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Hot or not, in or out: Our forecast of 2022’s most interesting Southern political races

Trump’s sway will be key metric in outcome of midterm elections across region

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Decision 2022(CFP) — 2022 has dawned, and with it a mid-term election year in which most Southern states will decide who gets to be their governor and congressional races across the region will play a key role in deciding which party controls Congress.

Of the eight Southern states with open races for governor this year, seven will feature incumbents seeking re-election, with the only open race in Arkansas, where former Donald Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders appears on her way to victory.

Nine U.S. Senate seats will be up, with open races in Alabama and North Carolina and Georgia Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock battling for a full term after winning a special election runoff in 2020.

Here is a look at some of the hottest races, and likely biggest political stories, of the upcoming year.

Reapportionment Primary-Palooza

The redrawing of new U.S. House maps after reapportionment has set up two Southern primary contests, one in each party, where incumbents will need to defeat a current colleague to stay in Congress.

In Georgia, Republican mapmakers have pitted Democratic U.S. Reps. Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux against each other in Atlanta’s suburbs. McBath’s existing district in the northwest suburbs became too Republican for her to survive; Bourdeaux’s in the northeast suburbs actually became more Democratic with the addition of areas that had been in McBath’s orbit.

The two women — who campaigned with each other in 2018 and 2020 and differ little politically — will face off in what is likely to be an expensive primary. McBath has a stronger national profile and fundraising operation, but the district now centers on Gwinnett County, which Bourdeaux currently represents.

One caveat is that voting rights groups are suing the block the new map, which, if successful, could provide a wrinkle ahead of the March filing deadline.

In West Virginia, the loss of one of the state’s three U.S. House seats sets up a primary contest between Republican U.S. Reps. David McKinley and Alex Mooney for a new district that includes the northern half of the state.

However, this race will have more of an ideological flavor than the primary in Georgia. Mooney, a former Washington lobbyist who moved to the state in 2014 from Maryland to run for Congress, is a member of the ultra-conservative, anti-establishment Freedom Caucus. McKinley, a seventh-generation West Virginian and former state party chair, is more aligned with the Republican Party’s establishment wing.

Expect to hear a great deal in this race about McKinley’s vote in favor of establishing a bipartisan commission to investigation the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, which Mooney opposed.

The Power of Trump

The former president has already been active in offering endorsements and pursuing revenge, particularly against Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for refusing to indulge his claims of widespread fraud in the state’s 2020 vote.

Trump recruited former U.S. Senator David Perdue to run against Kemp, setting off what is likely to be a bare-knuckled brawl in the Republican primary ahead of a stiff challenge from Democrat Stacey Abrams. He also endorsed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice’s bid to unseat Raffensperger.

And in one of the strangest early developments of the 2020 campaign, Trump also reportedly encouraged his former ambassador to Slovenia, Lindy Blanchard, to drop out of the U.S. Senate race to run instead against the very popular Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, in a fit of pique over cancellation of a July 4th Trump rally (a decision Ivey did not actually make.)

Trump has also waded into the attorney general’s race in Texas with an endorsement of incumbent Ken Paxton, who has drawn a gaggle of primary challengers (including Bush family scion George P. Bush and stalwart pro-Trump U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert) after a criminal indictment and FBI bribery investigation.

Taking down Ivey would seem a long shot at this point; Kemp is holding his own against Perdue in early polls; and Paxton race seems likely to be headed to an unpredictable runoff in March. So it remains to be seen whether the Trump endorsement machine will produce results in 2022.

Trump has also endorsed in three U.S. Senate races. In Georgia, his nod put Herschel Walker on a glide path to the Republican nomination, but his chosen candidates in Alabama (U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks) and North Carolina (U.S. Rep. Ted Budd) are facing tough primary battles against more establishment candidates.

Adding to the MAGA Squad

Trump’s election has led to the rise of a core group of MAGA-philes in the House – social media savvy, outspoken, and willing to pounce on fellow Republicans who display the slightest scrap of bipartisanship. Among this group are Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, Florida’s Matt Gaetz, the aforementioned Gohmert and Brooks, and North Carolina’s Madison Cawthorn.

In 2022, they are hoping to add to their numbers by offering endorsements and fundraising help to like-minded candidates across the South and around the country, which will put them in position to be power brokers if Republicans take control of the House (a prospect likely to give House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy heartburn.)

