By Ronald Brownstein
Democrats hold a key advantage in the five states that will decide the next presidential election.
Senator raphael warnock’s win in yesterday’s Georgia Senate runoff capped a commanding show of strength by Democrats in the states that decided the 2020 race for the White House—and will likely pick the winner again in 2024.
With Warnock’s victory over Republican Herschel Walker, Democrats have defeated every GOP Senate and gubernatorial candidate endorsed by Donald Trump this year in the five states that flipped from supporting him in 2016 to backing Joe Biden in 2020: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona.
Coming even amid widespread discontent over the economy, this year’s Democratic sweep against the Trump-backed candidates underscores the continuing resistance to the former president’s influence. In particular, Warnock’s decisive margins in Atlanta and its suburbs yesterday extended the Democratic dominance of white-collar (and usually racially diverse) metropolitan areas, as varied as the suburbs of Detroit and Philadelphia and the booming hot spots of Phoenix and Madison.
“The huge question after the election of 2020 was whether the suburbs would snap back to the GOP column after Trump was no longer on the ballot,” Ben Wikler, the Democratic Party chair in Wisconsin, told me. “What we saw in 2022 was suburbs continuing to trend toward Democrats.”
Apart from perhaps Michigan, none of these states appears entirely out of reach for the GOP in 2024. Whit Ayres, a longtime GOP pollster, told me that although suburban voters recoiled against “delusional candidates” who “parroted” Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, Republicans “could very well come back and win the suburbs” with “non-delusional candidates.”
Of the five pivotal states from the last presidential election, Republicans this year actually performed best in Georgia, where the party swept the other statewide offices. Even Walker remained stubbornly close to Warnock in the final results, despite an avalanche of damaging personal revelations and gaffes. Across these states, Republican dominance in rural areas that the GOP consolidated under Trump continued through this year’s midterm and allowed several of his endorsed candidates, like Walker, to remain competitive despite big deficits in the largest population centers.
But in the end, the Democratic strength in the largest metropolitan areas proved insurmountable for the seven Trump-backed candidates in governor or Senate races across these five states. The only Republicans who won such contests in these states were Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who sharpened an image of independence by standing up to Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 loss in the state, and Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who echoes many of Trump’s themes but has an established political identity apart from him. (Johnson barely held off his Democratic challenger, Mandela Barnes.)
“You have a large percentage of Americans who are wary of MAGA and have now voted against MAGA three times,” Simon Rosenberg, the president of NDN, a Democratic research and advocacy group, told me. Rosenberg was the most forceful public skeptic of the “red wave” theory. “They are now going to have to take all those people and turn them into Republican voters in 2024. It’s certainly not impossible, but I’d much rather be us than them going into the 2024 election”
In many ways, yesterday’s Georgia result underscored the partisan chasm that has left the country closely divided for at least the past decade. Walker was, by any objective measure, among the weakest general-election candidates for a major office either party has produced in modern memory. Tarred by an endless procession of scandals, prone to nonsensical statements on the campaign trail (as when he mused on the relative merits of vampires and werewolves), and unwilling or unable to articulate positions on many major issues, he nonetheless drew unflagging support from national Republican leaders and held the large majority of the state’s Republican votes.
That Walker came as close as he did to winning underscores the growing parliamentary nature of House and Senate elections, in which fewer voters are casting their ballots based on personal assessments of the two candidates and more are deciding based on which party they want to control the national agenda.
Yet all of that still left Walker, like the other Trump-backed candidates, short in the face of solid margins for Democrats in and around these states’ major population centers. Exit polls showed Democrats posting big advantages among all the demographic groups that tend to congregate in large metropolitan areas: young people, people of color, college-educated voters, secular voters, and LGBTQ adults.
Thriving Cobb and Gwinnett Counties outside Atlanta, with a combined population of 1.7 million people, encapsulate the suburban evolution that has tilted the balance of power. For years, these counties were Republican redoubts: George W. Bush won them by roughly a combined 150,000 votes in the 2004 presidential race, and even as late as the hard-fought 2014 Georgia Senate race, the winning GOP nominee, David Perdue, carried each of them by double-digit margins.
