Georgia And Arizona Senators Show Progressive-Centrist Split In Democratic Party

May 17, 2021
Originally published on May 17, 2021 10:00 pm

In his first months in office, Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock is sticking with the strategy that got him elected — and helped give Democrats the Senate majority.

At an early May stop at Blue Bird Corporation, a leader in electric school bus manufacturing in Fort Valley, Ga., Warnock insisted it is time for the federal government to invest in clean energy jobs and a "sustainable future" for the country.

He championed President Biden's massive infrastructure plan as a way to get there, and did not shy away from Biden's proposed corporate tax hikes to pay for it.

"We're riding on interstate highways that are only there because another generation of Americans invested in what people thought was impossible: an interstate highway system," he said. "None of us would be here enjoying any of this kind of prosperity without those kinds of federal investments. And so we're just asking for the corporate community, as part of the American family, to do your part, pay your fair share."

That kind of position is a change for Georgia, which had Republican U.S. senators for nearly two decades before this year, and has a state government that remains in GOP hands.

One of Warnock's Democratic colleagues, Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, also won a recent special election in another GOP-controlled Sun Belt state that long had sent Republicans to Washington, D.C. Both senators are running again in 2022 for a full six-year term, in two of the most contested Senate races in the country.

But Kelly has been taking a different approach from Warnock. The Arizona senator is sticking with the more traditional path for Democrats in swing states — touting centrist policies and his efforts to reach across the aisle.

On a recent visit to Intel's campus in Chandler, Ariz., Kelly highlighted the jobs that the construction of two new factories will bring to the region, and boasted of bipartisan legislation he's sponsored since taking office. He didn't explicitly mention Biden or his infrastructure proposal.

Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly has been touting centrist policies and his efforts to reach across the aisle.
Sarah Silbiger / Pool/Getty Images

When Kelly has talked about Biden lately, it's been to separate himself from the president on border policies.

"We've got a problem," Kelly said. "The federal government has failed on this issue for decades now. Washington has to do better, and Arizonans are fed up. So I'm just going to call it like I see it."

The diverging approaches aren't just limited to the Georgia and Arizona senators who face voters next year. Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff is taking a similar path as Warnock, and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is like Kelly in sticking to a more moderate approach.

The two different pathways reflect a larger tension at play as Democrats try to retain their narrow control of Washington. To win swing states like Arizona and Georgia, which strategy might work better? How voters respond to these diverging strategies could give the party some answers as to how it should shape itself for the future.

In Georgia, no more "Republican light"

Democrats running in battleground states have traditionally followed a centrist playbook to target independents and Republicans in suburban areas.

But that has been changing in Georgia, with wins to show for it.

"The theory of Georgia Democrats isn't about persuading the middle right now. It's about motivating the base," said Stefan Turkheimer, a Democratic strategist from Georgia who has also worked in Arizona. "So the idea is you're not trying to get Catholics to convert to Baptist; you're trying to get Baptists to go to church."

The idea is you're not trying to get Catholics to convert to Baptist; you're trying to get Baptists to go to church. - Stefan Turkheimer, a Democratic strategist from Georgia

Congresswoman Nikema Williams, who also serves as chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, said the shift reflects a new focus on energizing voters and speaking directly to marginalized communities, as opposed to trying to win back swing voters.

When running for party chair, she recalled hearing from people who "would be very upset and say, 'Well, if I can't tell the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans on the ballot, then why do I even need to bother turning out to vote?' " Williams said.

"We are in a different space where leaders are being authentic and not trying to be 'Republican light' because they think that we need to reclaim these Republicans that we lost years ago," she said.

Williams says Warnock and Ossoff's push for more progressive ideas, like federal voting legislation, reflects that.

These ideas — and an alliance with Biden — are also the platform the senators campaigned and won on, pointed out Jeremy Halbert-Harris, a Democratic strategist who led the Biden campaign in Georgia and advised the Senate runoff campaigns.

"We delivered the Senate majority by ... delivering the message of the president and actually delivering on what we exactly said we were doing," Halbert-Harris said. "We were able to say, at multiple rallies, 'If you elect Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to the United States Senate, they will help you secure your relief checks.' They were elected, that was done."

