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What Georgia's runoff election results mean for political parties

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When the new Congress is sworn in next month, Democrats will enjoy a slightly expanded majority, 51 to 49, in the closely divided U.S. Senate. That's thanks to Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock's victory last night over Republican challenger Herschel Walker in a special runoff election in Georgia. The state, which was once solidly red, has shifted purple in recent years. And now both Republicans and Democrats are trying to understand what this result means as they look ahead to 2024.

I'm joined now by Democratic political strategist Fred Hicks. He's founder and president of the Hicks Evaluation Group, a consulting firm that specializes in candidate and issue campaigns, consulting and public affairs. And also with us is Republican political strategist Janelle King. She's a panelist on "The Georgia Gang" on Fox 5 Atlanta and is also the wife of former Republican senatorial candidate Kelvin King. Welcome to both of you.

FRED HICKS: Thank you.

JANELLE KING: Welcome - thank you for having us.

SUMMERS: So to start, I'd just like to get each of your initial reactions to the outcome of this runoff election. Were either of you surprised by any part of the outcome? And, Fred, I'd like to start with you.

HICKS: You know, the election went pretty much, I think, as I thought it would. We thought it would be very close. It was stressful watching the results go back-and-forth, back-and-forth last night. But ultimately, I think that Senator Warnock is an exceptional, perhaps even a generational, talent when we talk about politics, and he raised the money, and he put in the work. So the result was what I thought it should be, although, again, it was a little bit closer than I would have liked for it to be.

SUMMERS: Janelle, what about you?

KING: Yeah. You know, I think we saw glimpses of this being the potential outcome, but because the races were so close, it really could have gone any way. I think this really came down to turnout. And obviously, the Democrats turned out more.

SUMMERS: As I mentioned earlier, this victory expands Democrats' slim majority in the Senate, giving them their 51st Senate seat. Fred, how does this change the calculus for Democrats and what they may be able to accomplish in the chamber?

HICKS: Oh, this was huge. You know, I personally pushed back against the idea that after Nevada came in that Democrats had secured the majority. No, we had 50 seats. But this race was really, truly about securing the majority. So this means that we don't need to enter into any kind of power-sharing agreement with Mitch McConnell. This means that Democrats will chair all of the committees. And this also means that one particular senator, whether that's someone like a Joe Manchin or a Kyrsten Sinema, will not be able to block a legislative agenda. Now, again, that will be tempered somewhat by the fact that the Republicans have the House, but we are now finally in a position where we can really move forward and not be held sort of political hostage by one or two individuals out there.

SUMMERS: Janelle, if you can, talk about the outlook for Senate Republicans now.

KING: Yeah. So this is definitely going to be tough, you know, as Fred laid out. However, we did take the House. And so this is definitely going to be a battle between both parties. I look forward to seeing if there is a way for us to get things done. I - what I don't want to see is the Senate send all of Republican stuff back to the House and vice versa because then we're not moving the country forward. So there's going to - this is going to force a working together. And I'm interested to see what that's going to look like.

SUMMERS: We've talked a good deal about the national implications of this race and what it might mean here in Washington. But if I could, I'd like to shift our focus a bit to what this tells us about the state of Georgia and its place in politics. This is a state that was central to Democrats' gains last election cycle, and it's expected to be an electoral battleground in 2024. To both of you, is it fair to now describe Georgia as a purple state?

KING: Yeah. You know, last night I went back-and-forth in my head, and I was, like, thinking about this from a unique perspective. So Senator Warnock cannot win without picking up some support in Republican counties. And if Walker had performed a bit higher, which I think another Republican may have done, then I don't think the outcome would have been the same. So I don't know if I'm quite ready to say that we're in a purple state. But I will say that we are definitely balancing out votes to a certain degree.

But it's also encouraging to know that this race was so close because that means that the electorate and the voters are actually paying attention to what people are saying and not necessarily retreating into their corners. So I really want to see if that's going to grow and if we become more of a purple state because we have an electorate of voters who are interested in policy and agenda and not so much narratives.

HICKS: Well, I sort of agree with what Janelle said. Now, I do believe that this has cemented Georgia as a purple state. Now, that question is one that comes up frequently. Like, what if you had another person, another Republican nominee for the Senate; so, say, Janelle's husband or a Gary Black? And my response to that is that the Warnock campaign tailored their campaign to the opponent they faced. So you would not have seen the same type of campaign from Senator Warnock if he had a different opponent. But given that Herschel Walker was his opponent, the campaign saw real opportunity to make forays into Republican strongholds, betting that people would have real issues with Herschel Walker's issues and be willing to cross over or at least stay home.

SUMMERS: What are your takeaways from how your parties each approached this Senate runoff, and what lessons do you take away as you look ahead to future contests? And, Janelle, I'll start with you.

KING: Some of the takeaways that our party is discussing and needs to continue to discuss is how do we value individuals who are, quote-unquote, "kingmakers" in our party? Do we take their word for it and move forward, or do we do our own research and make sure that we are taking our vote seriously and doing what's necessary in order to select the right candidates in these races? I mean, I completely understand the logic behind selecting Herschel Walker. I mean, he's a legend in the state, and he did have higher name recognition than Raphael Warnock, Senator Warnock. So I definitely understand the logic behind it.

But I do think that going forward, we're going to have to take a deeper look into how we select our candidates because we did see that a lot of the candidates that President Trump endorsed didn't do well. So I'm interested to see how that is going to play a role into 2024. So I think that's going to be the major focus for the Republican Party.

SUMMERS: And, Fred, what about for Democrats?

HICKS: It's going to start and end with messaging. The messaging that we used in the general election just simply did not work or resonate with Georgians. We spent a lot of money on digital, on TV and on mail in the general election and not much on doors and on the ground. That was a big shift that we made in the general - in the runoff, rather. Senator Warnock put a lot of effort, hired hundreds of people to knock doors and to phone bank and to do what we call sort of grab and go, meaning, hey, I need you to go out and vote today. I need you to go out and vote today. I need you to go out and vote. And that paid dividends as well because the Republicans this year really put a lot of work in on the ground, and we had to match that. That's been a sort of a - the domain or purview of Democrats historically. And we got away from that, but we need to return to that - so figuring out our messaging in a way that it resonates with Georgians and making sure that we put an army of foot soldiers out there to knock doors and bring our voters out.

SUMMERS: That was Democratic political strategist Fred Hicks - he's the founder of the Hicks Evaluation Group - and Republican political strategist Janelle King, a panelist on "The Georgia Gang" on Fox 5 Atlanta. Thanks to you both.

HICKS: Thank you.

KING: Thank you. It's a great discussion. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Gabe O'Connor
William Troop
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.