A COVID campaign has reshaped the political debate in Georgia



It’s a campaign like no other in Georgia history, with a pandemic that’s forced dramatic changes to conventional politicking and voting, and fresh protests over racial justice that have refocused attention on disparities between white and minority communities.

The party primary vote that will be held Tuesday will help decide hundreds of races and set the stage for November's election, but the coronavirus has already wrought changes that have reshaped the debate in Georgia.

Gone, for the most part, are the promised legions of door-knockers, peppy political rallies and backyard barbecue fundraisers. Over the final stretch of the campaign, candidates resorted to endless series of Zoom calls and Facebook Live streams to raise cash and reach voters.

They have had to compete for attention with a pandemic that's claimed more than 100,000 American lives and wrecked the nation's economy. Those with ample campaign funding have relied even more on flashy mailers, digital ads and TV commercials. Those without have turned to new, untested approaches.

“It’s hard, I’m not going to lie,” said Nabilah Islam, a first-time Democratic candidate running for Congress in Atlanta’s suburbs. “We’ve had to be strategic how we’re reaching out to voters. Election day will tell if our strategy works, but we’ve been calling, texting and trying to be very present in our community.”

The vote itself was delayed until Tuesday after a statewide shelter-in-place order took effect, and even though many economic restrictions have been lifted, elections officials will face pressing challenges to keep busy voting sites safe.

Over 10% of the state's polling sites have closed or relocated, crowding voters into fewer locations, and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has floated the idea of asking the National Guard to help if too many poll workers, a group that tends to be older, quit because they fear contracting the coronavirus.

Yet turnout could shatter records. State officials sent absentee ballot request forms to 6.9 million active voters, and Georgians have already cast 1 million early votes, mostly by mail. At the same time four years ago, during the last presidential election cycle, roughly 250,000 had cast early votes.

The irony is not lost upon those in the political trenches. The primary was supposed to be the statewide rollout for new high-tech touchscreen voting machines. Now it has also become a test for how quickly county elections workers can tally old-fashioned paper ballots inundating local offices.

Marquee races

The marquee race on the ballot is the heated Democratic primary to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a first-term Republican who didn't draw a primary challenger. With three well-financed Democrats in the contest, it has long seemed fated to an August runoff.

Amico, Tomlinson, Ossoff

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But several recent polls show Jon Ossoff, a former congressional candidate who owns an investigative journalism firm, within range of the majority vote needed to win outright. And he recently pumped $450,000 of his own money into his campaign to finance a new round of TV ads and expand his outreach efforts.

His main opponents, logistics executive Sarah Riggs Amico and former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, have intensified their efforts to deprive him of a clear victory. Tomlinson has repeatedly questioned his experience, while Amico has tied herself to Stacey Abrams and Barack Obama.

The three largely embrace the same liberal policies, including calls to raise the minimum wage, pass stricter gun control legislation, more aggressively combat climate change and expand voting rights measures to increase ballot access.

But they differ more sharply in campaign strategy and experience. Amico, the party's nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018, has leaned on her background running a company — and its pension-related financial struggles — to connect with voters.

The only candidate with elected experience in the race, Tomlinson has put her two terms as Columbus mayor at the center of her campaign. And Ossoff, who rose to the national spotlight during his 2017 bid for Congress, has focused on an anti-corruption message.

Voters will also sort through crowded fields running for three open U.S. House seats. Two of them are reliably Republican districts spanning North Georgia that have attracted large fields of conservatives trying to outduel each other.

The third is a stark contrast: A Gwinnett County-based district that saw the nation's closest U.S. House race in 2018. Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall's decision not to stand for another term drew three sitting state legislators, young activists, veteran politicians and self-proclaimed "outsiders" competing for the seat.

Further down the ticket are dozens of contested state legislative races that could help determine control of the Georgia House, along with hundreds of local contests, including races for district attorney and judicial posts that have garnered more scrutiny amid the protests.

Almost lost in the shuffle is the presidential primary, originally slated to be held in late March — a moment when Georgia could have played a more significant role in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Now the contest is effectively over, and former Vice President Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee, though supporters of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders still aim to pick up some delegates to exert leverage over the party platform.

‘New normal’

The biggest uncertainty heading into Tuesday is the number of mail-in ballots, including roughly 800,000 that still haven't been returned. Officials from both parties have pleaded with voters to send in the ballots quickly, since they must be received by 7 p.m. Tuesday to be counted.

But what's even harder to measure is how a new style of campaigning has influenced voters. With few exceptions, candidates abandoned in-person appeals and rallies in mid-March. Some are only now returning to the trail, while many others are still relying on remote technology.

“Campaigns have adapted to new technology before. They’ve had to absorb shocks and challenges before. They will figure it out and try to come to a new normal,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist. “They might not be able to drive up turnout the way they wanted, but they’ll still be able to energize voters.”

Andrea Settles practices completing a ballot on one of Fulton County’s new voting machines during a mock election in February at the Sandy Springs Library. She mentioned that the voting process was easy, but for election day, they will need to have a lot of signs instructing the voters on the new process. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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It likely means name recognition and fundraising are as crucial as ever, since candidates with flush bank accounts can afford expensive TV ads and mail pieces. Newcomers, then, face more challenges going toe-to-toe with entrenched incumbents or contenders with higher visibility.

“The candidates who struggled with fundraising before COVID-19 are falling behind because so much of what it will take to win an election this cycle is linked to their ability to purchase social media, TV advertising and mailers — the most expensive tools of any campaign,” said Janelle King, a veteran conservative strategist.

The nationwide protests over police brutality and racial inequities sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed while restrained by Minneapolis police, could also drive a new sense of urgency to vote.

The movement has sparked fresh bipartisan calls for a hate-crimes law in Georgia, though many Democrats demand more structural changes to the criminal justice system.

Some congressional candidates want to gut "qualified immunity" statutes that shield law enforcement officers from legal action. And Georgia House Democrats called for a repeal of citizen's arrest laws and stand-your-ground rules they say make it harder to hold acts of racist violence accountable.

060320 Atlanta: A remnant of protesters prepare to leave peacefully as the Georgia Army National Guard moves in to enforce a 9PM curfew outside the CNN Center at Olympic Park during a sixth day of protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Atlanta.     Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Credit: Curtis Compton

Many conservative contenders were also outraged over Floyd’s killing, though they’ve responded in other ways. Some have supported President Donald Trump’s push to declare antifa, a loose affiliation of anti-fascist activists with no clear leadership, a terrorist organization. Others have stressed their law-and-order backgrounds.

Clayton Fuller, a former prosecutor running for a northwest Georgia congressional district, highlights his experience in the courtroom. He also focuses on his service in the Air National Guard — and his recent deployment to help contain the coronavirus.

Fuller spent the past few months mobilized with a Guard unit that helped disinfect nursing homes in rural Alabama. He couldn’t participate in debates, raise campaign cash or coordinate with his staffers about the race.

“It’s a unique challenge being one of the only candidates in the country legally barred from communicating with their campaigns,” said Fuller, who recently launched a tour to visit the main commercial areas in each of the district’s 12 counties.

“But you can only focus on what you can control,” he said. “And I’ve used this last week to try to be the hardest-working candidate out there.”