4 things we learned on Georgia primary election night

Incumbents mostly dominated Georgia’s May primary elections. Here are four things we learned on Tuesday night.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee at his election night watch party at Mutation Brewing Company in Sandy Springs, Georgia, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Updated at 4:16 p.m.

Incumbents mostly dominated Georgia’s May primary elections. 

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, who are both involved in the Georgia election interference case, easily defeated their challengers. Metro Atlanta’s mostly-Democratic congressional delegation vanquished opponents in reshaped districts. And Supreme Court Justice Andrew Pinson retained his seat on the bench, despite efforts from his opponent to make the race a proxy for the debate over abortion.

Several races where no candidate topped 50% of the vote will head to primary runoffs on June 18, including the race for DeKalb County CEO and the GOP nominee for the 3rd Congressional District.

Few voting problems were reported across the state. Two polls remained open late, due to a down power pole and a power outage. The state’s MyVoterPage temporarily went down, which officials attributed to a capacity issue. 

“It was a long successful Primary Election Day here in Georgia,” tweeted Gabriel Sterling with the secretary of state’s office. “Thanks to the thousands of election workers in all of Georgia’s 159 counties… It’s through their hard work that we have safe, secure and accurate elections.”

  1. Incumbents dominate, with few surprises

Court-ordered redistricting scrambled metro Atlanta congressional and state legislative maps. But even in races where incumbent members of Congress ran in new territory with new constituents, they notched primary victories with eye-popping margins.

In a crowded field, Democratic Rep. David Scott won his primary with nearly 58% of the vote, despite staying off the campaign trail and declining to participate in a debate. Scott faced six opponents, who called for new leadership amid questions about Scott’s health.

Rep. Lucy McBath also won her Democratic primary with nearly 85% of the vote in a new majority-Black district in the suburbs west and south of Atlanta. McBath has now at various points represented huge swaths of metro Atlanta as she changed districts multiple times over the last few cycles. 

Despite a handful of upsets in metro Atlanta legislative races, most incumbents smashed their opponents. Democratic state Sens. Elena Parent and Sally Harrell easily won reelection. 

A prominent exception: Gabriel Sanchez, a millennial waiter and Democratic socialist, beat Democratic Rep. Teri Anulewicz for a seat in Cobb County. 

Most legislative districts are not competitive in the general election, meaning whoever wins the primary or the primary runoff will likely win the seat this fall. 

Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat, who faced several challengers who criticized plans to build a new Fulton County Jail, avoided a runoff and does not have a Republican challenger.

  1. Despite abortion focus, Supreme Court challenge fails

Former Democratic Congressman John Barrow sought to turn the race for a state Supreme Court seat into a referendum on abortion, a tack which has successfully catapulted progressive judicial candidates to victory in other states like Wisconsin. 

And while incumbent Justice Andrew Pinson — who was backed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and other top Republicans — won by a 10% margin or about 100,000 votes, it is challenging to make sweeping conclusions about what this race foreshadows about the November presidential election. 

The last time an incumbent Georgia Supreme Court Justice lost was in 1922, according to University of Georgia Professor Charles Bullock. 

While abortion has galvanized voters in other swing states, especially where abortion was literally on the ballot in the form of referendums, the issue has not always translated into Democratic victories in Georgia. In 2022, Kemp sailed to reelection, despite signing Georgia’s roughly six-week abortion ban. 

However, Barrow’s abortion message may not have pierced through voter disengagement in a typically low-turnout primary election.

  1. Trump endorsement gave congressional hopeful an edge, but not enough to avoid a runoff 

In a five-candidate field, former Trump administration official Brian Jack came out on top with the help of the former president’s endorsement. But that was not enough to avoid a runoff on June 18, when Jack will go up against the second-place finisher, former state Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan. 

The district is currently represented by retiring GOP Rep. Drew Ferguson and it stretches from Atlanta’s far south and west suburbs to the Alabama border.

Will Trump make a visit to Georgia to carry his preferred candidate across the finish line? Can Dugan consolidate support from the other candidates who will not advance to the runoff?

Should Jack triumph over Dugan in June, he will be part of a growing cadre of Trump allies in Congress. 

  1. Fulton County voters overwhelmingly approve of key players in Trump case

Despite facing criticism in some corners over their handling of the Georgia election interference case, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and Fulton Superior Judge Scott McAfee handily won their races. They each faced challengers who promised a more progressive or unconventional approach, pushing for systemic changes to the criminal justice system. 

The outcome is not entirely surprising. Both benefited from superior fundraising advantages over their challengers and the name recognition that comes with shepherding such a high-profile case. 

At the Inman Park Parade in April, revelers cheered McAfee and Willis along the route, thanking them for their work on the case. McAfee won with 83% of the vote. Willis captured 87%. 

While pre-trial hearings resume next week, McAfee and Willis’ decisions will continue to reverberate. The Georgia Court of Appeals has agreed to review McAfee’s decision allowing Willis to remain on the case amid allegations of a conflict of interest due to a relationship she had with a special prosecutor on the case. That development significantly diminishes the chances Trump’s case will see trial this year. 

“In every case, we bring forth indictments based on facts and law,” Willis said in an April interview, before the appeals court move. “And then we push judges to have appropriate motion hearings and then I have to let it go. It’s not in my control the date that is set.”

McAfee won his race on the nonpartisan ballot and didn’t face another round of voting this fall. Willis will go up against a Republican challenger in November. Her GOP opponent, Courtney Kramer, served on Trump’s Georgia legal team after the 2020 election. She also worked as executive director of True the Vote, a Texas-based group that has helped facilitate tens of thousands of challengers to voters’ eligibility in Georgia in recent years. 

WABE’s Patrick Saunders contributed reporting.