Sens. Warnock and Ossoff campaigned on helping to deliver on President Biden's agenda.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, noted the party has moved to the left, but cautioned about lumping Ossoff and Warnock in with the nation's leading progressives.

"There are places where they do agree with the people who we think of as the standard-bearers of American progressivism today, but there are also other places where they do look a little bit different," she said, pointing to Warnock's focus on rural Georgia and agriculture, for example. "And we need to acknowledge how their politics is borne out of their experience of living here in Georgia."

The power of "soft" partisans in Arizona

Progressives in Arizona wish Kelly acted more like his Georgia colleagues.

Alejandra Gomez, the co-executive director of Living United For Change Arizona, said she was disappointed in Kelly's reaction to Biden's joint address to Congress, when the senator criticized the president for failing to mention a "crisis" at the border.

"It really felt like that was tone deaf," Gomez said. She wants Kelly to focus on the other parts of Biden's speech — programs focused on working-class Arizonans, like a higher national minimum wage and affordable health insurance.

"We need to be reminded that these are not policies on a piece of paper; these are people's lives," Gomez said. "And in order for people to be able to survive this moment, they need bold moral leadership."

Sinema won her Senate seat in part thanks to split-ticket voters who cast ballots for her and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

But Kelly's positions reflect his campaign promises to the state's diverse electorate. One-third of Arizona voters are independent.

Kirk Adams, a former state House speaker and Republican strategist, points to Sinema's victory in 2018, when she won in part thanks to split-ticket voters who cast ballots for her and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. Adams said appealing just to a progressive base isn't a winning strategy for Democrats in statewide campaigns.

"Statewide elections in Arizona are decided by, in the industry, what are termed soft Democrats, soft Republicans and independents," Adams said. "In other words, it's those voters who go to Election Day, and they are not going to be bound by the views and the opinions of the activists in either party."

Biden has also been paying close attention to key moderates — a sign of how much power one swing vote can have in the 50-50 Senate. Sinema, for instance, had a sitdown with Biden last week — before he met with congressional leaders.

Gomez is aware of the realities of swing-state politics, but says Arizona's progressive base, which has been especially frustrated with Sinema's vote in March against a $15 minimum wage, can't be taken for granted.

"While you can't have a resounding victory just with the vote of Black, Indigenous people of color, the Latinx community, you can't win an election at a statewide level without the vote of Black, Indigenous people of color and the Latinx community," Gomez said.

Voting rights and the filibuster

Progressives have been pushing for years to get rid of the legislative filibuster so they can pass major bills to protect voting rights. The wins by Warnock and Ossoff creating the 50-50 Senate put the issue front and center — but it's been a key area where Arizona and Georgia Democrats are not on the same page.

Pointing to their own state's new Republican-led voting law, Warnock and Ossoff have said they're open to changing Senate rules to enact federal election protections.

Gillespie, the Emory political scientist, said this reflects the Democratic "gamble" in Georgia, especially for Warnock going into his reelection bid.

"If you were worried about the elusive center, [Warnock] might moderate his stance," she said. "But he's banking that there are more voters who are frustrated with what they perceive as Republican obstruction than who are concerned with preserving an institutional rule."

But in Arizona, Kelly sidesteps the question, while Sinema is publicly opposed, stressing the need for legislation to have bipartisan support.

When asked about the filibuster last week, Kelly pivoted to talking about the need for bipartisan legislation and a more efficient Congress. When pressed, he said: "If there was a real proposal, I'd certainly take a look at it."

Republicans searching for 2022 candidates

Arizona and Georgia are the two Senate seats Republicans feel they have the best chance to flip in 2022, since the seats were recently controlled by the GOP.

Republican strategists say factors at play in the last cycle — like Donald Trump on the ballot, and the dynamics of twin runoffs in Georgia weeks after the presidential election — won't be replicated. They acknowledge both states are competitive, but believe they will tilt more red in the midterms.

Democrats are banking on messy GOP primaries in both states to divert resources and time away from the Republican effort to defeat Kelly and Warnock.

Former Arizona GOP Sen Jeff Flake, who openly criticized Trump and opted to retire instead of run for reelection in 2018, said his party's transformation around the former president is a big reason Democrats are now competitive in his home state.

