In most places, in most races, the results of this year’s midterm elections will be determined by members of the two largest political parties and by the independents who consistently vote with those parties. But in a few places, in a few races, the results will be determined by something else: voters who split their ballots between the parties, electing a Democrat to one office and a Republican to another.
If polling is any guide — which it is, with caveats — Georgia may well be one of those latter places. The state that handed President Biden his narrowest margin of victory in November 2020 could two years later reelect a Republican governor and a Democratic senator. And, at least in the case of the senator, Raphael G. Warnock, a victory would be a function of people voting across party lines.
Polling released Wednesday from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Georgia News Collaborative shows Gov. Brian Kemp (R) with a 10-point lead over former state representative Stacey Abrams (D). Warnock, meanwhile, is in a tight race against former NFL star Herschel Walker (R), with 46 percent to Walker’s 43 percent.
About 5 percent of the electorate, the Journal-Constitution’s Greg Bluestein reported, are Kemp-Warnock voters. Take away that crossover, and the margin in the Senate race flips to a statistically insignificant Walker advantage.
To jaded newspaper writers who have, through years of exposure, come to rely on partisanship as a reliable marker of election outcomes, this seems like something of a novelty. But really, it isn’t. More than a fifth of U.S. states have governors of one party but voted for the 2020 presidential candidate of the other party. That includes seven states in which the governor is Republican but the 2020 vote went to Biden — like Georgia.
It also includes Arizona, where Gov. Doug Ducey (R) earned Donald Trump’s eternal ire for standing behind his state’s pro-Biden vote in 2020. But even before Arizona shifted to the Democratic column in 2020, we could see how partisan support for statewide candidates diverged.
When Ducey was reelected in 2018, he was on the same ballot as a Senate race, a contest won by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D). Exit polling (which is also imperfect!) indicates how partisan defections determined each result.
About 1 in 7 Democrats backed Ducey’s reelection bid (the outer circle below). About 1 in 8 Republicans backed Sinema’s (the inner circle). In each case, the losing candidates got about 85 percent of their party’s support — but the defections helped determine the outcome.
In New Hampshire, the 2020 results were even more stark. Biden narrowly won here, too, in part thanks to 1 in 10 Republicans backing his candidacy. But Gov. Chris Sununu (R) easily won reelection, thanks in part to 1 in 5 Democrats backing his candidacy.
In North Carolina, the pattern was slightly different. There was broad partisan loyalty in the 2020 presidential race, but 1 in 12 Republicans backed incumbent Gov. Roy Cooper (D). This helped Cooper defeat his Republican challenger, winning by 4.5 percentage points in a state that went for Trump by 1.4 points.
Those elections had the benefit of occurring simultaneously. Other splits are a function, in part, of election cycles. In 2020, for example, Trump secured the support of only 90 percent of Virginia Republicans, according to exit polls. In the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race, Republican Glenn Youngkin got 97 percent of the Republican vote.
One can certainly generate a number of explanations for why gubernatorial races seem to so frequently defy the gravitational pull of partisanship. But part of it is also situational. Kemp gets 94 percent of the Republican vote in the new Georgia poll compared with Abrams’s 87 percent of the Democratic vote in part because of what’s unfolded since their initial 2018 matchup and in part because of incumbency. Warnock gets 94 percent of Democratic support compared with Walker’s 84 percent of Republican backing because of incumbency and, certainly, because of Walker’s unique … challenges.
There’s a reason that partisanship is so often the primary driver for voters, including the increasing divergence between the parties. But sometimes, in some situations, elections do come down to choices between candidates.