Some of these candidates are little known and will face tough climbs against incumbent Republicans. But it is worth noting that both Greene and Cawthorn followed this same playbook successfully in 2020, going from unknowns to the halls of Congress with lightning speed.

Southern Black Woman in the U.S. Senate?

No black woman has ever been elected to represent a Southern state in the Senate. This year, Democrats are poised to pick two black women as their Senate nominees – U.S. Rep. Val Demings in Florida and Cheri Beasley in North Carolina.

Demings, the former police chief of Orlando who served on the first House impeachment committee that investigated Trump, faces an uphill climb against Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, particularly with his strong core of support among Hispanic voters in South Florida. But with her national profile, she has been posting strong fundraising numbers that could make the race competitive.

Beasley, the former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, may have better prospects in running for an open seat in a race where Republicans are slogging through a multi-candidate race in which Trump has intervened in favor of Budd.

A victory by either in November will make history.

Palmetto State “RINOs”

The most serious insult that can be hurled in Republican politics these days is to call someone a RINO – a Republican in Name Only.

Two incumbent U.S. House members in South Carolina have been branded with the RINO label by their critics – Nancy Mace in the Lowcountry and Tom Rice in the Pee Dee – and are each facing multiple challengers in their respective Republican primaries.

Mace was among the few Republican House members to offer criticism of Trump after the January 6th Capitol attack, although she did not vote to impeach him. Rice did, which got him censured by the state’s Republican Party, and he compounded his sin among the MAGA fervency by supporting the bipartisan commission to investigate the attacks.

As a result, Mace has four GOP challengers; Rice has 12. Trump has encouraged their challengers but has yet to announce a favorite. His blessing may be good enough to earn a runoff slot against the incumbent.

Thinking Outside The Box

After Warnock won a January special U.S. Senate election runoff in Georgia, he immediately become the Republicans’ primary 2022 target. Yet, no sitting U.S. House member ventured to take him on, nor did the three Republicans who ran against him in 2020.

Enter Herschel Walker, University of Georgia football hero and NFL standout. Though he carries significant personal baggage and has not a whiff of political experience, he does have the one accessory every Republican candidate wants in 2022 – Trump’s blessing.

Trump’s endorsement didn’t clear the primary field, but it did get Republican Senate leaders in Washgington behind Walker’s candidacy – taking a significant leap of faith in a race against a charismatic Democrat with Obama-level political skills.

Is this a gamble that will pay off or blow up? The answer may decide control of the Senate.

Beto O’Crist for Governor

The good people of Texas told Beto O’Rourke that they didn’t want him to be their senator in 2018, even after he spent $80 million trying to persuade them otherwise. The good people of Iowa and New Hampshire told him they didn’t want him to be their president in 2020, without nearly as much money going down the drain.

But not willing to take no and no for an answer, O’Rourke is back again, running this time for governor against incumbent Republican Greg Abbott. Only this time, he’s running in the gun-loving Lone Star State after telling a Democratic presidential debate audience that he was in favor of confiscating their assault weapons.

But lest you think Beto is the region’s most resolute embracer of questionable causes, he pales in comparison to Florida’s well-tanned political chameleon Charlie Crist, who is running for governor again this year after losing two statewide races in the past eight years and metamorphosing from a conservative Republican into an independent and then into a liberal Democrat.

Which begs the question: What part of “no” don’t you understand?

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Black U.S. Senate candidates in the South piling up impressive amounts of campaign cash

U.S. Senators Raphael Warnock and Tim Scott have raised more money than any other Senate candidates nationwide

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Decision 2022(CFP) — African American candidates have historically faced a structural barrier in gaining election to high office — difficulty raising the money needed to run a competitive race. But in 2022, black candidates appear to be kicking down that barrier in Southern U.S. Senate races.

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U.S. Senators Raphael Warnock and Tim Scott lead national fundraising totals

Six Southern African American candidates have each raised more than $1 million; three have raised more than $10 million. And more than a year before election day, Democratic U.S Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia has raised more money than any other Senate candidate in the country, $44 million.

Behind Warnock is Republican U.S. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, at $31 million.

In the 150 years since Reconstruction, just two African Americans have been elected to represent a Southern state in the U.S. Senate — Scott and Warnock, who are both up for re-election in 2022 and amassing mountains of cash.

