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Election Georgia
Former President Donald Trump lost Georgia in 2020 despite Republican successes there at the state level. Brynn Anderson/AP

Georgia Shouldn’t Be This Hard to Win for Donald Trump

“Republicans don’t do as well when it’s a referendum on Trump,” a Georgia GOP operative said.

Georgia is a battleground state — when the elections involve Donald Trump.

The South’s preeminent swing state delivered national victories for Democrats in recent years, flipping to President Joe Biden and giving the party a Senate majority. But it looks different in-state. Republicans control both chambers of the General Assembly and the prominent statewide offices, unlike in Wisconsin, Arizona or Pennsylvania, each considered important dominoes for November’s general election.

Trump makes things complicated for the GOP, although he’s beloved by Georgia’s conservative base. He narrowly leads Biden in most polls in the state, but a 2023 poll of Georgia voters gave him a lower approval rating as president than Gov. Brian Kemp as governor. The former president turns many moderate and swing voters off for political or personality reasons. Well-respected Georgia first lady Marty Kemp even said this month that she would write in her husband’s name rather than vote for Trump in November.

“You know, Republicans don’t do as well when it’s a referendum on Trump,” said state GOP operative Cole Muzio.

Trump’s strange history and position in Georgia makes it a complex target despite its Republican foundation. He’s currently on trial in Fulton County for election interference and has yet to publicly mend fences with Kemp. Trump voiced a desire to campaign together Wednesday, saying, “I think it’s important that we do because I think it’s important for both of us. I think it’s very important that Republicans win this upcoming election.” Kemp, who did not attend the fundraiser, previously said he would support the party’s nominee and said of Trump, “I think he’d be better than Joe Biden. It’s as simple as that.”

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Kemp’s wife’s open opposition to Trump could signify a broader trend among Georgia Republicans, particularly the many suburban Atlanta voters who backed Nikki Haley in the primary even after she’d dropped out, a Democratic strategist said.

“It gives you permission to vote for Biden, but if not, it gives you another alternative,” the strategist said. “Writing in Kemp’s name might as well be voting for Biden.”

Some people in Democratic circles are losing confidence that Biden will hang onto Georgia as other battlegrounds fight for the campaign’s attention. But the president recently beefed up his in-state campaign staff. Trump so far has relied on Georgia’s GOP as his ground game, though he raised millions Wednesday at an Atlanta fundraiser.

Demographic trends long identified Georgia as a future battleground, though gerrymandering has prevented its purple status from being fully realized at the local level, the Democratic strategist argued. The Atlanta suburbs, previously a GOP haven, gradually tilted left due to population growth in minority communities and Yankee transplants with more liberal leanings.

Democrats lauded gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’ transformation of the party’s in-state ground game in 2018 after Kemp narrowly won the governor’s mansion by a slim 55,000 votes. Meanwhile, Rep. Lucy McBath flipped a longtime Republican congressional district, and the party gained seats in the General Assembly.

But some Democrats believe Trump’s arrival accelerated the shift.

“I don’t think any of that would have happened if Donald Trump hadn’t become president,” said John Jackson, former DeKalb County Democratic Party chair.

Trump’s past negative impact doesn’t have to repeat itself this fall, some Republicans told NOTUS.

“There very much is an issue that is unique to him,” said GOP operative Eric Tanenblatt. “That can change.”

He said Trump should learn from Kemp’s ’22 campaign, when the governor decisively defeated Abrams while GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker failed to unseat Raphael Warnock. Kemp “talked about issues, and he focused on the future,” said Tanenblatt. “He didn’t look back in the rearview mirror and try and relitigate the 2020 election.”

Though she doesn’t currently plan to vote for Trump, Marty Kemp said a lot can change for her and other voters before November. And in a locally Republican state, it may come down to Biden’s policies.

“People need to understand that God anointed all authority,” said Rep. Rick Allen. “He’s anointed Trump as a Republican nominee, and he’s anointed Biden as the Democratic nominee. And he’s gonna give us exactly what we deserve.”

“We’re doing it to ourselves,” he added.

Ben T.N. Mause is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.