Easing of COVID restrictions lets Georgia candidates return to trail

Danny Merritt, a Republican candidate for Georgia’s 1st Congressional seat, plans to visit all 19 counties in his district on the weekend leading up to Tuesday’s primary. Photo courtesy of the Merritt campaign.
Danny Merritt, a Republican candidate for Georgia’s 1st Congressional seat, plans to visit all 19 counties in his district on the weekend leading up to Tuesday’s primary. Photo courtesy of the Merritt campaign.

Danny Merritt, who is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter in Georgia’s 1st Congressional District, is on a tour of the district that includes stops in each of its 19 counties.

The apparel company owner, a Republican, started out Wednesday at a restaurant in Lake Park and ended the day at Shorty’s Pit Stop BBQ in Alma. Breakfast, lunch and dinner with stops in between for three straight days. Merritt joked that he hopes to pick up votes ahead of Tuesday’s GOP primary, but he is also likely to put on a couple of pounds.

“All we’re doing is meeting and eating,” he said.

These types of campaign events — small gatherings at local businesses, homes and public spaces — were prohibited for roughly two months as Georgia, along with the nation, was under shelter-in-place restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19. Now that those rules have been relaxed, candidates are slowly coming back out on the trail.

Merritt said his events are for small groups where social distancing can be maintained. Hand sanitizer is made available, and masks are encouraged. He enjoys campaigning in rural parts of the district because he feels these towns are often overshadowed by his hometown and the district’s largest city, Savannah.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that in high-profile federal races, Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to have resumed in-person campaigning. Many Democrats are still sticking to virtual events on social media, text messages and phone calls, and buying ad time on television if they can afford it.

However, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate and former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson recently posted video of her using a bullhorn to speak about social justice to a group of supporters.

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John Eaves, the former Fulton County Commission chairman who is running as a Democrat in the open 7th Congressional District, attended Black Lives Matter protests in Atlanta and has also resumed door-to-door canvassing.

He shows up wearing a mask and gloves. Eaves knocks on a door, then takes several steps back while he waits to see whether anyone is home and willing to chat. If the resident answers, Eaves hands out campaign literature and makes a short pitch.

Eaves estimates that he has knocked on about 500 doors, a small fraction of the homes in the district. But he hears often that no one else has stopped by, and he hopes it boosts his chances in a crowded primary.

‘That just made it doubly important for me to go out and reach out to voters in the most direct way,” Eaves said.

Republicans who are holding campaign events in the days leading up to the primary include Rich McCormick, who is among the GOP front-runners in the 7th District. He is hosting a “family fun night” on Friday at a park in Cumming. There will be shaved ice for the kids, and more than 30 people are on the host committee.

McCormick, an emergency room doctor, also held an event in a Snellville supporter’s backyard where “x’s” marked the ground to keep people spaced out. He said it was important for voters to hear from him directly, and social media is no replacement.

“You can see how authentic a person is by looking in their eyes; you can’t do that any other way except in person,” he said.

In the open 9th Congressional District, attorney Ethan Underwood hosted campaign events at restaurants in Elijah and Hoschton. Gainesville is next.

Air Force Veteran Clayton Fuller is visiting cities around the 14th Congressional District for meet-and-greets, and former Georgia School Superintendent John Barge has put his “Barge-in-and-Win” vehicle trailer on the road.

Ben Bullock, an Air Force veteran and real estate agent also running in the open 14th, has canvassed door to door and on the streets of Paulding County. He said he has walked 35 miles to try to connect with voters.

“We still need to be cautious, but the human-to-human connection is so important, especially when you’re trying to be someone’s representative,” he said. “You can’t replace it.”

Bullock said it is important to talk to voters in person about what they are struggling with. He said people in the district seem to be receptive to a political campaign canvassing, even as the coronavirus remains a public health concern.

The campaign is planning an election night party that will be held outdoors with social distancing and masks.

“It feels like generally people are trying to get back to normal,” Bullock said, “and get the economy back open.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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