As early voting starts, it’s now or never for Georgia candidates

Newton County is one of the most competitive territories in Georgia politics. But as early in-person voting for a crowded governor’s race begins Monday, organizers from both parties have the same fear: People just aren’t tuned in.

“I’m out knocking on doors, and so many people don’t even know there’s a primary election on May 22,” said Harry Thoerner, a retiree active in the local GOP apparatus. “We’re all worried about apathy. Everyone thinks the race is in November.”

At a meeting held concurrently on the other side of town, Gene Wills had the same concerns. A deputy chairman of the county Democratic Party, he hit the road recently armed with flyers trying to let voters know about the race between Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans for the party’s nomination for governor.

“And a lot of people just aren’t aware,” Wills said with a sigh.

The ambivalence will test candidates up and down the ballot as they get their first chance to transform their painstaking groundwork into votes. And their work over the three-week voting period will likely determine the race. If history is any guide, more votes will be cast before Election Day than on it.

The leading campaigns have been gearing up for this stint for weeks. Two Republican contenders scheduled bus tours to coincide with early voting. Others plan to intensify outreach to voters. And one Democratic candidate hopes that some star power will help drive out voters.

They have plenty of ground to make up: Recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News polls show that one-third of likely Republican voters and more than half of likely Democratic voters hadn’t made up their minds yet.

Two Democrats, two strategies

Early voting has played an increasingly important role in Georgia races. In 2014, nearly 1 million early ballots were cast before the November election — about 40 percent of the total vote. Two years later, the early-vote portion of Georgia’s total ballots ballooned to roughly 60 percent.

For Democrats, who tend to embrace in-person early voting more aggressively than Republicans, the next three weeks will be particularly pivotal.

Abrams and Evans are both relying on a burst of energy generated by Donald Trump’s presidential victory to help flip Georgia’s top office for the first time since 2002. And Monday gives them a chance to showcase their grass-roots efforts.

Abrams, a former Georgia House Democratic leader, has broken from conventional campaign strategy by spending a vast chunk of her funds early in the campaign on personnel and organization rather than stockpiling her cash for TV airtime.

She launched her first broadcast ads earlier this month and has reinforcements from outside groups spending more than $1 million on TV buys boosting her campaign. And she’ll travel with a trio of actresses this week to help mobilize votes: Rashida Jones, Niecy Nash and Tracee Ellis Ross.

Evans, who has hoarded much of her campaign cash for the final stretch, has spent heavily on two waves of advertisements to introduce herself to Democrats. She also plans a string of events to appeal to African-American voters, who make up the largest bloc of the Democratic primary electorate, in vote-rich areas such as DeKalb County and South Fulton.

Dueling bus tours

The Republican race is more chaotic. Five leading Republicans are in the hunt for the nomination, and an AJC/Channel 2 poll shows most have a shot at a spot in a likely July runoff with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle — who has a commanding lead.

On the campaign trail, he’s trying to play down expectations that he might get the majority vote he needs to avoid a runoff. In a show of organizational force, he embarked on a two-week bus tour that will hit more than 40 spots and was timed to push his supporters to the polls.

One of his rivals — former state Sen. Hunter Hill — is set to launch his own 19-city bus tour this week with stops from Dalton to Waycross. His message at each one: Republicans have the choice between “failed career politicians or a true conservative leader committed to fighting for Georgia families.”

Other GOP contenders are revving up their campaign machinery, too. Secretary of State Brian Kemp's campaign sent out appeals through high-profile supporters for new rounds of canvassing and phone calls to engage his most likely voters. And executive Clay Tippins' stops include an appeal this week to GOP women in the vote-rich Atlanta suburbs. State Sen. Michael Williams will also be on the trail.

In Newton County, a fast-growing swirl of suburbia and farmland, party honchos worry the candidates’ messages aren’t breaking through.

Democrats narrowly carried Newton County in the past three presidential votes, and its voters gave Jason Carter a slight edge over Republican Gov. Nathan Deal four years ago. Still, on a night when both Cagle and Evans campaigned just a few miles apart, interviews with more than a dozen voters showed many were still undecided.

“I’m waiting it out. I need to hear more from both sides,” said Sabrina Ross, a Covington Democrat. “Right now I’m up in the air.”

Wills, the local Democratic activist, heard all the talk about how Trump’s victory would unleash a tide of energy. But he’s wondering whether that wave is taking longer to build.

“Maybe people are not angry enough.”

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