ATLANTA — The death threats finally appeared to be subsiding, Brad Raffensperger was happy to report.
“I haven’t gotten one in a while,” said Mr. Raffensperger, Georgia’s embattled secretary of state, expressing hope that political passions might be cooling off in the state — though “cooling off” is relative in the country’s most heated battleground.
Not since Florida’s presidential recount of 2000 has one state’s election cycle drawn so much national — even international — scrutiny. Polarizing figures, expensive campaigns and breathless plotlines have become a seemingly permanent feature of elections here. Analysts have identified Georgia as a major bellwether of the nation’s cultural, economic and demographic realignment, as well as a prime battlefield for showdowns over such fundamental civic matters as the right to vote.
When exactly did this reliably Republican and relatively sleepy political sphere become such a vital center of contention and intrigue?
Why does seemingly every politically interested observer in America have — à la Ray Charles — Georgia on their mind?
The landmark event was President Biden’s becoming the first Democrat at the top of the ticket to carry Georgia since 1992, in what was the most closely decided state in last year’s presidential race. Former President Donald J. Trump appeared especially fixated on the state and made it the main focus of his efforts to reverse the results of the national election. Georgia then played host to double runoff contests in January that flipped control of the Senate to Democrats.
The fervor and spotlight will endure: The state is a focal point for the nation’s persistent voting rights battle, as Republicans move swiftly to roll back ballot access in what opponents say is clear targeting of Black voters with echoes of Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement.
In 2022, the Peach State’s race for governor is likely to include perhaps the Democratic Party’s leading champion of voting rights, Stacey Abrams, in a replay of the 2018 grudge match between her and Gov. Brian Kemp, the Republican incumbent. One of the two Democrats who won their races in January, Senator Raphael Warnock, will also have to turn around and defend his seat next year in a race that Republicans are already eyeing as they seek to reclaim the chamber. Several local and national Republicans — including Mr. Trump — have tried to recruit the former University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker to run for the seat, which could lend another wrinkle to the state’s political story, as if it needed one.
Adding to the chaos, Mr. Kemp has become the target of a vendetta by Mr. Trump, who has condemned him for not doing more to deliver (or poach) victory for him in Georgia in November. This has also made Georgia the unquestioned center of the internal disputes that have roiled the Republican Party since November. Mr. Trump has seemed intent on making the state a key stop on a revenge tour he has waged against Republicans he has deemed insufficiently loyal to him — Mr. Kemp and Mr. Raffensperger chief among them.
“It just feels like a hurricane blew through here politically in the last few campaigns that just keeps carrying over,” said former Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from the state.
Senator Jon Ossoff, who prevailed alongside Mr. Warnock in the runoffs, said that “there’s a tension and complexity to the total arc of Georgia’s history that manifests itself in this particular moment.” That tension, he added, “is continually being expressed in our politics.”
Towering stakes in a shifting state
People tend to speak of Georgia politics these days in the most dramatic of terms: A struggle is underway “for the soul of Georgia,” and the New South in general. Every week seems to bring a new “existential battle” over some defining issue. A “foundational tension” is playing out in the racial politics of a place considered both a cradle of the civil rights movement and a pillar of the old Confederacy.
Some days, state officials said, the stakes feel too high, the energy too charged and the language too extreme.
“In my opinion, that’s not healthy, and that’s not what America should be,” said Gabriel Sterling, another top election overseer who, like Mr. Raffensperger, gained a national profile as Mr. Trump challenged Mr. Biden’s victory in the state with false claims of rampant voter fraud. (Mr. Trump’s phone call to Mr. Raffensperger in December, pressuring him to “find” enough votes to overturn the results, was disclosed by The Washington Post and led Georgia prosecutors to open a criminal investigation into the former president.)
