Analysis: The road to the White House now runs through Georgia and Arizona

Sen. Raphael Warnock smiles and looks at his toddler son, whom he holds.
Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock holds his son, Caleb, during an election night watch party on Tuesday.
(John Bazemore / Associated Press)

When President Biden won Georgia and Arizona en route to the White House in 2020, many Republicans called the outcome a fluke, a one-time response shaped by a deadly pandemic.

Tuesday’s Senate runoff in Georgia, together with the November election results in Arizona, proved that argument wrong. The two states, both solidly Republican only a few years ago, now have four senators elected as Democrats to full six-year terms. (Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat when she won election in 2018, announced Friday that she’s changing her affiliation to independent, which could protect her against a primary challenge if she runs for reelection in 2024. The state won’t have a Republican in either Senate seat or the governorship for the first time since 1950.)

For the record:

6:01 p.m. Dec. 15, 2022Glenn Youngkin was elected governor of Virginia in 2021. A previous version of this article gave the wrong date.

The midterm outcome makes clear that the nation’s political battleground has shifted: The road to the White House in 2024 will run through the South and Southwest. The big industrial states bordering the Great Lakes, which dominated the last several election cycles, remain important, but no longer as exclusively.


That will change not only where presidential candidates campaign, but also the nature of the voters on whom they focus: For Democrats, the shift will intensify the need to mobilize the Black and Latino voters whose support — and large turnout — they need in order to win southern and southwestern states. For Republicans, the fact that both states have relatively young electorates could draw greater attention to the party’s growing deficit with millennial and Gen Z voters.

A short list of competitive states

A generation ago, a majority of states were at play in presidential campaigns. No longer. The list of truly competitive states has steadily shrunk. Even as Georgia and Arizona have joined the list, other states have dropped off.

Florida, which was among the most closely divided states from 2000 to 2016, shifted heavily toward the GOP in 2020 and moved even further in this year’s midterms, in part because of the gains among Latino voters that Republicans have made in the state. Given the high cost of campaigning there, Democrats aren’t likely to sink significant time and money into trying to capture the state in 2024, especially if Gov. Ron DeSantis is the GOP nominee.

Similarly, Ohio, which was the quintessential election battleground for decades, appears to have moved out of reach for Democrats — with the possible exception of incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown — as the white, working-class voters who predominate in the state shifted to the right in the Trump era.

On the other side of the ledger, states with large shares of college-educated voters have become increasingly difficult for the GOP. This year’s midterms were especially troublesome for Republicans in two states that fit into that category. In Colorado, Republican Joe O’Dea’s inability to come close to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, who won reelection with 56% of the vote, indicates that the once-purple state can be considered solidly blue. And the GOP’s failure to make significant gains in Virginia suggests that the 2021 victory of Gov. Glenn Youngkin may have limited predictive value.

Overall, both parties begin the presidential contest with about 220 electoral votes they can pretty well count on — 50 short of the 270 needed to win. Arizona’s 11 electoral votes and Georgia’s 16 would cover more than half that gap.

Partisans may object to writing off some states as noncompetitive — Democrats continue to dream about making Texas a purple state, for example, and Republicans talk about Minnesota and Oregon. The midterm results, however, don’t show much evidence for those states being close to flipping.

Democrats’ hopes for Texas receded when they lost ground with Latino voters in the state in 2020. While that situation didn’t worsen in 2022, it didn’t get better.

As for GOP stretch goals: In Minnesota, Republicans lost their majority in the state Senate, giving Democrats full control of state government. And in Oregon, Democrat Tina Kotek won a three-way race for governor in which Republicans had invested a lot of hope.


Only eight states start the 2024 election cycle truly in doubt — Nevada and Arizona in the Southwest; Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania among the big industrial states; North Carolina and Georgia in the Southeast; and New Hampshire.

The midterm elections make that a problematic list for Republicans because, as longtime Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg notes, Democrats made gains in each of the battleground states, even as they suffered setbacks in less competitive states like New York and California.

“There were really two elections in this midterm,” said Rosenberg, who correctly forecast that no red wave would appear this year: “a bluer one in the battleground states and a redder one outside the battleground.”

Of the most competitive states, Democrats probably start out in the best shape in Michigan, where they won the governor’s race and both houses of the Legislature for the first time since 1984 and where the state Republican Party appears mired in factional warfare and far-right conspiracy theories. Pennsylvania also starts off looking strong for Democrats, after successful campaigns for governor and Senate.

Republicans have their best shot in North Carolina, a state that Democrats have repeatedly targeted but have won only twice in presidential campaigns since the 1960s — with Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Barack Obama in 2008.

Until 2018, most strategists in both parties would have called Georgia a harder target for Democrats than North Carolina, but the opposite has proven true. The reason has a lot to do with the urban/rural divide in American politics.

North Carolina’s two big urban areas, Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham, have grown rapidly, but the state’s population remains significantly less urbanized than Georgia’s. That difference has been enough to keep the state in the Republican column in most, although not all, recent elections.


