Georgia candidates, as well as their campaigns, feel impact from virus

Georgia Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, wears a protective mask during a special session at the Georgia Capitol to deal with the coronavirus. In response to the pandemic, the state Legislature suspended its regular 2020 session indefinitely. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Georgia Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, wears a protective mask during a special session at the Georgia Capitol to deal with the coronavirus. In response to the pandemic, the state Legislature suspended its regular 2020 session indefinitely. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

One candidate was called up to military duty to assist the coronavirus response just as he was trying to organize his congressional campaign. Another publicly grieved about how her mother lost her job because of the growing pandemic.

An incumbent is accused by her rivals of using inside information about the outbreak to sell a small fortune in stocks, while a congressional contender has pledged to hire laid-off workers to staff her campaign.

With the Georgia primary less than two months away, the coronavirus hasn't just shaken the state's political calendar, though it's certainly had that effect. The presidential contest is on hold, in-person campaigning is off-limits and the legislative session is indefinitely suspended.

It’s also transformed the lives of candidates who are wrestling with a pandemic that’s uprooted their plans at a time when political contests, even the race for the White House, seem like an afterthought.

“It certainly raises some novel complications. But this is what my career is about. This is what we train for,” said Clayton Fuller, a Republican congressional candidate called up by the Air National Guard. “This is what the country needs from us now.”

MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia

MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak

The candidates are racing to execute a digital campaign in a pandemic era, relying on Facebook town halls and live-streamed conversations from their living rooms and home offices ahead of a May 19 primary as they’re wrestling with their own turmoil.

“My mom just called me to tell me she lost her job” because of the coronavirus, Democratic congressional candidate Nabilah Islam said last week. “She only made $14 an hour. She finished the conversation asking me how she’s going to survive. I’m completely heartbroken.”

They’re trying to strike a balance between how aggressively to ask donors for campaign cash when many are worried about their next paycheck and how often to send online dispatches to Georgians focused on an illness that has already sickened at least 1,000 Georgians and killed dozens more.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger listens to speakers at the annual Georgia Chamber of Commerce - Eggs & Issues Breakfast. Many networking events have been canceled and replaced with virtual events because of the coronavirus pandemic. Bob Andres / AJC FILE PHOTO

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“There doesn’t seem to be as much out there with politics now,” said Vivian Battle, an Atlanta client support staffer. “It seemed that used to be the headline, and now you have to dig deeper to find it.”

‘Give blood’

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll this month that highlighted one of the state's highest-profile contests shows how steep the challenges are ahead.

The poll found that Jon Ossoff leads the field of Democrats vying to compete against Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue with roughly one-third of the vote. Two other candidates — Sarah Riggs Amico and Teresa Tomlinson — are essentially deadlocked with about 15% of the vote.

But the largest share of the vote in the poll — 39% — was the proportion of voters who are still undecided less than two months before the vote. And the contenders must try to sway those unpersuaded without rallies, door-to-door canvassing and other tried-and-true ways to mobilize voters.

“There are candidates really racking their brains about this now,” said Mary Margaret Oliver, a long-serving Democratic state lawmaker who ran for lieutenant governor in 1998. “I am hard-pressed what to tell candidates to do right now — other than give blood.”

Georgia U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler takes a photo with a supporter during her rally earlier this month at the Cobb County Republican Party’s headquarters in Marietta. Loeffler is now facing some scrutiny over stock transactions made following her attendance at a senators-only briefing on the coronavirus. She has called the accusations politically motivated and said her stock “portfolio is managed by third parties” and she had no knowledge of them until days or weeks after they occurred. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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They’ve rushed to experiment with new ways to connect.

Ossoff penned an op-ed Tuesday calling for a series of steps to contain the disease and featured his wife, Dr. Alisha Kramer, on a video on the need to practice social distancing. And at a virtual press conference Wednesday, he said he's readying for the possibility of a vote-by-mail primary.

“We hope the situation will allow us to reach out face-to-face,” Ossoff said, “but we’re preparing rapidly to respond if that can’t happen using technology, outreach by phone, texting and all other means necessary.”