“You’re not supposed to live and die by these elections,” Mr. Sterling said, noting that in a healthy democracy, the “normal” number of death threats directed at an official like him would be “zero.” He and Mr. Raffensperger were sitting in a tavern near the Georgia Capitol early this month, monitored by a security detail. They were unwinding after another day of pitched political battle in which the Republican-controlled legislature passed an election bill that would create a raft of new ballot restrictions.
Republicans are now worried that their slipping grip on Georgia could make it a perennial swing state. Mr. Chambliss said that white suburban women, who have been the key component of the state’s Republican coalition, had defected en masse in recent years, more drastically around Atlanta than in other growing metropolitan areas around the country.
“The animosity toward Trump is real, and that’s a group that Republicans need to be courting in a heavy way,” Mr. Chambliss said. He added that such a goal would not be easy to achieve as long as Mr. Trump kept involving himself in the state’s politics.
“A lot of us have been standing on mountaintops screaming that our margins in the suburbs have been collapsing,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican political consultant in Georgia. Much of the recent focus on those electoral shifts, he said, flowed from the tiny margin of votes separating Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump in the state. That segued to the saturation media coverage of the Senate runoffs, the Republican election challenges and, of course, Mr. Trump’s conduct after Nov. 3.
“Everything became all about Georgia,” Mr. Robinson said. “I was getting interviewed by newspapers from Switzerland.”
The transformation of Georgia’s politics is largely a story of rapidly changing demographics. Atlanta is among the fastest-growing cities in the country, its suburbs evolving from a white Republican hotbed to a more diverse and progressive population of college-educated “knowledge workers.” Metropolitan Atlanta has attracted a substantial influx of younger immigrants and transplants from more crowded and expensive cities in the Northeast and the West.
Likewise, the racial makeup has shifted rapidly. “Our demography is reflective of where many states are, and where the nation is headed,” said Ms. Abrams, who added that the majority of Georgia’s population was expected to be nonwhite by the end of this decade. “Politically, Georgia reflects what happens when all of these things come together. It’s a difficult thing to navigate on a national scale, and Georgia is the living embodiment of this.”
A Democratic-led push for voting rights
The point of convergence for much of this ferment has been the protracted struggle over voting rights. Ms. Abrams, who founded the political advocacy and voter registration group Fair Fight Action, has received broad credit for helping capture the state’s electoral votes for Mr. Biden and the Senate seats for Democrats.
She became a voting rights cause célèbre herself in 2018 after enduring a bitter defeat in a governor’s race marred by accusations of voter suppression against Mr. Kemp in his former capacity as Georgia’s secretary of state. Ms. Abrams has to this day refused to concede defeat; Mr. Kemp, who oversaw the purging of hundreds of thousands of Georgians from the state’s voter rolls during his tenure, denied any wrongdoing. He declined to comment for this article.
Ms. Abrams said that Republicans could not match the political energy and the demographic momentum that have propelled Democrats in Georgia, other than to pursue laws that would make it harder for traditional Democratic constituencies, such as African-Americans, to vote.
The legislation currently making its way through the Capitol includes strict limits on weekend voting, a measure that could significantly impede the traditional role of Black churches in fostering civic engagement. A bill that passed the Georgia Senate early this month would repeal “no-excuse” absentee voting and require more stringent voter identification measures. The state’s political patriarch, the 96-year-old former President Jimmy Carter, said this past week that he was “disheartened, saddened and angry” about the legislation.
“We know that some version of this bill is likely to pass because Republicans face an existential crisis in Georgia,” Ms. Abrams said. By the same token, Democrats could face a crisis of their own if Republicans succeed at enacting more restrictive voting laws in Georgia and several other states with Republican-controlled legislatures.
Mr. Ossoff, who at 34 is the youngest member of the Senate, said Georgia had become a textbook case of how political and generational realignment “can change power dynamics in a way that has massive national implications.”
Mr. Ossoff’s life trajectory has offered him a firsthand view of these shifts. He grew up in a suburban Atlanta congressional district that was once represented in the House by Newt Gingrich, the Republican speaker, and is now represented by Lucy McBath, an African-American Democrat.