In Georgia, the 10-county Atlanta metro region has undergone a rapid demographic shift, with suburban counties that were once regarded as locales for white flight becoming thriving, multiracial communities.

For example, Gwinnett County, northeast of Atlanta, was 55% white in 2004, and John F. Kerry won just one-third of its vote en route to losing his race against President George W. Bush. By 2020, a majority of the county’s population was Black, Latino or Asian, and Biden took 58% of the vote. In Tuesday’s Senate runoff election, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock won 62%.

The same was true across the region. Starting with Stacey Abrams’ unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2018, Democrats have invested heavily in mobilizing the region’s growing diversity and population, and that effort has paid off: The Atlanta region made up 45% of Georgia’s statewide vote in Tuesday’s runoff, and Warnock won over 70% of it.

In Arizona, the story mostly involves just one county, Maricopa, a sprawling bit of geography that covers Phoenix and its surroundings and accounts for roughly 60% of the state’s vote.

In 2004, Kerry took 42% of the Maricopa County vote. The Democratic share grew slowly over the next few election cycles, then jumped in 2018, when Sinema won her Senate race by taking 51% of Maricopa’s vote. Biden beat then-President Trump in the county by 2 percentage points, delivering Arizona to the Democrats for only the second time since 1948. (President Clinton won the state in his reelection in 1996.)

Last month, Sen. Mark Kelly beat his Republican challenger, Blake Masters, by 52% to 46% countywide, with a Libertarian candidate picking up most of the rest of the vote. Kelly’s margin in Maricopa accounted for almost 80% of his statewide advantage over Masters.

As in Georgia, a diversifying pool of voters has played a big role in changing the state’s outcomes. So, too, has significant spending by Democrats to mobilize Latino voters. In this year’s Senate race, Latino voters made up about 17% of the state’s electorate, according to the AP VoteCast survey. Those voters sided with Kelly over Masters 59% to 37%, the survey found.

Neither state can be considered solidly in either party’s camp. As Sinema’s announcement underscored, Arizona has a large number of independent voters who can swing between parties. In Georgia, as Republicans are quick to point out, incumbent GOP Gov. Brian Kemp easily won reelection over Abrams. And it’s worth noting, as a caveat to Democratic enthusiasm, that the losing candidates in those Senate races, Masters and Herschel Walker, were not exactly the A-team.

“I’d rather be us than them,” said Rosenberg, “but it’s going to be close. Victory is not assured in either of these states.”


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The latest from Washington

— The Supreme Court’s conservatives hinted Wednesday they may rule — but only narrowly — for Republican state lawmakers in North Carolina who are claiming an exclusive power to set election maps without review by state courts. As David Savage reported, the justices heard arguments in a case that has potential to dramatically reshape how congressional and presidential elections operate at the state level, potentially giving virtually unfettered power to partisan legislators. But as the justices volleyed questions at lawyers during oral arguments Wednesday, the case seemed more likely to yield a modest ruling that would put some limits on how state courts review legislative decisions on the rules for federal elections but leave most judicial review intact.

— Republicans’ narrow majority in the House is exposing the long-standing rift between the party’s right-flank Freedom Caucus and its dwindling center-right. As Nolan McCaskill reported, the struggle not only threatens to derail House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become the next speaker but is also shaping GOP plans for exerting their new authority over the next two years.

The latest from California

— As Eric Garcetti‘s tenure as Los Angeles’ mayor moves through its final week, his political future is murkier than at any time since he came to the third floor of City Hall as a 30-year-old city councilman, more than two decades ago, Jim Rainey and Dakota Smith wrote in a review of his record. Garcetti had major accomplishment in lifting the minimum wage for L.A.’s lowest-paid workers, passing a law to make thousands of buildings more earthquake safe and pushing the extension of light rail lines toward the Westside, Los Angeles International Airport and beyond. But he made little headway against the city’s housing shortage and the vast problem of homelessness that it has spawned.

— An influential Sacramento lawmaker has proposed legislation that would require California’s 266,000 lawyers to report misconduct by colleagues to the State Bar of California, the agency that regulates the legal profession. The bill introduced this week by state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Orange) comes after a Times story that noted California is the only state that does not require or encourage lawyers to turn in their peers for wrongdoing and that highlighted how that outlier status may have figured into the corruption by Los Angeles legal legend Tom Girardi.

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— The Los Angeles City Council voted Wednesday to reinstate the salary of indicted Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, more than a year after he was suspended from his post while facing federal corruption charges. As David Zahniser reported, Ridley-Thomas, who has been stripped of his duties for nearly 14 months, will receive about $265,000, while an additional $99,500 will go to his legal team. The deal was approved by a 10-1 vote, with Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell opposed.

Hate crimes surged in Los Angeles County in 2021 to their highest level since 2002, according to a report released Wednesday by the county Commission on Human Relations, Rebecca Ellis reported. The report noted 786 victims of hate crimes, a 23% increase over 2020. The crimes overwhelmingly included acts of violence, and more than half were spurred by racism. Black people, Latinos, Jews and LGBTQ individuals were among the most-targeted groups.

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