But the four other Southern African American candidates trying to join Scott and Warnock in the Senate are also pulling in impressive amounts of campaign money, the possession of which doesn’t ensure victory but the absence of which would certainly spell defeat.

In Georgia, Warnock is likely to face another black candidate, Republican Herschel Walker, the NFL and Georgia Bulldog great whom Donald Trump inveighed to get into the race.

In the third quarter of 2021, Warnock and Walker combined raised $13.3 million for what is likely to be among the most competitive races of the 2022 cycle; Warnock pulled in $9.5 million to $3.8 million for Walker.

Trump’s endorsement has not cleared the Republican primary field for Walker, who faces a multi-candidate primary before he can get to Warnock,. However, in his first five weeks in the race, Walker has already raised more money than any of his primary rivals.

Unlike Warnock, Scott is not facing a competitive race in the Palmetto State in 2022. But his haul during the third quarter — $8.4 million — is stoking speculation that Scott may be filling his cash cupboard for a possible 2024 run for the Republican presidential nomination.

In Florida, Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings — who raised her a national political profile as an House manager in the first Trump impeachment trial — raised $8.5 million in the third quarter, eclipsing the $6 million raised by her likely Republican opponent, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. But he’s raised $19 million overall so far, compared to her $13.5 million.

Neither Demings nor Rubio appear likely at this point to face a serious primary challenge that would deplete their coffers before turning their fire on each other.

In North Carolina, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley raised $1.5 million in the third quarter. While that total was not as impressive as some of the black candidates in other races, it was more than any other candidate in her race in either party, although she remains slightly behind her strongest white rival for the Democratic nomination, State Senator Jeff Jackson, in overall fundraising.

In heavily Republican Kentucky, former State Rep. Charles Booker from Louisville is considered the longest of long shots to unseat U.S. Senator Rand Paul, running as a self-styled “progressive.” But he, too, has taken in $1.7 million, tapping into national Democratic anger at some of Paul’s statements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At this point in the cycle, five of the six Southern African American candidates — Warnock, Scott, Demings, Walker, and Booker — are likely to be their party’s nominee, while Beasley’s fundraising will make her competitive in North Carolina’s Democratic primary. That number of major party Southern African-American nominees will shatter historical precedent.

The races in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina are also likely to be among the most hard-fought, and expensive, in the country, with African American candidates in the mix for victory, while Scott could use 2022 as a springboard to bigger and better things.

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Genius or gimmick? Georgia GOP puts its Senate hopes on Herschel Walker

With Donald Trump’s blessing, untested Walker poised to claim U.S. Senate nomination. But is he too much of a risk?

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

GeorgiaATLANTA (CFP) — Are Georgia Republicans ready to hand their U.S. Senate nomination to a man who has never run for political office, hasn’t lived in the Peach State for decades, and has a personal history that includes mental health struggles and an ex-wife with a restraining order?

Picture of Georgia U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker

U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker, R-Georgia

With Donald Trump’s enthusiastic endorsement, Hall of Fame football hero Herschel Walker enters the race as the clear front-runner for the Republican nomination to take on Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock next year.  But with control of the Senate on the line, nominating Walker is certainly not the safest path, given the questions he will face about his politics and his past.

Will a Walker candidacy end in strategic triumph or bitter regret? Trump clearly believes the former; Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly nervous about the latter.

“I’m a kid from a small town in Georgia who’s lived the American dream, and I’m ready to fight to keep that dream alive for you,” said Walker in a campaign kickoff video posted August 25, which contained footage of his Heisman-winning exploits at the University of Georgia, spliced with workouts in the gym.

“I’m a conservative not because someone told me to be. I’m a conservative because I believe in smaller government, a strong military, personal responsibility and making sure all people have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”

Watch Walker’s announcement video at bottom of page

The video did not mention Trump, who has been encouraging Walker to make a Senate run for months. But his campaign website features a famous photo of Walker doing an elbow bump with the former president during the 2020 presidential campaign.

The campaign rollout was unusual in that Walker entered the race quietly, with a statement and website, rather that with a public event in front of reporters, who might have asked uncomfortable questions.

Walker, 59, was born and raised in Wrightsville, a small town in Middle Georgia. He led UGA’s football team to its only consensus national title in 1980 and, in 1982, won the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top college football player.

