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How much of a battleground state will Georgia be in the future?


Florida, Ohio - these were once perennial swing states. But a new pack of battlegrounds is emerging, including Georgia. Last cycle, Democratic candidates for president and Senate won there for the first time in years. Then this November, Republicans swept every statewide race except for the Senate, where Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock prevailed in a runoff last week. WABE's Sam Gringlas tries to answer the question - has Georgia arrived as a purple state?

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: I put this question to some experts.

REBECCA DEHART: Georgia is a battleground state.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: It may be pink. It may be lavender.

CODY HALL: I definitely think that we're a purple state.

HELEN BUTLER: I don't really sit and look at purple or blue or red.

GRINGLAS: Everyone's trying to make sense of Georgia's turn at the center of the political universe.

DEHART: We are absolutely here to stay. How many more cycles do we have to win to prove it?

GRINGLAS: Rebecca DeHart directs the Democratic Party of Georgia. The party is working to make Georgia an early primary state in 2024. Atlanta is a finalist to host the Democratic National Convention.

DEHART: Georgia Democrats have always said that our state will play a critical role in the national political landscape, and our state has been prioritized as such.

GRINGLAS: Though Emory University professor Andra Gillespie says pinpointing Georgia's political hue is still complicated. She says Georgia's growth and diversity are shifting the state's politics, but...

GILLESPIE: Demographics are dynamic. This question of, like, is Georgia pink, or is it purple - it's really going to take much of this decade to settle that question.

GRINGLAS: State government is still dominated by the GOP. And in the Senate runoff, Republican Herschel Walker lost by less than three points. That's despite his baggage, including allegations of domestic abuse.

GILLESPIE: We need to be cautious about looking at behavior in this runoff election and trying to extrapolate other things from it, in part because Herschel Walker was such a unique candidate.

GRINGLAS: Last cycle, Democrats eked out wins in another unique environment. Back then, Donald Trump was a prominent factor. So does that mean recent Democratic victories were blips? Here's Republican strategist Cody Hall.

HALL: One of my friends used to say, if ifs and buts were figs and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas. It doesn't matter, really, whether it's a specific circumstance or not. They've been winning.

GRINGLAS: I met Hall near the towering Christmas tree in the state capitol's rotunda. Nearby is the office of Republican Governor Brian Kemp. Hall was a top staffer on Kemp's campaign. This year Kemp trounced his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams. And in a cycle otherwise good for Georgia Republicans, Herschel Walker floundered.

HALL: We've got to get out of the mindset that it is still 2010, 2014, when you could slap an R next to a candidate's name and win by eight, nine, 10 points. If you nominate the wrong candidates, if you don't have a winning message and if you don't raise the money, you will lose.

GRINGLAS: Years of organizing irregular non-voters helped catalyze that shift. Those efforts accelerated with Abrams' 2018 bid for governor. Helen Butler directs the non-partisan Coalition for the People's Agenda. The group's office walls are plastered with decades of memorabilia.

BUTLER: Years and years of work, yes, definitely so.

GRINGLAS: Butler doesn't gauge Georgia's politics in shades of blue, red and purple. Instead, she looks at the roughly 1.6 million new registered voters since 2018.

BUTLER: I know that turnout is much better, and that's what we aim for. And I have to say, as of now, the participation rates are excellent.

GRINGLAS: That participation has made Georgia more competitive. Even so, the November turnout rate fell from 2018.

BUTLER: I know that there are a lot of people of color that we've registered to vote that didn't show up at the polls. So my interest is getting those people to make that next step.

GRINGLAS: Whatever you call Georgia - purple, battleground, swingy - it'll likely be at the forefront of politics in 2024 and beyond. For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAS SONG, "I CAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.