Georgia Democrats disappointed on Election Day, but Senate runoff looms

Will Tuesday's statewide losses motivate or dishearten Democrats ahead of the December Senate runoff?

Stacey Abrams and Democrats lose statewide Georgia races as Senate runoff looms
Stacey Abrams gives her concession speech at the Hyatt Regency downtown on November 8.

Photograph by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

The sporadic bursts of applause at Stacey Abrams’s election results watch party downtown—an optimistic refrain to flashes of CNN reports on TV showing her leading in the gubernatorial race—puttered out shortly before 9 p.m. on Tuesday, as Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican governor, edged ahead of his Democratic contender—an advantage he would ultimately maintain as election workers tallied the deciding ballots in perhaps the most heated election in recent state history.

As big-name Abrams backers, like Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and freshly re-elected Congresswoman Nikema Williams, took the stage to pump up worrying attendees, the lines for cocktails stretched longer. It would be a few hours—and a few more liquor bottles—before Abrams would call Kemp to concede defeat and effectively drape a cloak of sadness—and maybe a necessary new sense of inspiration, too—over the crowd of hundreds of supporters in the Hyatt Regency ballroom.

Tuesday night marked the second time Abrams had come up short in a bid to claim the state’s top job, after losing to Kemp in 2018, and she lost this year’s election by a wider margin: 45.9 percent to 53.4 percent as of press time. (In 2018, Abrams lost 48.8 percent to Kemp’s 50.2 percent.) Just before 11:30 p.m., teary eyes dotted the crowd that had sung and danced through worsening election results news. Then, taking the dais, Abrams said, “While I may not have crossed the finish line, it does not mean we will ever stop running for a better Georgia.”

An air of optimism weaved through her address: “Even though our fight for the governor’s mansion came up short, I’m pretty tall.” With help from a long roster of prominent progressives and a grassroots army, Abrams helped register hundreds of thousands of new Georgia voters. Irrespective of whether she strives for public office again, she launched a movement—one that will be crucial as Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican firebrand and former college football giant Herschel Walker head to an expected December 6 runoff.

The Warnock/Walker race seems to be the only statewide race that Republicans will not win outright: Democratic lieutenant governor hopeful Charlie Bailey lost to Republican state Senator Burt Jones; state Senator Jenn Jordan lost the attorney general race to incumbent Chris Carr; and state House Representative Bee Nguyen lost to incumbent Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Will these losses invigorate Democrats—and even Libertarians and Republicans who can’t stomach the scandal-plagued Walker—in the upcoming runoff? Maybe, said Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie. “But it can also be demoralizing, especially for low-propensity voters who Warnock will need to show up again,” she told Atlanta in a text. “This is especially true if Senate control is not up for grabs in this runoff. That said, the [Democratic Party of Georgia] will want a win to show that Georgia really is competitive.”

Already, activists are preparing to woo split-ticket voters to the left side of the aisle for impending runoffs nationwide. The new WelcomePAC, a Democrat-backed political action committee from Washington, D.C., just kicked off a Kemp-Warnock campaign to charm Republican voters who “cannot support Hershel Walker” into voting for the incumbent senator, according to a press release from the group.

Quentin Fulks, Warnock’s campaign manager, confidently tweeted on Wednesday that the Senator is poised for a runoff win, since Walker “significantly underperformed in an environment that set him up for success”—a political atmosphere that appears to have yielded Republican wins in every other statewide race in Georgia.

With Warnock and Walker going to a runoff, voters will have to endure another month of mudslinging, campaign ads, misleading polls, and tantalizing anticipation. But as Atlanta businessman Ben Johnson told the Abrams party audience around 10 p.m., “The promised land is not a destination; the promised land is a journey.”