Chrissie Nelfrard didn’t vote in the last midterm election or even the last presidential one. But she’s so ready to help Stacey Abrams this year that she joined in organizing a carpool to ferry voters to the polls.
Ethan Myers doesn’t pay much attention to politics or the vicious slugfest every two years. But he left his farm in Ashburn to show his support for Brian Kemp, jolted by one of the “dumbest damn things” he’s ever heard.
The final days of the Georgia race for governor feature enough burning questions to scorch even the most veteran political analyst: Will black voters show up in record numbers? Is rural Georgia energized behind Kemp? Will Atlanta’s competitive suburban territory break toward one party or the other?
But at the heart of the campaigns is a decidedly simple focus: Instead of trying to persuade the few undecided voters to cast a ballot, both candidates are scrambling to energize their own bases. And that means revving up voters who often skip midterms.
For Abrams, that often means motivating left-leaning minorities who don’t usually get involved in nonpresidential votes. She likes to call them the “unlikely voters” who she believes can help close the roughly 200,000 vote gap that helped Republicans sweep the 2014 elections.
“We’ve got to turn out the likely voters, but also the unlikely voters, and we’ve got to do that now,” she told a crowd dotted with those voters at Columbus State University. “They’re not counting on you in this election. But we are.”
Kemp hopes to counter these new voters with a trove of his own. His campaign has steadily stepped up efforts to engage a core of conservatives who also often skipped these elections — until Donald Trump fired them up in 2016. He talks of this bloc as make or break for his campaign.
“We have to assume they’re going to turn out their base with potentially new voters, with presidential-like turnout models,” he said of Democrats. “And we’ve got to do the same on our side, beating the bushes.”
That strategy is playing out in a $12 million wave of mostly negative ads bombarding the airwaves, each aimed at depressing the other guy’s turnout and boosting his or her own. It’s led to mailboxes flooded with ominous flyers painting Kemp as backward and Abrams as a socialist.
And it’s spurred a spurt of campaign stops that will blanket Georgia through Election Day as both candidates buckle down on the areas where they believe they can drive up the biggest support.
Abrams has crisscrossed the state, traveling to a spate of college campuses, denser urban areas and small towns where grateful residents thank her for the attention. Kemp’s journey has so far bypassed much of metro Atlanta in favor of a string of rural towns where he’s often greeted with a hero’s welcome.
At each, they rev up the crowds with a cutting stump speech that weaponizes the campaign blunders and missteps of their opponents.
The crowd of 100 gathered outside a livestock barn off Pig Jig Boulevard in Vienna didn’t have to wait long for some red meat. Almost as soon as Kemp stepped down from his jumbo-sized campaign bus, he took a shot at Abrams.
“We have been all over the state and we have yet to find Glasgow County,” he said. “By gosh, we have 12 more days, and we are going to keep looking.”
Roars of laughter followed; they needed no reminder that he was referring to Abrams’ misstep on NBC’s “Meet the Press” where she invoked a county that didn’t exist when talking about the damage Hurricane Michael wrought on South Georgia.
That was just the warmup. Soon, he was using her gaffe about farmers to rev up the crowds. Her campaign has sought to clarify her remarks in Statesboro that “people shouldn’t have to go into agriculture or hospitality in order to make a living in Georgia,” but Kemp has not let up.
He’s trying to drive out huge turnout in rural counties that Trump carried by giant margins two years ago, building a bulwark that could help him withstand losses in metro Atlanta. And his approach has resonated with many Trump voters whom Kemp is relying upon.
“Oh my gosh, that woman doesn’t have a clue about what agriculture means to Georgia,” said John Noble, a retired farmer in Vienna. “I’m voting for him because I like his policies, but also because it’s a vote against Abrams.”
Ditto for Myers, who rushed to a Kemp event in nearby Ashburn to show his support for rural Georgia.
“That was about the dumbest damn thing I ever heard of,” he said. “It was ridiculous. With that mind-set, you can’t be a good governor of Georgia.”
Abrams has leveraged recent developments, too, including audio secretly recorded of Kemp at a closed-door fundraiser warning his supporters about the Democrat’s massive voter turnout operations.
The audio quickly became part of her case that Kemp should step down from his role as secretary of state, which she tells crowds he uses to be an “architect of voter suppression.” And her campaign highlights the twists and turns of a string of lawsuits involving ballot access to drive the point home.
“He’s had to be sued multiple times to get him to do his job. That’s part of his schtick. He wants voter suppression to scare people out of actually casting their ballots,” Abrams said. “I want him to let eligible voters cast their ballots. No more, no less.”
Kemp calls those claims “ridiculous” and points to record-setting turnout under his watch. He’s also refused calls to resign, saying he was elected to finish the job. But Democrats feel they’ve struck a nerve; the state party released a poll showing an even split over whether Kemp should step down.
Many of those in Abrams’ “unlikely” audience are drawn to her for other reasons as well.
Melissa Boylan is a 32-year-old entrepreneur who skipped the 2014 midterm but enthusiastically voted for Hillary Clinton two years later. She’s impressed with Abrams, but even more motivated by disdain for Trump.
“Every time I see him, I get irritated by his ignorance. And that’s why I’m voting Abrams. I’m paying attention more now than I did in the past. I can’t avoid it now,” she said. “What I’ve seen about her on TV, I like. But predominantly, what I like is that she doesn’t like Trump.”
Nelfrard has also tuned in, but for different reasons. She didn’t bother getting engaged in past votes — including the 2016 race for the White House — because she didn’t feel a personal connection to any of the candidates.
With Abrams, who would be the nation’s first black female governor, it’s different: “I see myself in Stacey Abrams.”
She’s standing with her friend Tokedrius Dunlap, another student at Columbus State who also skipped the 2014 vote. There’s no skipping this one.
As soon as Abrams walked into a campus auditorium, she gave Abrams a standing ovation — and never sat down.
“She lifted my spirits today. I felt like I was in church,” Dunlap said. “Look, I’m not kicking myself for not voting four years ago. I wasn’t really involved. And I didn’t know the issues. Now I do. Now I’m ready.”
It’s a busy election year, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is keeping the spotlight on the leading candidates for governor, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Recent AJC stories have examined Kemp’s finances and Abrams’ position while in the state Legislature as a leading collector of per diem. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.