"For the first time in 70 years, you have two Democrats representing the state, so it's a shift in tone, shift in some policy," Flake said. "The Republican Party has gone really far to the right. And it is very difficult for a traditional conservative to be elected in Arizona right now."

But Flake said the "nightmare scenario" for Democrats is if a more mainstream GOP candidate got in the race.

In Georgia some high-profile Republicans have taken a pass on challenging Warnock. Trump has been pushing to get Herschel Walker, a former University of Georgia star football player with no political experience, to enter the race.

Republicans insist they have plenty of time to sort out their candidates and are now working to define the two freshmen Democrats as out of step with their home states.

Chris Hartline, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told NPR: "We will talk about how much money they want to spend, how much they want to increase taxes, how much they want to put Washington in charge of their lives — the cradle-to-grave welfare expansions."

Democratic strategists told NPR they believe the coronavirus pandemic will be a defining issue in the midterms. Senators can point to relief programs they voted for getting help to their states, and the lack of any GOP votes.

But as life returns to normal in Arizona and Georgia, the pandemic could fade as an issue on the 2022 campaign trail, and operatives from both parties say other issues, like immigration or the economy next year, could resonate more.

Emily Kirkland, executive director of Progress Arizona, said the COVID-19 relief approved by Democrats in March was a good start, but it won't be enough.

"The thing that voters are ultimately going to care about most is, having sent [Kelly] to Washington, what can he deliver? What can he point to in 2022 and say, 'This is how I made your life better'?" Kirkland said. "I think that there is a lot more still to do."


WABE's Emma Hurt reported from Georgia, and KJZZ's Ben Giles reported from Arizona.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Arizona and Georgia are two states that were Republican strongholds for years. That is until big recent wins for Democrats, including in the U.S. Senate. A senator from each state is up for reelection next year. Both are Democrats, but they're using two different strategies for holding on to those seats and keeping the Democratic majority. WABE's Emma Hurt and KJZZ's Ben Giles explore the case.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock spent a recent tour of the state championing President Biden's massive infrastructure plan. He stopped at Blue Bird in middle Georgia, a leader in electric school bus manufacturing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Look at that bus. What year is that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: 1948 - that's the first all-American we built here in Fort Valley.

HURT: Warnock thinks the federal government needs to step in and bolster clean energy like it did with the federal highway system, and he doesn't shy away from the idea of raising taxes on corporations to pay for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WARNOCK: None of us would be here enjoying any of this kind of prosperity without those kinds of federal investments. And so we're just asking for the corporate community, as part of the American family, to do your part; pay your fair share.

HURT: This is a dramatic change for Georgia, which has had Republican senators for nearly two decades. But to Jeremy Halbert-Harris, a Democratic strategist who worked on the Senate runoff campaigns, it makes perfect sense.

JEREMY HALBERT-HARRIS: We delivered the Senate majority by running close and delivering the message of the president and delivering on what we exactly said we were doing.

HURT: By talking about clean energy and championing Biden's agenda, he says, Warnock is doing what Georgians elected him to do.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Outside a semiconductor factory in Chandler, Ariz., Senator Mark Kelly doesn't mention Biden's infrastructure plan. He's focused on jobs and COVID relief. When he has mentioned Biden, Kelly has criticized the president's handling of the Arizona-Mexico border.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK KELLY: We've got a problem, and the federal government has failed on this issue for decades now. Washington has to do better. I think Arizonans are fed up, so I'm just going to call it like I see it.

GILES: Progressive advocate Emily Kirkland worries Kelly is being swept up in a GOP border narrative focused on security not immigration reform. Instead, Kirkland wants to hear Kelly talk about the Biden agenda - infrastructure, clean energy, expanded access to child care.

EMILY KIRKLAND: The thing that voters are ultimately going to care about most is, what can he deliver? What can he point to in 2022 and say, this is how I made your life better?

GILES: But Kelly's positions reflect his campaign promises to the state's diverse electorate. One-third of Arizona voters are independent. A centrist streak has provided Democrats here with a winning formula.

HURT: Meanwhile, in Georgia, Democrats have a different formula. Their strategy has moved to the left with their base. Congresswoman Nikema Williams is also chair of the state party.

