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It’s primary day in Georgia: Here’s what to watch in a COVID-19 election

Georgians will render a verdict Tuesday in a sweep of closely watched political contests, as voters cast ballots in a heated U.S. Senate race and other competitive showdowns in an unpredictable primary shaped by the coronavirus pandemic.

The marquee race is the crowded Democratic primary to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a first-term Republican with close ties to President Donald Trump. Three top Democrats are on the ballot, and a runoff in August is possible if none captures a majority of the vote.

Voters will sort through jumbled 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 contests for 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 and 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.

Voters line up outside Park Tavern in Midtown Atlanta to vote in Georgia's primary on Tuesday, June, 9, 2020. Long waits were expected. JOHN SPINK / JOHN.SPINK@AJC.COM
Voters line up outside Park Tavern in Midtown Atlanta to vote in Georgia's primary on Tuesday, June, 9, 2020. Long waits were expected. JOHN SPINK / JOHN.SPINK@AJC.COM

And Georgians will get their say 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.

The COVID-19 outbreak has forced candidates — and elections officials — to take unprecedented action. The presidential vote was pushed back from March, while the general primary was delayed three weeks from its originally scheduled date in May.

Sweeping restrictions led Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office to send absentee ballot request forms to 6.9 million active Georgia voters, though some still never received them in the mail. And it could take days for results to trickle in.

More than 1.2 million people have already voted, most through a torrent of absentee ballots that have far eclipsed past mail-in totals. But large crowds are expected at many precincts across the state, and the pandemic has led to fewer polling sites and elections workers.

Candidates, too, had to overhaul their strategies. No longer could they rely on droves of door-knockers or retail politicking. Instead, they resorted to virtual campaigns and floods of appeals over the airwaves, through texts and calls, and by mail to reach voters.

"There's been so much uncertainty out there, so much difficulty in trying to ramp up a campaign without the personal touch," said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, the longest-serving member of the Georgia Legislature.

Here’s what to watch on primary day:

Voting issues

Perhaps the biggest unknown heading into Tuesday is how the surge of mail-in ballots will shape the election.

A record 943,000 voters returned their ballots through Sunday, a 2,500% increase compared with absentee-by-mail voting in the 2016 presidential race. State data shows a close split between Democrats and Republicans heading into election day.

Amico, Tomlinson, Ossoff
Amico, Tomlinson, Ossoff

The surge in mail applications, along with virus-related restrictions, has led to more problems for an electoral system already facing complaints about ballot access.

Some voters in busy precincts waited in line for hours Friday — the last day of advance in-person voting — because of social distancing requirements and fewer machines. Thousands reported they never received their absentee ballots after requesting them weeks beforehand.

Top Democratic officials demanded steps to cope with the expected crowds, such as an extension of election day voting, more drop boxes for absentee ballots and an emergency order that allows absentee ballots received after the polls close Tuesday to be counted.

The outcome of many races won’t be quickly forthcoming, either.

Raffensperger’s office said it won’t release elections results until the last precinct closes Tuesday night. Since polling sites will be held open late to accommodate long lines, key data probably won’t start coming in until early Wednesday.

The race to challenge Perdue

Jon Ossoff has led the Democratic field of seven U.S. Senate candidates in polling, fundraising and name recognition since he entered the contest last year. Now the question is whether he can win the primary without a runoff.

Several recent polls show 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, stoking the speculation he's aiming for a clear victory.

Two of his main rivals have stepped up their efforts to land in a runoff. Sarah Riggs Amico, the 2018 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, and former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson have each rushed to mobilize supporters in hopes of keeping Ossoff under 50%.

Amanda McElveen holds 1-year old Luna, left, as Justin McElveen interacts while they and other voters stand in line in the rain at Garden Hills Elementary School in Atlanta on Friday, the last day of early voting for the Georgia primary. Lines lasted for hours in some places. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Amanda McElveen holds 1-year old Luna, left, as Justin McElveen interacts while they and other voters stand in line in the rain at Garden Hills Elementary School in Atlanta on Friday, the last day of early voting for the Georgia primary. Lines lasted for hours in some places. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

The three largely embrace the same left-leaning policies, with calls to expand voting rights measures, increase the minimum wage, embrace stricter gun control legislation and more aggressively confront Republican policies.

They’ve 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.

Amico has sought to leverage her business experience, her support from labor unions and ties to Stacey Abrams to connect with voters. Tomlinson has put her two terms as Columbus mayor at the center of her campaign.

And Ossoff, who rose to the national spotlight during a 2017 bid for Congress, has forged his campaign around an anti-corruption message while almost exclusively targeting Perdue.

(Georgia has another Senate contest up for grabs this year, too, but it’s not on Tuesday’s ballot. U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler will face 20 candidates seeking to oust her from office in a November special election to fill the final two years of retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term.)

The pandemic effect

The virus-related restrictions have meant the power of incumbency, name recognition and fundraising are even more important factors in the race.

Candidates with flush bank accounts can flood potential supporters with mail pieces and digital ads, and blitz the airwaves with expensive TV spots. Newcomers who once planned to rely on grassroots volunteers had to shift strategies quickly to compete.

“Targeting became more of a guess than a science — figuring out who was likely to vote, when and why was at the foundation of every decision,” said Fred Hicks, a veteran Democrat strategist.

“Innovation moved to the forefront,” Hicks said. “Quick-adjusting campaigns found that they were able to engage more voters more often because people were home and in front of their screens.”

Nina Wilson drops off her absentee ballot while dozens of other voters line up to cast their votes in person on the first day of early voting at the Cobb County Board of Elections & Registration on Monday, May 18, 2020, in Marietta.   Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Nina Wilson drops off her absentee ballot while dozens of other voters line up to cast their votes in person on the first day of early voting at the Cobb County Board of Elections & Registration on Monday, May 18, 2020, in Marietta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

In Georgia's 7th Congressional District, a suburban Atlanta stretch that was home to the nation's closest U.S. House race in 2018, a group that includes three sitting state legislators, young activists, veteran politicians and self-proclaimed "outsiders" converge in a messy contest for the right to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall.

Nine Republicans are running in Georgia's 9th Congressional District, spanning much of northeast Georgia, in a race to the party's flanks to succeed U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, one of the 20 candidates who will compete against Loeffler in the fall. Another nine Republicans are running in the neighboring 14th Congressional District after U.S. Rep. Tom Graves announced he was retiring.

Further down the ticket are candidates in 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.

And each is trying to break through to a base of voters at a time when the pandemic and protests dominate the public’s attention — raising the stakes higher for candidates facing entrenched incumbents.

“Challengers must be more creative,” said Audrey Haynes, a University of Georgia political scientist. “They have to figure out how they can look like a leader even though they have not been elected to be one yet.”