Mr. Ossoff began his career as an intern for the civil rights pioneer and Georgia congressman John Lewis, became the first Jewish senator from the Deep South and entered the chamber with first Black senator to represent Georgia, Mr. Warnock. He now sits at a Senate desk that was once occupied by the fierce civil rights opponent Richard Russell and the staunch segregationist Herman Talmadge. In accordance with Senate tradition, both long-dead senators carved their initials in the desk, though Mr. Ossoff said he had yet to do that himself.
Republicans haltingly plan their next moves
Georgia Republicans say it would be shortsighted to think that legislation alone can stem the state’s recent tide of red to blue. Nor is it clear whether the most powerful motivating force in their party — Mr. Trump — has in fact motivated just as many voters to support Democrats in and around Atlanta.
This dynamic has extended to Trump acolytes like Representative Marjorie Taylor-Greene, the first-term Republican from the state’s northwest corner, whose far-right views, incendiary language and promotion of conspiracy theories have made her the biggest new attention magnet in Congress, for better or worse. “I have always subscribed to having a big tent,” Mr. Chambliss said. “By the same token, I don’t know where some of these people who wander into the tent ever come from.”
Former Senator Kelly Loeffler, the Republican businesswoman whom Mr. Kemp appointed to replace the retiring Johnny Isakson in late 2019, announced plans last month to start a voter registration group of her own, geared toward disengaged conservatives. Ms. Loeffler, who lost to Mr. Warnock, envisions the organization, Greater Georgia, as a Republican counterbalance to Ms. Abrams’s efforts.
Ms. Loeffler said she had committed a seven-figure sum of her own money to seed the effort. “When I stepped out of the Senate, I heard people say consistently that ‘someone needs to do something about Georgia,’” Ms. Loeffler said.
Ms. Loeffler did not say precisely what “needs to be done about Georgia” whether she meant only finding new ways to reach and register conservative voters or working to support Republican-driven laws that would discourage Democrats from voting. Ms. Abrams dismissed the effort as “a shallow attempt at mimicry” and “a vile attempt to limit access based on conspiracy theories.”
Ms. Loeffler said she was merely “working to ensure that voters trust the process of voting.” She leaned heavily on phrases like “transparency,” “uniformity” and “election integrity,” which critics deride as false pretenses for Republican efforts to impose voter suppression measures. “There’s no question that many Georgians did not trust the process,” she said.
Ms. Loeffler’s brief foray into elective politics began in January 2020, during Mr. Trump’s first Senate impeachment trial. She immediately began running for her November re-election, in a campaign that included Representative Doug Collins, a firebrand Republican and fierce defender of Mr. Trump who continually derided Ms. Loeffler as a “RINO” (Republican in name only) who was not adequately devoted to the former president. She then spent much of her brief Senate career trying to display her fealty to Mr. Trump — an effort that included a campaign ad literally portraying her as to the right of Attila the Hun.
Ms. Loeffler, 50, said she had no timetable for deciding whether she would run against Mr. Warnock in what would be a rematch for her old seat. As for what other Republicans might run, speculation has produced (as it does) a colorful wish list, from Ms. Greene to Mr. Walker. David Perdue, the former Republican senator who was defeated by Mr. Ossoff, said last month that he would not run in 2022, and Mr. Trump has been trying to enlist Mr. Collins to take on Mr. Kemp in a Republican primary bid.
Mr. Walker, the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner, signed his first professional football contract in the ’80s with Mr. Trump’s United States Football League team, the New Jersey Generals, and maintains a close friendship with his former boss. A native of Wrightsville, Ga., Mr. Walker is a Republican who has encouraged African-Americans to join the party, and he has not ruled himself out for 2022.
He is also unquestionably beloved in his home state, and the feeling appears to be mutual, though Mr. Walker currently lives in Texas.