Ossoff leads but runoff still possible in Georgia Dems’ Senate primary

Voters wait in long lines at Peachcrest Elementary School on Tuesday, June 9, 2020.  The gym only has five voting machines set up despite having nine others onsite.  The Covid-19 restrictions only allow 10 people in the gym at a time so many machines are not being used, creating long wait times.  The lines around lunchtime were taking 2.5 hours.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Voters wait in long lines at Peachcrest Elementary School on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. The gym only has five voting machines set up despite having nine others onsite. The Covid-19 restrictions only allow 10 people in the gym at a time so many machines are not being used, creating long wait times. The lines around lunchtime were taking 2.5 hours. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Jon Ossoff built a commanding lead in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate on Tuesday as polls began to close after a day of voting marred by long lines and faulty equipment, but it was not yet clear whether he would face a runoff.

The former congressional candidate had a double-digit edge in the race to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, and results through early Wednesday showed him hovering just below the majority-vote mark he needs to avoid an August runoff.

Yet a head-to-head matchup against either one of his well-financed opponents -- executive Sarah Riggs Amico and former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson -- remained a possibility as returns trickled in.

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The primary was plagued by serious problems, with many precincts struggling with missing or malfunctioning voting machines, part of a $104 million system the state purchased after a ballot access fight during the 2018 gubernatorial election.

Though the race was the marquee contest on the ballot, the candidates competed for attention with a pandemic that upended the election contest and, more recently, the protests demanding racial equality throughout the nation.

At times, the primary was also overshadowed by another U.S. Senate race — the 21-candidate contest for Republican Kelly Loeffler’s seat — that won’t be held until November.

It was made more unpredictable by voting changes that expanded the electorate. More than 1.2 million voters cast early ballots, mostly by mail, far eclipsing the early-vote numbers in the 2016 primary.

Amico, Tomlinson, Ossoff

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The race began with a sputter early last year, when Stacey Abrams publicly wrestled over whether to run for the seat before passing on the chance. Within hours, Tomlinson entered the contest, followed shortly by Amico and then Ossoff.

>>RELATED: Voting machines and coronavirus force long lines on Georgia voters

He became the de facto front-runner, thanks to soaring name recognition from his 2017 run for Georgia's 6th Congressional District, a special election that drew national attention as a litmus test for President Donald Trump's support and a measure of Democrats' strength in long-held Republican territory.

Ossoff narrowly lost that race, the most expensive U.S. House contest in history, after raising roughly $30 million during the campaign. But he amassed a lengthy voter list, a battle-tested campaign strategy and a profile as a rising Democratic star.

His opponents have questioned whether he can defeat Perdue, a former Fortune 500 chief executive with a $9 million campaign account, but none so loud as Tomlinson. She has criticized his level of experience and questioned whether he could go toe-to-toe with the incumbent.

The race seemed long fated to end in an August runoff because of the glut of contenders.

But several recent polls showed Ossoff 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.

The pandemic has added another wrinkle, too, by forcing the three Democrats to resort to virtual campaigning as restrictions took hold in March. Analysts predicted it  could give candidates with high profiles and deep pockets an edge since old-fashioned retail politicking was largely off-limits.

200609-Atlanta-Voters wait in line at the Fanplex voting site late Tuesday evening June 9, 2020 across from the old Turner Field in Atlanta. Voters were reporting a three hour wait at the site. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

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Credit: Ben@bengray.com

Amico, Ossoff and Tomlinson 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.

They’ve each also intensified calls to overhaul the criminal justice system as demonstrations demanding racial equality and an end to police brutality sweep the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis.

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 put her two terms as Columbus mayor at the center of her campaign. And Ossoff focused on an anti-corruption message.

Although most precincts reported no issues, the voting problems in metro Atlanta marred the day. The pandemic led local officials to close many precincts and hire fewer poll workers, contributing to long lines. And lack of training of staffers and equipment flaws forced many voters to cast provisional ballots.

“This is voter suppression — I’m shaking just talking about this,” Aerialle Klein said as she waited to vote at Cross Keys High School in DeKalb County. “But I’m staying. This is my civic duty. Something has to change.”

Some insisted on exercising their right to cast ballots, but others couldn’t wait in hours-long lines and left before voting. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was among many who said that the problems disenfranchised voters in majority-black areas of the metro region.

“Let’s all work, hope and pray that this not be a preview of November,” she said.

State Rep. William Boddie, D-East Point, said Fulton County was in a "complete meltdown" almost as soon as polls opened Tuesday.

“My phone hasn’t stopped ringing. We’re having issues throughout the county,” he said. “Did they not know this was going to be a voting day for months? Fulton County’s Board of Elections can’t be let off the hook this time. It’s inexcusable.”

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger pinned the blame on local officials in DeKalb and Fulton counties, and he said he would launch an investigation into the primary process. State Democrats, as well as local officials, said the state was ill-prepared to conduct the election even after it was postponed from May.

The Senate contest is far from the only closely watched race on the ballot.

Voters sorted through crowded contests for three open U.S. House seats: a race to represent a Gwinnett County-based district that’s one of the nation’s most competitive, as well as packed fields seeking the right to compete in two deeply conservative North Georgia territories.

Dozens of down-ticket races are also on the ballot, including contests that could be key to Democratic hopes to retake control of the Georgia House. So were elections for local posts, such as sheriff and district attorney, which are receiving fresh looks from many voters amid protests demanding civil justice throughout the state.

And Georgians rendered verdicts in presidential primary contests, though those votes are largely an afterthought: Trump long ago cemented the Republican nomination, and former Vice President Joe Biden formally clinched the Democratic nod last week.