Warnock’s Victory Forges Democrats’ Path Through the New Battlegrounds

For decades, Florida and Ohio reigned supreme over presidential politics. The two states relished their role crowning presidents and spawning political clichés. Industrial Cleveland faced off against white-collar Cincinnati, the Midwestern snowbirds of the Villages against the Puerto Rican diaspora of the Orlando suburbs.

But the Georgia runoff, the final note of the 2022 midterm elections, may have said goodbye to all that. The Marietta moms are in charge now.

Senator Raphael Warnock’s win over Herschel Walker — his fifth victory in just over two years — proved that the Democratic surge in the Peach State two years ago was no Trump-era fluke, no one-off rebuke of an unpopular president. Georgia, with its storied civil rights history, booming Atlanta suburbs like Marietta and exploding ethnic diversity, is now officially contested ground, joining a narrow set of states that will select the next president.

Mr. Warnock’s race was the final marker for a 2024 presidential road map that political strategists, officials and politicians in both parties say will run largely through six states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The shrunken, shifted battlefield reflects a diversifying country remade by the polarizing politics of the Trump era. As white, working-class voters defected from Democrats, persuaded by Donald J. Trump’s populist cultural appeals and anti-elitist rhetoric, demographic changes opened up new presidential battlegrounds in the West and South.

That is not good for Mr. Trump, who lost all six of those states to President Biden two years ago, as he begins to plot his third presidential bid. Other Republicans have found more success pulling together winning coalitions in states defined by their growth, new transplants, strong economies and a young and diverse population. But if the party wants to reclaim the White House in 2024, Republicans will have to improve their performance across the new terrain.

“You’re going to have your soccer moms and Peloton dads. Those college-educated voters, specifically in the suburbs, are ones that Republicans have to learn how to win,” said Kristin Davison, a Republican strategist who worked on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s win in Virginia, a once-red state that, until Mr. Youngkin’s victory, had turned a more suburban shade of blue. “It’s these growing, diverse communities combined with the college-educated voters.”

“I secured my vote!” stickers at a polling place in Georgia.Credit…Nicole Buchanan for The New York Times
Voters at Morningside Presbyterian Church in Fulton County on Tuesday morning.Credit…Nicole Buchanan for The New York Times

In most of the six states, midterm elections brought out deep shades of purple. In Arizona, Democrats won the governor’s mansion for the first time since 2006, but a race for attorney general remains too close to call. In Nevada, the party’s candidate won re-election to the Senate by less than one percentage point, while Republicans won the governor’s office. The reverse happened in Wisconsin.

Mr. Warnock narrowly defeated Mr. Walker on Tuesday. But Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, handily toppled Stacey Abrams, a Democratic star, in his re-election bid last month.

Only Pennsylvania and Michigan had clean Democratic sweeps in statewide offices.

Republicans, meanwhile, swept Florida, with Gov. Ron DeSantis winning re-election in the state by easily the largest margin by a Republican candidate for governor in modern history. In Ohio, Representative Tim Ryan, widely considered to be one the Democratic Party’s strongest candidates, lost his bid for Senate by six percentage points.

That new map isn’t entirely new, of course. Since 2008, Democrats have hoped that demographic changes and millions of dollars could help put the growing pockets of the South and West in play, allowing the party to stop chasing the votes of white, working-class voters across Ohio and Iowa.

But the party has made inroads before, only to backslide later. When Barack Obama carried North Carolina in 2008, pundits and party officials heralded the arrival of the Democratic revival in the New South. President Obama lost the state four years later and Mr. Biden was defeated there by a little more than a percentage point.

Democrats argue their victories in Georgia will be more resilient. Mr. Warnock’s coalition looked very similar to Mr. Biden’s — an alliance of voters of color, younger voters and college-educated suburbanites.

For Republicans, the winning formula requires maintaining their sizable advantage among rural voters and working-class, white voters, without fully embracing the far-right stances and combative politics of Mr. Trump that could hurt their standing with more moderate swing voters. Mr. Kemp followed that path to an eight-percentage-point victory.

But Mr. Walker was in no position to expand his voting base. He was recruited to run by Mr. Trump, despite allegations of domestic abuse, no political experience and few clear policy positions, and spent much of his campaign focused on his party’s most reliable voters.

While votes were still being counted late Tuesday, Mr. Warnock appeared to improve on Mr. Biden’s margins in the suburban counties around Atlanta, including Gwinnett, Newton and Cobb County, home to Marietta.

Herschel Walker and his team after a campaign stop in Dawsonville, Ga.Credit…Dustin Chambers for The New York Times
Greeting supporters at a Dawsonville restaurant.Credit…Dustin Chambers for The New York Times

Democrats recognized the rising influence of the Sun Belt in a high-profile way last week, when the Democratic National Committee advanced a plan to replace Iowa, a former battleground state that has grown more Republican recently, with South Carolina and add Nevada, Georgia and Michigan to the early-state calendar.

“The Sun Belt delivered the Senate Democratic majority,” said Senator Jacky Rosen, a Democrat from Nevada who will face her first re-election campaign in 2024. “The party needs to invest in us and that’s what they’ve done by changing the calendar.”

Already, investment in these new battlegrounds has been eye-popping. In Georgia, $1.4 billion has been spent by both parties on three Senate races and the one contest for governor since the beginning of 2020, according to a New York Times analysis.

The flood of political activity has surprised even some of those who have long predicted that their states would grow more competitive.

“We all thought Arizona would probably be a battleground state at some point like a decade or so down the road,” said Mike Noble, the chief of research with the polling firm OH Predictive Insights, which is based in Phoenix. “It’s mind-blowing that it came so quickly to be quite honest.”

Political operatives in Ohio and Florida insist that their states could remain competitive if Democrats would invest in organizers and ads. But for presidential campaigns, the goal isn’t to flip states but to identify the easiest route to 270 electoral votes.

David Pepper, a former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, acknowledged that the changed politics had created a national political dynamic that’s bad for Ohio but better for his party.

“The fact that Ohio is less essential than it used to be is a good thing because it means there are other states that are now winnable that weren’t 10 years ago. Colorado and Virginia were Republican so you had to win Florida and Ohio,” he said, evoking the predecessor to the cable news interactive maps. “That’s why Tim Russert had them all over his white board.”

Senator Raphael Warnock with the rapper Killer Mike at a campaign event on Monday.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times
The Warnock campaign visited Georgia Tech on Monday.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

The country wasn’t always so dependent on such a small group of deciders. In the 1980s, presidential candidates competed across an average of 29 states. That number fell to 19 during the 2000s, according to data compiled by FairVote, a nonpartisan advocacy group that works on election practices. In 2020, there were just eight states where the margin of victory for either Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump was under 5 percent.

The shrinking map leaves one clear loser: The bulk of American voters. About 50 million Americans live in the six states poised to get most of the attention, giving about 15 percent of the country’s nearly 332 million people an outsize role in determining the next president.

For nearly 11 million Georgians, the political attention showered on their state during the midterm elections won’t be gone for long.

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