significant that the Republican Party did its best to portray him as the imagined radical socialist of which they caricature even the most milquetoast Democrats. This strategy ultimately failed.

The obvious answer for why lies in his opponent. Herschel Walker, with his record as a multi-millionaire scammer, domestic abuser, and reactionary extremist, proved repulsive to enough Georgia voters that fear of “socialism” was insufficient for him to win. However, Walker’s actual policies fall squarely in line with the core of the Republican Party, and his nomination as the GOP Senate candidate was virtually uncontested among Georgia Republicans. 

The truth about American politics, that is rarely discussed directly in the press, is that the vast majority of the electorate’s votes can be predicted before any counting begins. While there are variations between individual voting habits, there are certain trends that are impossible to ignore. The vast majority of black voters, especially working class black voters, vote Democratic. Likewise, the vast majority of rural, evangelical Christian white voters, will vote Republican. Similar tendencies are visible in trends of college-educated white voters in dense, urban districts; older, white non-college-educated men; etc. Altogether, the number of “swing” voters is relatively small, even though they are the disproportionate focus of political ads, network television focus groups, and newspaper editorials.

Despite these polarizations, there are elements of the elections that are difficult to predict in advance. Why was Warnock able to win, when Barack Obama, an equally charismatic candidate, decisively lost to weak Republican opponents twice? To answer this question, we must pay attention to the changes in the margins, particularly in the shifts in demographics in Georgia, and the shifts in party coalitions.

There are three key observations from the runoff results that indicate far more at play than the candidates as individuals.

1. Racial Polarization

The racial polarization of Georgia’s rural working class remains a strong force. Nonwhite working class voters have  historically been a core constituency of the Democratic Party, but starting with Donald Trump’s reelection attempt in 2020, Republicans have seen surprising gains with Hispanic and Asian voters, with varying degrees in different regions around the country. Republican strategists cynically hoped that Walker’s candidacy would expand these trends to the black vote.

Looking at December’s results, however, there was no indication that the Republicans gained ground with rural black voters, with Warnock flipping the predominantly black rural areas of Washington County and Baldwin County from the November election. Conversely, while Warnock improved his margins in the predominantly white industrial regions of Glynn County and Lowndes county, they still voted overwhelmingly Republican. This polarization of the working class remains a long-term barrier for building a robust political movement against the capitalist class. Georgia, and much of the deep south, are right-to-work states in large part because of racist propaganda in the postwar period.

2. Changing Suburbs

The Atlanta suburbs have increasingly become home to black and Hispanic workers, which provided the margins needed for Joe Biden, Jon Ossoff, and Raphael Warnock to win their seats. Once strongly Republican upper-middle-class strongholds, these counties’ demographics have massively changed  due to working-class black and Hispanic people moving away from the city core and rural areas and into the more affordable suburbs.

Share of Votes for Democratic Candidates by County

Democratic % for 2012, 2016, 2020 President and 2022 Senate runoff

These regions have also been the notable sites of militant labor struggles, including the locations of the John Deere and Nabisco strikes last year. A critical test in the coming years will be whether the Democratic leaders can respond adequately to the labor movement that has contributed so much to their victories. Unfortunately, their recent betrayal of rail workers is a worrying sign in this regard.

3. Abortion Rights

The right to abortion is a critical issue facing the working class, and it was a major factor in this year’s elections. Although Hershel Walker has shown unique hypocrisy in his record of funding abortions, his platform on abortion rights is in no way unique for Republicans. The Republican leadership, and the overwhelming majority of their politicians, are extremists who wish to end the right to bodily autonomy. Although Georgia lacks ballot initiatives, anti-abortion referendums have resoundingly failed even in deeply conservative states such as Kansas and Kentucky. The election results and exit polls show that the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade was a major motivation for working-class people to cast their vote against Republicans.

Tasks for Socialists

While Warnock’s victory represents a defeat of the reactionary right, socialists cannot rely on politicians to protect the working class out of some inherent generosity. It is necessary to organize from below and force elected officials, even ostensible “progressives” to fulfill their mandate. 

With the Democrats now having 51* votes in the Senate, there is no excuse for their failure to codify Roe vs Wade, pass the PRO Act and fully fund the NLRB. Such actions are the bare minimum needed to address the needs of workers and unions that have provided countless funds and people power for Democratic campaigns, particularly in Georgia. 

Ultimately, we need representatives at all levels of government who are accountable to the working class, rather than the Democratic establishment and the billionaire class. Atlanta DSA  will continue to fight in the coming years to elect socialist candidates who are willing to fight against both corporate Democrats and reactionary Republicans.

*Kyrsten Sinema, Bernie Sanders, and Angus King are independents, but they have caucused with the Democrats and have voted with the party line more than 90% of the time.