Tomlinson has used the crisis to highlight her experience as a former Columbus mayor. She recorded a Facebook Live over the weekend with a public health expert and talked about the need for a vast restructuring of "outdated systems not responding to the fast-paced world."

And Amico has juggled campaigning with home-schooling her two young children this week, joking during a new online series that she launched this week that she's a "pale imitation" of their teachers.

“We’re learning right now just how important it is to invest in our educators and our public school systems,” she told her supporters in an online video.

‘Absolutely worried’

It could portend well for whichever candidate can blitz the airwaves, blanket voters with mail and clog the digital space with ads ahead of the primary, and the marketing may have an even more profound effect on voting since more Georgians are captive audiences at their homes during the pandemic.

Georgia Rep. Donna McLeod, D - Lawrenceville, takes a photo of the final vote on the House resolution while wearing gloves during a special called session at the Georgia State Capitol Building, Monday, March 16, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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And campaign strategy will be transformed by a significant change in election procedures. All of Georgia's 6.9 million voters will be mailed absentee ballot request forms for the May primary, part of a push to encourage voting by mail during the pandemic.

While the state has allowed any voter to cast a ballot by mail since 2005, just 7% of voters did so in the 2018 midterm election. A surge of new mail-in voters will “change the rhythm of the campaign” said Heath Garrett, a Republican strategist who noted that campaigns will get a trove of information from voters who requested the ballots.

“This becomes, along with digital media and virtual campaigning, a way to have real precise data to go after voters,” he said.

The pandemic also forces newcomers and lesser-known candidates to find innovative ways to stand out. Lynne Homrich, a former Home Depot executive running for a Gwinnett County-based U.S. House seat, said she’s about to “re-purpose” the campaign to hire 20 people who lost their jobs because of the outbreak.

“This is what happens when you send a businessperson to Washington, and it’s why I’ve stepped up to run for this seat,” the Republican said. “Now, more than ever, we must elect people to Congress who will place purpose above politics.”

The pandemic could also prove a decisive moment in Georgia's other U.S. Senate contest, with Republican Kelly Loeffler under fire for unloading nearly $2 million worth of stocks in the weeks following a private Jan. 24 coronavirus briefing.

Loeffler has said a financial adviser, who was acting independently, sold the shares and pointed to $1.6 million in stock purchases since the beginning of the year. The senator said she wasn’t aware of many of the transactions until weeks after they occurred, and called the attacks “ridiculous and baseless.”

Still, her challengers in the November special election, including Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, have seized on what they see as a game-changing moment. A longtime Collins friend, state House Speaker David Ralston, said "down-ticket damage" over Loeffler's stock trading could taint other Republicans seeking office.

“A lot of people are going to associate these activities with some very fine candidates running for the Georgia House and are going to hold that against us,” he said.

‘Best’ ever

Not every political event was put on hold.

Over the weekend, about a dozen people who showed up to a Cobb County GOP meeting were greeted by surgical masks left over from the Ebola scare six years ago, and gloves that volunteers handed out in care of a local automotive store.

A handful of activists attend the Cobb GOP meeting amid a coronavirus pandemic.

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Georgia Republican officials need not be reminded of the pandemic. But they say the only way to select delegates who could eventually be chosen for the Republican National Convention is to hold the meetings as scheduled.

“We don’t want to risk our delegation to the national convention. And I don’t have the authority to cancel,” said Jason Shepherd, the county GOP chairman. “So we have to press forward.”

The scene was replayed at dozens of other county conventions across the state this weekend as sparse crowds showed up for brief meetings held in party offices, parking lots or park space.

In Columbus, the Muscogee County GOP held its meeting outside a shuttered building, promptly wrapping up within 30 minutes. And Republican officials in DeKalb County sent repeated reminders urging members to steer clear.

They were responding to a memo that Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer sent earlier this week that was punctuated by an unusual request: "We would prefer you NOT attend."

After a bit of wrangling over a handful of delegates and alternates, the Cobb meeting was finished in roughly half an hour. Within minutes, the room had cleared and activists were on their way.

Michael Williams, an insurance executive, sprang from his seat as soon as Shepherd gaveled the session over.

“It was the best convention ever.”