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The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

The county to watch in the Georgia Senate runoff

The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

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In today’s edition … What Georgia’s past two Senate contests tell us about the runoff ... The fight over what to include in the annual defense policy bill … What we’re watching: The Supreme will hear oral arguments in the latest conflict between free speech and gay rights. And how Republicans will react to Trump’s suggestion the Constitution should be suspended for him … but first …

The campaign

The county to watch in the Georgia Senate runoff

McDONOUGH, Ga. — When organizers with the New Georgia Project were deciding where to direct their energies in the final weeks before the midterm elections, they chose to focus their get-out-the-vote efforts on a single county in Atlanta’s southern suburbs.

Henry County has moved toward Democrats faster than any other in Georgia, flipping from a Republican stronghold to a Democratic one in only a few years. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) carried the county when he ran for reelection in 2016, even as Hillary Clinton turned it blue. But Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) won it with 64 percent of the vote in the 2021 runoff. He did even better last month — and he’ll need the county to deliver for him again to win reelection in Tuesday’s runoff against Republican Herschel Walker.

“Henry County, to me, is sort of the model for Democrats statewide,” said Fred Hicks, a strategist who consults for the Henry County Democratic Party.

The northern suburbs have received more attention as they’ve shifted toward Democrats. Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath won her seat there by defeating a Republican in 2018; Democratic Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux flipped another Republican-held seat in 2020 (although Republicans regained it November after redrawing its boundaries to make it unwinnable for Democrats).

Many of the precincts that backed Warnock and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in November are clustered in the northern suburbs, according to a New York Times analysis.

  • But Democrats are gaining ground faster in Henry County and neighboring Rockdale County south of Atlanta. The forces transforming the northern and southern suburbs are distinct. In the north, it’s more about the national trend of more educated voters moving toward Democrats. In the southern counties, the main driver of the shift is changing demographics.

Henry County doesn’t have a high share of college-educated voters. About 28 percent of county residents and 27 percent of Rockdale County residents 25 and older have bachelor’s degrees, according to census data. Nearly 38 percent of Americans nationwide have bachelor’s degrees.

In Forsyth County in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, in contrast, nearly 55 percent of residents 25 and older have bachelor’s degrees. Forsyth County is trending Democratic, too, but it’s still Republican territory. Walker won it in November with 65 percent of the vote.

Warnock did 2.2 points better in Henry County in November than he did in the 2021 runoff, according to a Washington Post analysis — the biggest shift of any county in the state except for Fulton County, which includes most of Atlanta. Both Warnock and Walker have campaigned here ahead of Tuesday’s runoff election.

“I think it’s undeniable that Henry County has shifted blue over the past couple of years,” said Taylor Fleury, the county’s Republican chairman.

An influx of out-of-state residents

The voting shift in Henry County has mirrored its changing demographics.

The county’s population has doubled since 2000, rising to about 240,000. Thousands of White residents have moved away in recent years, according to census data, but Black residents have arrived even faster, transforming the county from one with a White majority to one with a Black plurality. The crowded roads around the small antebellum cities of Stockbridge and McDonough are now lined with strip malls, new housing under construction and signs advertising land for sale.

The new arrivals are coming from across the country — including many who migrated from blue states and still vote Democratic.

Shamek Concepcion, 39, a surgery scheduling supervisor at a nearby hospital who cast an early ballot for Warnock on Thursday night, moved to McDonough last year from the Bronx. Many of her neighbors have moved to the county from states such as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, she said.

“A lot of people have relocated here from other Democratic states,” she said.

Some Republicans, meanwhile, are frustrated, as the county’s once-sleepy communities have become more and more congested. “They’re moving to more red counties,” Fleury said. “We see that all the time, folks moving from Henry to Jackson or Spalding or other counties” farther from Atlanta.

David Adams, 58, was born in Henry County and worked there for years as a firefighter. “Now I do not recognize the county I served for so many years,” Adams said, standing outside a Publix supermarket on the outskirts of McDonough.

“I hate it,” he added. “I’m looking to leave.”

Adams voted for Walker in November and plans to do so again on Tuesday, although he described Walker as “the lesser of the two evils.” (He tried to vote early last week but was deterred by hours-long lines at two different polling places.)

“He was a hell of a running back,” Adams said. “I would not put him on my Mensa list.”

A bountiful harvest

The influx of people moving to Henry County has come from around the world as well as around the country, including African and Caribbean immigrants.

“There’s a lot of new Americans as well as Americans from other states who are moving into Henry County because they want to be able to have a short ride into Atlanta but they don’t want to pay for Atlanta housing prices,” said El-Mahdi Holly, a Democratic state representative who flipped a Republican-held district in 2018.

But turning out those voters takes work, said Billy Honor, the organizing director for the New Georgia Project, the group that decided to focus its get-out-the-vote efforts on Henry County in the home stretch.

“I can’t tell you how many immigrants we talked to from countries like Jamaica and other places where the political situations are so raucous who say, ‘I came to America because I don’t want to have nothing to do with political dynamics because of the way they are back home,” Honor said. “And then they have a conversation with us, and then they’re like, ‘OK, all right, I will register to vote. I will get involved.’”