But both counties have grown more diverse. White people now make up only about three-fifths of the population in Cobb and a little more than half in Gwinnett, and nearly half of Cobb adults hold at least a four-year college degree. This has alienated them from a GOP that Trump has reshaped to reflect the cultural priorities and grievances of culturally conservative white voters, particularly those without college degrees or who live outside urban areas. Hillary Clinton narrowly carried both counties in 2016, Biden won just under 60 percent of the vote in each in 2020, and Warnock in November roughly matched Biden’s performance. As of the latest count, Warnock yesterday again carried about three-fifths of the vote in both Cobb and Gwinnett. He also ran up big margins in the suburban counties just south of Atlanta.
The same patterns were evident in the large white-collar suburbs of the other states that Republicans must win back to recapture the White House in 2024. In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, in crushing her Trump-backed opponent, Tudor Dixon, won a higher share of the vote in Oakland and Kent Counties than she managed in 2018 or than Biden did in 2020. In Pennsylvania, Senator-elect John Fetterman matched Biden in exceeding three-fifths of the vote in both Delaware and Montgomery Counties, outside Philadelphia. In Arizona, Senator Mark Kelly carried Maricopa County, centered on Phoenix, by almost 100,000 votes—more than doubling Biden’s margin in 2020, when he became the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the county since Harry Truman in 1948. In Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers won booming Dane County, centered on Madison, by 25,000 more votes than he had in 2018, and an analysis of the statewide results showed him improving the most over his first election in the counties with the highest levels of educational attainment.
After this year’s defeats, many analysts in both parties are dubious that Trump can recapture enough (and maybe any) of these five states in 2024. The bigger question facing Republicans is whether another candidate, one who does not have Trump’s personal baggage but who shares most of his culture-war views, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, could perform much better.
Republicans are generally optimistic that DeSantis could regain ground Trump has lost among suburban voters who leaned Republican not too long ago. They point to Georgia Republican Governor Kemp performing better than Walker did in the Atlanta suburbs as evidence that a more mainstream Republican can slice the Democratic advantage in such places. DeSantis, Ayres said, “has got a lot of things he can sell to suburban Republican voters that Trump just can’t sell.”
Almost universally, Democrats believe that Republicans are underestimating how hard it will be to reel back in college-educated suburban voters who have now mobilized against Trump’s vision for America in three consecutive elections, especially in these battleground states. Although DeSantis is less belligerent than Trump, and not associated with the violence and subversion of the January 6 insurrection, so far he has emphasized a similar style of politics focused on conservative grievance against “woke” cultural liberalism. “Ron DeSantis is every bit as MAGA as Donald Trump,” Rosenberg said. “This idea that he is some more moderate version of Trump is just farcical.”
The fact that even a candidate as weak as Walker remained as competitive as he did underscores how difficult it may be for either side to establish a comfortable advantage in these states in 2024. (The exceptions could be Michigan, which even many Republicans agree looks daunting for them, and maybe Pennsylvania, which also tilted blue last month.)
These states provided Democrats with their own warning signs this year. Exit polls last month showed that most voters in these states disapproved of Biden’s job performance and that big majorities in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the states where the question was asked, did not want him to run again. Democrats also faced a worrying trend of lagging Black turnout in many urban centers this year, though Black voters came out in big numbers in Georgia’s early voting, and activists in the state are confident they will remain highly engaged through 2024. “Our goal was to build a culture of voting, and that’s what we have done in Georgia over the past five years,” Amari Fennoy, the state coordinator for the NAACP Georgia State Conference, told me.
Yet the consistency of the results this year, both demographically and geographically, signal that the re-sorting of the parties in the Trump era has left Democrats with a narrow, but potentially durable, advantage in these five crucial states. That doesn’t mean Democrats are guaranteed to win them in the 2024 presidential race, but it does suggest an important takeaway from the 2022 election that finally ended last night: As long as voters still perceive Republicans to be operating in Trump’s shadow (much less if they again nominate Trump himself), Democrats will begin with an advantage in the states most likely to pick the next president.
“I think that the coalition that turned out to stop Trump is going to be the starting point for the next presidential race,” Wikler said. “There are new threats and new opportunities, but this was not a one-off coalition that came together for a special occasion and went home.” Georgia, again, made that very clear last night.