Georgia Democrats' success in 2022 could hinge on the suburbs Whether Democrats can hold onto the Georgia suburbs may come down to candidate quality, shifting demographics and whether voters are more discouraged by inflation or abortion restrictions.

Suburbs delivered recent wins for Georgia Democrats. This year, they're up for grabs

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Early voting is now underway in Georgia. And last night, Republican Governor Brian Kemp and his Democratic challenger, Stacey Abrams, met on a debate stage in Atlanta. The race is a rematch of 2018 when Kemp narrowly beat Abrams. Sam Gringlas of WABE in Atlanta has been following this race. He's also been traveling around the state and talking to voters and the candidates. Sam, let's start with the debate. How'd it go?

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Well, Kemp and Abrams have basically been each other's archnemesis for over four years now, but they also really know the ins and outs of state government. So overall, it was pretty substantive and, at times, kind of wonky. Kemp touted his economic record, emphasizing pay raises for teachers and tax refunds. Abrams criticized Kemp for laws he signed restricting abortion and loosening gun rules. And that dynamic kind of mirrors the push-pull between how swing voters are weighing the economy and thorny social issues like abortion.

MARTINEZ: And a lot of those swing votes are in Atlanta suburbs among the most contested political battlegrounds in the country. And they used to be Republican strongholds not that long ago. How's that been changing?

GRINGLAS: Well, you just need to look at 2020. Suburban voters helped propel Joe Biden in Georgia and in other states. But the question now is whether Democrats carry the suburbs again once Trump isn't in the picture as much to motivate voters who were kind of repelled by him. I've spent the last few weeks scoping out suburban farmers markets, parks, even athletic fields. And I want to introduce you to some of the voters I met. The first is Adam Pye. I chatted with him, his wife and their dog, Penny (ph), while they were relaxing on the town green in the upscale city of Alpharetta.

ADAM PYE: Neither party satisfies me, but I'll probably end up voting for the Democrats down the ticket - not something I normally do, but because of all the MAGA stuff, that's a - kind of a deal-breaker for me.

GRINGLAS: Kemp and Abrams are competing for independent voters like Pye and Breanna Clinton, who's watching her grandkids frolic at the nearby splash pad.

BREANNA CLINTON: I think inflation is something that'll come and go. The abortion thing is here to stay. And...

GRINGLAS: Democrats hope enough voters will think about the abortion debate that way, too. Republicans, though, think inflation will work in their favor. But the suburbs aren't simply blown one way or another by the cycle's political winds.

NIKKI SAMET: A lot of people are transplants, for sure, from all over the place.

GRINGLAS: Nikki Samet moved to Alpharetta a year ago from California. She has a new baby girl strapped to her chest. Samet is one of a million new residents who have arrived in Georgia over the last decade, many of them people of color settling in Atlanta's suburbs.

SAMET: And our community that we hang out with is definitely more diverse and open-minded.

GRINGLAS: Democrats often talk about demographics as destiny in Georgia, but the political climate and individual candidates matter, too.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Georgia's reporting as 44.

GRINGLAS: Across the green, Krista Wagner is sipping a frozen wine, watching the University of Georgia football game on a big outdoor screen. Wagner voted for Trump in 2016 and then Biden in 2020.

KRISTA WAGNER: With somebody saying there's an election that was stolen before the election even happens, I really voted my conscience on that.

GRINGLAS: But her flip to the Democrats that year - it wasn't permanent. Wagner is voting Republican for governor, despite her opposition to the restrictive abortion law that Kemp signed. She says the abortion law isn't a deal-breaker.

WAGNER: I'm upset with that, but I'm also really worried, financially. I know that there are other states that will keep it. If there's ever a woman who needed my help, I'd take her there.

GRINGLAS: Wagner isn't voting for all the Republicans, though.

WAGNER: I do like Warnock, so I'll probably vote for him.

GRINGLAS: That's Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock. His opponent is Republican Herschel Walker, the former football star. Walker has come under scrutiny for allegations of domestic violence and, most recently, reports he paid for an ex-girlfriend's abortion, despite his vocal opposition to the procedure. Even before that, some Republican voters, like Greg Minert, were hesitant about Walker.

GREG MINERT: Some of the allegations against Herschel Walker - well, that's something I'll have to take a closer look at because if it's true, that could change my mind.

GRINGLAS: That's one reason something unusual is happening here. Some voters are splitting their tickets. Polls show Republican Governor Brian Kemp and Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock both leading their challengers.

CAMERON LEWELLEN: Although Herschel Walker was great at football, I don't know that he is great at politics.

GRINGLAS: That's Cameron Lewellen. He's watching his son's baseball team, the Brewers. They're about to take the field in Sandy Springs, another suburban enclave that's been trending more Democratic.

LEWELLEN: We're in the championship now. Here we go.


GRINGLAS: Lewellen voted for Biden in 2020. Now he's picking the Republican for governor and the Democrat for Senate. Lewellen thinks Georgia's blue wave in 2020 wasn't permanent, especially given the economy.

LEWELLEN: I do think that, unfortunately, it was the moment. Things that I find to be important, currently, are some of the issues that seem to be abandoned by the Democratic party.

BRADY CARNESALE: Welcome to Northview High School. My name is Brady Carnesale...

GRINGLAS: Up the road, high school students are hosting a debate for local candidates. On the stage is Democrat Michelle Au. She's a doctor running for state house in Johns Creek, a city of gated communities and many Asian American voters. Au says Democratic gains in suburbs like Johns Creek have Republicans' attention.

MICHELLE AU: I think they're trying to claw back some of the power that they realized in retrospect that they lost by trying to outreach to some of these newly diverse electorate in a way that they hadn't before.

GRINGLAS: Even if Republicans recoup some ground, Au thinks it won't reverse the overall trend towards Democrats. At the debate, voters Judy Zhu and Wei Kang Ding are still doing their research.

WEI KANG DING: For governor, I think the incumbent is OK, but I - you know, I don't really like the whole abortion law.

GRINGLAS: Ding and Zhu are new voters.

JUDY ZHU: We weren't citizens for the first few years. And of course, Georgia has become purple - whatever - and then it's became more important for us to vote.

MARTINEZ: So, Sam, it really sounds like a lot is riding on what happens in Georgia suburbs.

GRINGLAS: Yeah. And Georgia's elections have been really tight recently, so how suburbanites like Ding and Zhu vote could decide these crucial races. And the results here in Atlanta suburbs could tell us something more about where American politics are headed in this pivotal moment.

MARTINEZ: That's WABE Sam Gringlas. Sam, thanks a lot.

GRINGLAS: Thank you.


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