He went on to play professional football, first in the USFL (where he played for a team Trump owned) and then in the NFL, where he retired from the Dallas Cowboys in 1997.

Since his retirement, Walker had been living in Texas, where he established a poultry business. He registered to vote in Georgia just days before entering the Senate race.

In a 2008 book, Walker disclosed that he has suffered from dissociative identity disorder, which used to be called multiple personality disorder. He credited therapy and his Christian faith for his recovery.

In July, the Associated Press published an extensive investigative profile of Walker, based on business and court records. According to the report, Walker’s ex-wife got a protective order in 2005, alleging violent and threatening behavior. Walker was also involved in several contentious disputes with his business partners and may have made exaggerated claims about his record as a businessman.

Walker did not respond to the AP’s requests for comment for the story. Refusing to address the allegations will be much harder to do in the heat of a political campaign.

Walker’s current wife, Julie Blanchard, is also under investigation by Georgia election officials for casting an absentee ballot in the 2020 election, despite residing in Texas. As one of Walker’s rivals for the GOP Senate nomination, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, noted, “it makes it very difficult to talk about voter fraud after that.”

Black, who has won statewide office three times, will certainly be no pushover for Walker. But Trump’s full-throated support for Walker will make his task that much harder, as evidenced by Black’s tepid fundraising in what will become one of the most expensive races of the 2022 cycle. (He’s raised $703,000, compared to $34 million for Warnock.)

The Republican field had been frozen for months as potential Senate candidates waited for Walker’s decision, with several members of Georgia’s U.S. House delegation looking at bids. But there will be very little appetite to take on the Trump-Walker duo.

In a sense, Georgia Republicans find themselves in this situation because of Republican Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to think outside the box and pick uber-wealthy businesswoman Kelly Loeffler for a Senate seat in 2020. She quickly proved to be out of her element against Warnock — with debate performances that were painful to watch — and could not hold the seat.

So is it wise for Georgia Republicans to think outside the box again with Walker, having no idea what kind of political candidate he will make? Particularly against Warnock, equipped as he is with the power of incumbency, a mountain of money, and Barack Obama-level political skills?

Georgia Bulldog fans view Walker fondly, even reverently. But it has been 40 years since he led them to glory — years in which the state has changed almost beyond recognition.

Trump, of course, is the ultimate example of using celebrity to gain political power, which is no doubt why he thinks Walker is a slam-dunk Senate choice.

But time will tell whether nominating Walker is strategic genius or an ill-fated gimmick. Control of the Senate may very well hang on the answer.

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Second time’s a charm? Charles Booker makes new run for Kentucky U.S. Senate seat

Former Democratic legislator from Louisville will face uphill climb to unseat Republican U.S. Senator Rand in 2022

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

KentuckyLOUISVILLE (CFP) — When he launched his first run for the U.S. Senate in 2020, few observers gave Charles Booker a snowball’s chance in a Kentucky August.

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Democrat Charles Booker announces U.S. Senate run

He was just 32, had served in the legislature for just one year, and was trying to wrestle the Democratic nomination away from Amy McGrath, a fundraising powerhouse who had the full backing of Senate Democrats and their leader, Chuck Schumer.

But then, Booker took a leading role in social justice protests in Louisville after the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, his charismatic style caught the imagination of the Democratic left, and — amid an uneven, uninspiring and hyper-cautious campaign from McGrath — he came within 16,000 votes of pulling off what would have one of the year’s biggest primary upsets.

Exiting the race, Booker told his supporters, “Don’t ever let someone tell you what’s impossible.”

A year later, he’s trying the impossible again, this time with a run for the state’s other U.S. Senate seat, held by Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul.

“A lot of people don’t believe that change is possible in Kentucky. We’re going to prove the doubters wrong,” Booker told supporters at his kickoff rally in Louisville July 1. “We’re going to win this race, and we’re going to transform Kentucky, and it starts right now. Let’s go.”

Video of Booker’s announcement speech at end of story.

And Booker made it clear that whether or not his optimism is borne out, or whether or not the race against Paul ends up being competitive in the end, his quest to unseat Paul will be fiery, unapologetically liberal and in-your-face, in a way McGrath never was.

“Randal Howard Paul — I see you. I see you, but you don’t see us,” Booker said. “Rand Paul thinks we are a joke. He mocks us whenever he opens his mouth. He’s mocking us. He’s an embarrassment to Kentucky because he does not care.”

