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

Wei Kang Ding and Judy Zhu outside of a candidate debate hosted by high school students on Sept. 28. in Johns Creek, Ga. Ding and Zhu say they are still doing their election research.

Sam Gringlas / Sam Gringlas

Suburban voters in swing states around the country helped propel President Joe Biden to victory in 2020. That included Georgia, where voters also sent two Democrats to the U.S. Senate for the first time in years.

Two years later, without former President Trump on the ballot — and without a Democratic backlash against him — it’s an open question whether the suburbs will deliver enough votes to help Democrats win again.

Over the years, Adam Pye’s vote has swung between Democrats and Republicans. This year, he says neither party satisfies him but he will probably wind up voting for the Democrats down the ticket. “Not something I normally do,” he says, “but because of the MAGA stuff, that’s kind of a deal breaker for me.”

Pye, his wife and their dog are relaxing on the town green in Alpharetta, an upscale city just outside Atlanta. It’s the kind of suburban Republican stronghold where Democrats have been gaining ground lately, especially since Trump first appeared on the ballot eight years ago.

Residents relax on the town green in Alpharetta, Ga., an upscale city just outside Atlanta on Sept. 17, 2022. (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

This election, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams are competing again after a narrow race in 2018. As the two met on a debate stage Monday night, both were looking to woo independent-minded voters like Breanna Clinton. On the same sunny day on the town green in Alpharetta, Clinton is watching her grandkids play at the nearby splash pad.

“I think inflation is something that will come and go,” Clinton says. “The abortion thing is here to stay and I don’t like it.”

Democrats hope enough voters will think about the abortion debate that way, too. Republicans, though, say they think inflation will work in their favor.

“I think it was the moment. Things that I find to be important seem to have been abandoned by the Democratic party.”

Cameron Lewellen in Sandy Springs, on whether or not Georgia’s blue wave in 2020 is permanent.

Suburbia is “where minds may be changing, where you may be able to win over people because of your policies or because of your candidates,” says Charles Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

But the suburbs aren’t simply blown one way or another by the cycle’s political winds.

Suburbs reflecting a changing Georgia

Part of why Georgia’s become more purple is because of the million new residents who arrived in the state over the last decade, many of them people of color settling in Atlanta’s suburbs. Democrats’ campaigns have also successfully turned out irregular and unlikely voters in other parts of the state.

“A lot of people are transplants from all over the place,” says Nikki Samet, who moved to Alpharetta a year ago from California and has a new baby girl strapped to her chest.

Once rich with Republican votes, Atlanta’s suburbs catalyzed decades of GOP dominance in Georgia, elevating candidates like former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Over the last few elections, Republicans have hemorrhaged suburban voters not just in Georgia – but around the country.

Nikki Samet, who moved to the Atlanta suburbs a year ago from California, visits the town green on Sept. 17 in Alpharetta, Ga. She says she is most worried about the recent rollback of abortion rights. (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

“Our community is more diverse and open-minded,” says Samet, who is most worried about the recent rollback of abortion rights.

Democrats often talk about demographics as destiny in Georgia, but so far, this cycle shows that the political climate and the individual candidates matter, too.

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

“With somebody saying there’s an election that was stolen before the election even happens, I really voted my conscience on that,” she says.

But her flip to the Democrats that year – it wasn’t permanent. Like many voters, both inflation and abortion are top of mind. But Wagner is voting to re-elect Kemp for governor, despite her opposition to the restrictive abortion law he signed.

“I’m upset with that. I’m also worried financially about where things are right now,” she says. “I know there are other states that will keep [abortion] around, and honestly, if there’s a woman who ever needs my help, I’d take her there.”

Some suburban voters say it’s candidates over party

Wagner isn’t voting for all the Republicans, though.

“I do like Warnock, so I’ll probably vote for him.”

That’s Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. His opponent is Republican Herschel Walker, the former football star. National Republicans view Georgia’s Senate seat as a top target in their crusade to flip the Senate.

But 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. Walker has denied those accounts, and NPR has not independently confirmed them.

Krista Wagner is sipping a frozen wine, watching a University of Georgia football game in Alpharetta, Ga. on Sept. 17. Wagner voted for Trump in 2016 and then Biden in 2020 but her flip to the Democrats that year wasn’t permanent. (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

Even before those recent developments, some Republican voters like Greg Minert were hesitant about Walker.

“Some of the allegations against Herschel Walker, that’s something I’ll have to take a closer look at, because if it’s true, that could change my mind,” Minert says.

That’s one reason something unusual is happening, especially in Atlanta’s wealthy, highly-educated suburbs. Some voters are splitting their tickets.

“Although Walker was great at football, I don’t know that he’s great at politics,” says Cameron Lewellen, who works in software and is watching his elementary-age son’s baseball team take the field in Sandy Springs, another suburban enclave that’s trended more Democratic in recent cycles.

“I think inflation is something that will come and go. The abortion thing is here to stay and I don’t like it.”

Breanna Clinton in Alpharetta

Most polls show Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock both leading their challengers.

They also suggest Senate nominee Herschel Walker is underperforming Kemp on the GOP ticket, especially with women and independents. And compared to fellow Democrat Raphael Warnock, polls have found that Stacey Abrams hasn’t shored up as much support from Black men like Lewellen in her race for governor.

Lewellen voted for Biden in 2020, but mostly as a protest vote against Trump. This year, he is picking the Republican for governor and the Democrat for Senate. Lewellen thinks Georgia’s blue wave in 2020 wasn’t a permanent realignment, especially given the economy.

“I think it was the moment,” he says. “Things that I find to be important seem to have been abandoned by the Democratic party.”

What the suburbs reveal about the country’s direction

At a candidate debate nearby hosted by high school students, Democratic State Sen. Michelle Au is making her case to undecided voters. Au is an anesthesiologist running for state house in Johns Creek, a city with many gated communities and a big population of Asian American voters.

“The way this area has changed, and the way it’s changed rapidly, has come under notice after the 2020 election, when Georgia flipped blue, due to turnout in areas like this,” Au says.

Take Georgia’s second-largest county, Gwinnett, in suburban Atlanta. Republican Mitt Romney carried the county by 9 points in 2012. Democrat Hillary Clinton took it by 6 points four years later and Abrams won it by 14 in 2018.

By 2020, Joe Biden won Gwinnett County by 18 points.

Au says trends like that have Republicans’ attention.

“I think they’re trying to claw back some of the power they realize in retrospect they lost by trying to reach out to some of these new voters in a way they hadn’t before,” she says.

Recently, Kemp campaigned on Alpharetta’s town green with Virginia’s GOP governor, Glenn Youngkin, a departure from the last election when Kemp trained his focus primarily on activating rural voters.

Even if Republicans recoup some ground, Au and many political scientists say it won’t reverse the overall trend line toward Democrats, as Trumpism lingers over the GOP and the suburbs keep changing.

“History shows they get bluer,” says Bullock. “Over the last 15 years, Democrats have flipped six suburban counties around Atlanta. Minority populations are moving out into new areas. It’s not something foreordained by god, but that has been the trend, for the blue to expand further out.”

At the debate, voters Judy Zhu and Wei Kang Ding are still doing their research.

“I think the incumbent is okay, but I don’t really like the whole abortion law,” Ding says.

Ding and Zhu are new voters.

“We weren’t citizens for the first few years, and of course, Georgia has become more purple, and it became more important for us to vote,” Zhu says.

Georgia’s elections have been tight recently, so how suburbanites like Ding and Zhu vote could decide crucial races for Senate and Governor. And the results could reveal something more about where American politics are headed in this pivotal moment.