The inch-by-inch struggle for political control of Georgia

If the last few days have been any guide, the coming battle for political control of Georgia won't be a World War II-style blitzkrieg, filled with lightning-fast troop movements and instant regime changes.

Rather, the contest between a ruling GOP establishment and insurgent Democrats will resemble the entrenched combat of the Great War. Dug-in foes will measure progress not in inches, but in single-digit percentage points, gained vote by vote.

It will be both bitter and tedious, fought in the streets, courts and along Georgia’s racial fault line. The mud will fly, and no one will walk away with a clean shirt.

Last week, DeKalb County announced it would devote one Sunday in October to early voting. Days later, Secretary of State Brian Kemp put the Democratic organizers of Georgia’s most prominent voter registration project on notice that they were being investigated for fraud. That is felonious territory.

There is no tit-for-tat here. Nonetheless, the two developments are tightly connected, as first lady Michelle Obama explained last Monday, at an Atlanta rally for Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

If Democrats can squeeze 50 votes more out of each precinct and boost turnout by a mere 3 percent over 2010, then Nunn and Jason Carter, the gubernatorial candidate, have a firm shot at victory, the president’s wife said.

“These races are going to be unbelievably tight. They could be won and lost by a few thousand, even a few hundred, votes,” Obama said. “It’s on us.”

Both sides will dress themselves in non-partisan finery, but pay no mind to those distractions.

Democrats see Sunday voting as a boon to their side, just as Republicans recognize it as a threat. Lee May, the interim CEO of DeKalb County, conceded as much in an interview with MSNBC’s Al Sharpton.

“We are a predominately African-American county. We’re the most heavily Democratic county in the entire state,” May said. “So guess what? If you do have more people coming to the polls, early and on Election Day, it is going to make a difference.”

When state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, went ballistic over the move, percentage points were on his mind. “I would prefer more educated voters than a greater increase in the number of voters,” Millar wrote on his Facebook page – later explaining that by “educated,” he meant “informed.”

On Thursday, the DeKalb County election board formally approved early Sunday voting, naming three locations – including not only the Gallery at South DeKalb, but the Chamblee Civic Center on the county’s white north side. Out of deference to Millar.

Fulton and Lowndes counties are following DeKalb’s example. But Republicans are already promising to put an end to Sunday voting. “I don’t think anything that has to do with elections should be tilted one way or the other for partisan purposes,” Gov. Nathan Deal said.

If by “tilted,” Deal meant that the role of the black church in the Civil Rights movement makes it more amenable to a “souls to the polls” campaign than white congregations, then the governor is right. But Republicans have their own tilting preferences when it comes to religion and politics.

Georgia has a constitutional ban on gay marriage not because of an outbreak of homosexual unions, but because Republicans wanted to boost 2004 turnout with a referendum that would draw white Christian conservatives to the poll.

But it is the secretary of state’s probe into the New Georgia Project for voter fraud that is the more volatile issue. For both sides.

The lead organizer of the effort, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, says 85,000 new voters have already been registered – 33,000 in Fulton County alone.

We do not know specifically what Brian Kemp, the secretary of state, is looking for. But assume that his probe has something to do with whether low-paid workers systematically cut corners to meet formal or informal voter registration quotas.

Democrats have answered GOP charges of voter registration fraud with their own accusations of voter suppression. Kemp has ordered the New Georgia Project to produce reams of documents by Tuesday – and it is hard to see how his subpoena wouldn’t impact the group’s registration effort.

The first airing of the charges before the state elections board is Oct. 7, one day after the deadline for voters to register for the Nov. 4 general election. Which is why you’re likely see the case quickly brought before a Fulton County Superior Court judge.

Risk is everywhere you look.

Both Abrams and Kemp have been mentioned as candidates in a 2018 race for governor. Abrams can’t afford to be tagged with corruption any more than Kemp wants to be demonized as a bureaucratic, 2014 version of Bull Connor.

Nunn and Carter, who top the Democratic ticket, are trolling for the votes of disaffected, rural white voters who won’t be motivated by a racially charged October.

But both Deal, the Republican incumbent governor, and David Perdue, the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, would be imperiled by a backlash by a minority voting population that often gives non-presidential elections a pass.

Democrats intend to create that backlash. If you want people to do something, tell them that they can’t.

Congress will meet through the end of this month. We’re already hearing Democratic talk of putting U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, on an October tour of Georgia. A proposed theme: Who is allowed to vote, and who isn’t.

President Barack Obama isn’t a popular figure in Georgia. Unlike his wife, Obama’s very presence increases racial polarization – which hurts Democrats.

But Lewis is another matter. The congressman and voter registration have an organic connection, given the split skull he suffered during the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march. Lewis signaled his interest with a press release issued Friday afternoon, taking issue with that “educated” voter remark by Millar, the state senator.

“It is unreal that almost 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, there are individuals who want to take us back to another period by suggesting that only the wealthy or those with formal education deserve to have a voice in our society,” Lewis said.

Grab your trenching tool and dig in, people. The shells are about to fly.

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