NIKEMA WILLIAMS: What I heard in my time leading up to my running for chair is that people would be very upset and say, well, if I can't tell the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans on the ballot, then why do I even need to bother in turning out to vote?

HURT: She says today's party is focused on energizing voters, targeting marginalized communities directly rather than trying to be, quote, "Republican light." Stefan Turkheimer is a Democratic strategist from Georgia who has also worked in Arizona.

STEFAN TURKHEIMER: The theory of Georgia Democrats isn't about persuading the middle right now. It's about motivating the base. So the idea is you're not trying to get Catholics to convert to Baptists. You're trying to get Baptists to go to church.

HURT: That's why, he says, you see Georgia's senators campaigning on and talking about progressive issues.

GILES: Arizona progressives see what's happening in Georgia and hope Kelly will follow suit. But Kirk Adams, a former state House speaker and Republican strategist, says appealing to Arizona's progressive base alone won't get Kelly reelected.

KIRK ADAMS: Statewide elections in Arizona are decided by, in the industry, what are termed soft Democrats, soft Republicans and independents. They are not going to be bound by the views and the opinions of the activists in either party.

GILES: Another progressive advocate, Alejandra Gomez, is aware of that political reality but says Arizona's progressive base can't be taken for granted.

ALEJANDRA GOMEZ: While you can't have a resounding victory just with the vote of Black, Indigenous people of color and the Latinx community, you can't win an election at a statewide level without the vote of Black, Indigenous people of color and Latinx community.

GILES: Gomez says those voters need bold structural reforms, like federal voting legislation, even if that means setting aside the filibuster, a topic Kelly has long dodged.

HURT: Senator Warnock, on the other hand, hasn't been afraid to say the filibuster may need to go to pass federal voting legislation.

From WABE in Atlanta, I'm Emma Hurt.

GILES: And from KJZZ in Phoenix, I'm Ben Giles.

KELLY: And we're going to bring in one more voice now to talk through what we just heard - NPR congressional editor Deirdre Walsh.

Welcome.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: So two different states, two pretty different approaches by Democrats. What is your takeaway from what we just heard?

WALSH: Well, it's not just Warnock and Kelly who Emma and Ben were talking about. It's their Democratic colleagues in the Senate. Jon Ossoff in Georgia has taken the progressive tact, while Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona is more of a centrist. So this whole story is more about who's up for reelection, but it's about the direction of the Democratic Party. And the tension between those two wings are going to have policy implication for Biden's agenda. He needs support from both progressives and centrists. Politically, Republicans want to exploit this. They see Arizona and Georgia as their best chances to flip Senate seats since both were previously held by Republicans. And we just need to remember they only need to net gain one seat next fall to retake the majority.

KELLY: Now, there's a big unknown in both races. In Arizona and Georgia, we don't yet know who the Republican opponents will be. How might that affect the race?

WALSH: Right, it's the big X-factor. But Democrats are banking on messy Republican primaries in both states. Those contests are expected to be about which candidates are most closely identified with Trump. I talked to former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who's a sharp critic of Trump's, and he said the transformation of the Republican Party is going to be a big factor.

JEFF FLAKE: It's a shift in tone, a shift in some policy. The Republican Party has gone really far to the right, and it is very difficult for a traditional conservative to be elected in Arizona right now.

WALSH: Senate GOP strategists insist there's plenty of time to sort out who their candidates are going to be. And right now they're spending time trying to define these Democrats. One Republican stressed that both Warnock and Kelly are now going to have voting records, and Republican candidates are going to argue that they are reliably Democratic votes for what they view as an overreaching Washington agenda that may not be so popular next fall.

KELLY: What about Warnock and Kelly themselves? Have we gotten any indication yet - I know we're still nearly a year and a half out - but what they plan to campaign on in 2022?

WALSH: Right now Democrats are focusing on the Biden and the Democratic response to the pandemic. They think senators can point to the money that they delivered to their constituents and remind voters in their states that Republicans were mostly against that kind of aid. But Republicans believe that the voters will eventually get sticker shock over the trillions of federal spending that could turn off independents and Republicans. But 18 months is a lifetime in politics, so it's unclear what issues will resonate next fall.

KELLY: NPR congressional editor Deirdre Walsh, thank you.

WALSH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE DIXON AND MICHEL STEIN'S "KIDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.