“If I can use a religious phrase, the harvest is plentiful,” he added. “It just needs laborers to bring more people into the civic fold.”

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Tune in to The Washington Post’s live coverage for results and analysis of Georgia’s Senate runoff race Tuesday night. Libby Casey will anchor live coverage along with James Hohmann and Rhonda Colvin in the studio. Joyce Koh and Rich Matthews will report live from Georgia. Analysis will come from Washington Post journalists throughout the night, including Dan Balz, Paul Kane, Amy Gardner and Leigh Ann.

The Data

What Georgia’s past two Senate contests tell us about the runoff

Herschel Walker’s rural advantage, visualized: “One weak spot for Warnock in November was rural Georgia,” Theo, Adrian Blanco and Luis Melgar report. “Walker improved upon Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s margins in rural counties by nearly two points — it just wasn’t enough to make up for Warnock’s advantage in Atlanta and its suburbs. Overall, Warnock performed about the same in the suburbs as he did in 2021, but he did gain ground in some suburban counties — especially those in Atlanta’s inner suburbs.”

Herschel Walker’s performance among Black voters, visualized: “Unlike last year, Warnock is facing a Black opponent this time — but Walker didn’t do well in heavily Black areas in November,” per Theo, Adrian and Luis. “Just 2 percent of Walker’s votes came from precincts in which at least 75 percent of registered voters were Black; 22 percent of Warnock’s did.”

On the Hill

The waiting is the hardest part

The Hill is in a last-minute flurry of negotiations over two major bills: a spending bill to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year and the annual defense bill, which authorizes (but doesn’t fund) defense programs.

Negotiations are ongoing on the spending bill, with sources saying that lawmakers don’t have an agreement on a top-line number yet. That top-line number is important because it determines defense and nondefense spending for the year. Republicans want more defense spending than nondefense and Democrats want it to be equal. It’s hard for negotiators to make much progress on the rest of the bill until they know how much they can spend overall.

Meanwhile, negotiators are expected to release the text of the annual defense bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, as early as today.

Our colleague Maxine Joselow reports that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III’s energy project permitting bill may make it into the legislation being released. “The effort to salvage Manchin’s permitting reform crusade is the latest attempt by Democrats to honor a deal with the West Virginia senator that secured his vote for the Inflation Reduction Act, a sweeping climate, energy and health-care law that President Biden signed in August,” she writes.

Our colleague Tony Romm reported on Sunday that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said the vaccine mandate for the military will be dropped from the bill. But those negotiations don’t seem to be final, Tony notes.

  • “Leader McCarthy raised this with the President, and the President told him he would consider it,” White House spokeswoman Olivia Dalton said in a statement Sunday, per Tony. “The Secretary of Defense has recommended retaining the mandate, and the President supports his position. Discussions about the NDAA are ongoing.”

Also this week on the Hill:

On Tuesday, the House will vote on the Respect for Marriage Act, the Senate-passed same-sex marriage bill, before sending it to President Biden to be signed into law. In the fall, 47 Republicans backed it. We are wondering if more will vote for it now that the midterms are over.

Wednesday afternoon will bring a briefing on the war in Ukraine from administration officials for all senators.

On Thursday, Senate Democrats will elect their leaders for the next Congress. There will be some minor shuffling at the top because Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), currently the No. 3 Democrat, will become president pro tempore. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) will become the third-ranking Democrat, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) will be No. 4. Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) will remain majority leader and whip, respectively.

Also on Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on politics at the Supreme Court — a topic of intense interest this year.

What we're watching

Today the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in one of the biggest cases this term: 303 Creative v. Elenis. It is the latest conflict between free speech and gay rights.

Background: Graphic designer Lorie Smith says Colorado’s public accommodation law, which bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, violates her religious views and freedom of speech, our colleague Robert Barnes reported over the weekend. Smith wants to expand her business to include websites for weddings but does not want to design websites for same-sex couples.

  • “Colorado is censoring and compelling my speech and really forcing me to pour my creativity into creating messages that violate my convictions,” Smith told Barnes. “There are some messages I cannot create.”
  • The justices will endeavor to answer this question, Barnes writes: “Whether applying a public-accommodation law to compel an artist to speak or stay silent violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”

FYI: Smith is being represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, the same conservative group that defended Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, in 2017. The less-polarized bench ruled 7 to 2 in Phillips’s favor.

Trump and the Constitution

Congressional Republicans can expect a familiar question this week: What do you think of Donald Trump’s latest comment? Dancing around the former president’s suggestion that the Constitution should be suspended so that he can be installed as president seems like a difficult task, but GOP lawmakers have shown they aren’t afraid to tap dance during the Trump era. (Their tapping skills range from Gene Kelly to Peter Boyle in “Young Frankenstein.”)

We’ll be watching how they specifically answer the question. (Most were silent over the weekend.)

  • Will they condemn the idea Trump proposed without mentioning the former president by name (a favorite among some)?
  • What should the prize be for the first lawmaker who says Trump’s statement shows he’s not being well served by his staff?
  • Will anyone beyond Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) directly condemn Trump?
  • And … will anyone agree with Trump?

The Media

Early reeeads

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