A runoff for Atlanta mayor is always seen as a totally different beast compared to the general election.
This year, that sentiment couldn’t be more true.
So much of the drama heading into Tuesday’s election centered around former Mayor Kasim Reed, who was the target of repeated attacks and hurled several of his own at the competition.
But City Council President Felicia Moore and Councilman Andre Dickens bested him at the polls, with Dickens making a surprise jump into the second place spot by roughly 600 votes.
It’s still unclear exactly how the next three weeks will play out, but experts ― and the candidates themselves ― say Atlanta voters can expect a very different race than what they witnessed over the last few months.
“I think we’re back at square one,” Moore said. “We’re not missing any corner of the city.”
Dickens said the Nov. 30 runoff is “like a whole ‘nother election. … It’s going to be an opportunity for people to focus in on the race itself.”
Fred Hicks, a veteran political strategist, said the tone of the runoff will be different without Reed, who commanded so much of the attention during the general election with his combative style of politicking. Hicks pointed out that Atlanta hasn’t had a mayoral election or runoff without Reed’s involvement in 20 years.
Reed managed both of Shirley Franklin’s mayoral campaigns. He ran twice himself, including the 2009 runoff in which he defeated Mary Norwood by a razor-thin 700 votes. And he heavily criticized Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ opponents in 2017, while also endorsing and helping raise funds for her while still in office.
“One of the things I’m really curious to see is what the tone and tenor is going to be,” Hicks said of this year’s runoff.
Moore has built a strong base through her decades of experience in city government, garnering 41% of the vote Tuesday — 15 percentage points ahead of Dickens.
Credit: Daniel Varnado
Credit: Daniel Varnado
But experts say the councilman shouldn’t be counted out in the runoff. He’ll have to work to pull Reed voters into his camp, and could win over some Moore voters who saw her as the candidate with the best chance to defeat Reed, especially on the Eastside and in DeKalb County, Hicks said.
“I’m not convinced that they all are locked in with seatbelts,” Dickens said, referring to Moore voters. He is also hoping to pick up voters and donors who supported Reed, Councilman Antonio Brown or Sharon Gay in the general election.
Moore said she is focused on getting her supporters from the general election to turn out for the runoff, as well as people who didn’t vote at all. She said her campaign is working to see where their outreach can be stronger in order to win over the people who supported other candidates in the general race.
Dickens has ground to make up in Buckhead, where he finished third in some districts, behind both Moore and Reed.
Moore dominated on the Northside, picking up two-thirds of the vote in some areas. Brian Robinson, a Republican political strategist, said Moore did well in Buckhead because she’s already known in that community, where “crime was the overwhelmingly motivating factor to turnout.”
Moore will need to maintain her advantage in Buckhead and the Eastside to win, while increasing her support in southwest Atlanta, where she finished in third in many precincts behind Reed and Dickens, Hicks said.
“Felicia Moore got more than 40% of the vote. She’s almost there, and the person who finished first in the first round is statistically most likely to win in the second round,” Robinson said, adding that Dickens still has to introduce himself to many voters.
Digging deeper into the candidates
Moore, 60, represented a northwest Atlanta district on the council for 20 years before being elected council president in 2017. An Indiana native, she has long been involved in civic groups in the city, serving as a neighborhood president and Neighborhood Planning Unit chair before her City Hall tenure.
Dickens, 47, grew up in the Adamsville neighborhood in southwest Atlanta, is a Georgia Tech grad who entered the local political landscape when he defeated a three-term incumbent councilman who was backed by then-Mayor Reed in 2013. He works for TechBridge, a nonprofit that offers technology and workforce training.
Both candidates have vowed to hire a new police chief and more officers. But after a crowded general election that was so focused on issues of crime and safety, Moore and Dickens could use the one-on-one contest to differentiate themselves more clearly on other issues like housing, transportation and jobs, political experts say.
”The low turnout percentage was partially due to the fact that the voters did not know who these candidates were because of that crime conversation suppressing other issues,” said Eleina Raines, a political strategist and the political director of Raphael Warnock’s U.S. Senate campaign last year.
Dickens pitched this election as a fight for “the soul of Atlanta,” and has proposed big ideas like creating a city Department of Labor and hiring a Youth Commissioner to partner with Atlanta Public Schools in reducing youth crime.
Moore has vowed to create a new homeless shelter, and has repeatedly called crime the main issue that will be solved in part with police department reforms, which includes the decriminalization of “crimes of poverty” and a citywide no-knock warrant ban.
The money race is also starting back up for the runoff, this time under different circumstances.
The latest finance disclosure reports from Oct. 25 show that Moore’s campaign has nearly $162,000 on hand while Dickens has about $108,000. Both have received over $1 million in contributions so far this election.
“I’d imagine both of them have already hit the ground running,” Raines said. And she’s right — both Dickens and Moore are already planning fundraisers.
Dickens said he doesn’t expect the race to get nasty. He and Moore have served together in City Hall for the last eight years and have a cordial relationship.
“I don’t plan on being negative, particularly personally negative,” he said. “For me, it’s making the case that Atlanta needs a leader that can handle today and the future.”
Moore said it’s hard to know “how people will react within a competition,” but said she expects the runoff to be more policy-focused.
“Certainly, it will be a vigorous debate, and I think it’s really a benefit to the city where we can really hone in on the issues at hand in the city and how we would choose to deal with them,” she said.
Mayor Bottoms’ endorsement
The runoff will also be different in that it will involve Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who sat out of the general election but said she will be endorsing a candidate in the runoff.
Political insiders predict Bottoms is more likely to endorse Dickens over Moore, who started her campaign running to unseat Bottoms before the mayor announced she wouldn’t seek a second term. The bigger question is will Bottoms work for the campaign she endorses by appearing at events or in advertisements for the candidate.
Support from the incumbent mayor could bring in a wealth of national connections and funds, and ― most importantly ― votes from the mayor’s supporters. But it could also be a mixed bag with some voters who aren’t big fans of the mayor.
The AJC’s October poll of likely Atlanta voters found that 48% think the city is on the “wrong track” with Bottoms as mayor, compared to the 33% who said the city is heading in the right direction. But a September AJC poll found that people generally like Bottoms, with 57% of respondents either strongly or somewhat approving of the job she has done as the city’s 60th mayor.
“I respect Keisha so much that I would enjoy her endorsement,” Dickens said, “and I think it would be beneficial.”
Moore said she’s seeking endorsements from anyone who wants to join her team, including Bottoms.
”I have reached out to her,” Moore said. “We’ve texted back and forth but we have not talked yet.”