“He thinks his job is to stir dysfunction, to weaponize hate and essentially dismiss Kentuckians altogether.”

Rand’s response to Booker’s announcement telegraphed the likely Republican strategy against him; namely, pounding him on his more left-wing positions in a conservative state: “I just don’t think defunding the police and forcing taxpayers to pay for reparations will be very popular in Kentucky.”

What happened to McGrath in 2020 illustrates the decidedly uphill nature of Booker’s quest in 2022. She spent $90 million to lose to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell by 20 points, failing to even break 40%.

Of course, McConnell is a more formidable political force than Paul, and McGrath’s near loss to Booker in the Democratic primary — in which he beat her in Louisville-Jefferson County by 36,000 votes — was a glaring sign of her weakness as a candidate. Booker does have stronger political skills, and it seems likely at this point that he won’t have to battle through a primary.

Still, Donald Trump carried Kentucky by 26 points in 2020, and Paul heads into the race with Trump’s endorsement. And a Democrat has not won a Senate race in the commonwealth for 30 years.

Booker’s theory of the race is that he can reach, rally and motivate voters on the left, rather than trimming his sails to appear more moderate, which did not work for McGrath. To that end, he has hired two campaign operatives involved in Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock’s runoff win in January, which won with a rallying-the-base strategy.

Booker, like Warnock, is a charismatic African-American candidate with an engaging, pulpit speaking style. However, Kentucky has a much smaller black population than Georgia and is much less urban. Louisville’s impact on the statewide vote will not be as determinative as Atlanta’s was.

Indeed, Booker’s loss to McGrath shows the challenges of a base-centric style in the Bluegrass. He beat her in Louisville and Lexington, but she won the primary by carrying most of the rest of the state.

So, the key question for 2022 is, can he find enough votes in more heavily populated parts of the state to overcome Paul’s margins in more rural areas? Or can he cut into those margins with an economic appeal to rural voters in poorer counties in Eastern Kentucky, where Democrats still have local influence?

Another wild card in this race is the amount of institutional support Booker might get from national Democrats, for a race that is seen as rather less than winnable. The powers-that-be who went all in for McGrath may be wary of going down that road again, although, as Paul’s foil, Booker should be able to raise enough money on his own to be competitive.

It is not impossible for a Democrat to win statewide in Kentucky, as Governor Andy Beshear proved in 2019. Then again, Beshear was running against Matt Bevin, whose performance as governor had made him as popular as a bad rash. Paul starts the race in much better shape.

Booker starts the race with an audacious belief in his own chances, and he has clearly decided that caution is not the better part of valor. While that may or may not end up making a senator, it will make the Kentucky Senate race among them most compelling of the 2022 cycle.

Video of Charles Booker’s announcement

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Former Georgia U.S. Rep. Doug Collins won’t seek statewide office in 2022

Republican passes on primary challenge  to Governor Brian Kemp encouraged by Donald Trump

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

GeorgiaATLANTA (CFP) — Former Georgia Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins has announced he won’t seek any statewide office in 2022, deciding to forgo a primary challenge to Governor Brian Kemp or a race against Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock.

In an announcement on Twitter, Collins said he planned to stay active in politics but gave no details of his future plans.

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Doug Collins

“For those who may wonder, this is goodbye for now, but probably not forever,” he said. “I do plan on staying involved in shaping our conservative message to help Republicans win back the House and the Senate and help more strong conservative candidates get elected here in Georgia.”

Collins, 54, from Gainesville, was elected to represent Georgia’s 9th U.S. House District in 2012 but gave up the seat to run in a special election for a vacant U.S. Senate seat in 2020. He finished third in an all-party contest, which Warnock won in a runoff.

After the 2020 election, Donald Trump, unhappy that Kemp wasn’t doing more to help him overturn his election loss in Georgia, publicly urged Collins to challenge Kemp in this year’s GOP primary.

Collins — one of Trump’s staunchest defenders in the House — could have posed a threat to Kemp with Trump behind him, which has now been removed with his decision not to run.

Kemp has so far drawn only one significant Republican challenger — Vernon Jones, a former Democrat who served as chief executive of DeKalb County before switching parties to support Trump in 2020.

Collins is the second major Republican to take a pass on the Senate race against Warnock, joining former U.S. Senator David Perdue.

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