Love him? Hate him? Whatever your views, one thing is certain: President Donald Trump drove voters to the polls in Georgia’s bitterly-contested midterm elections.
Tuesday’s results revealed a sharply polarized electorate. Nearly 4 million Georgians cast votes, and in the nationally-watched race for governor some 60,000 votes separated Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams.
Rural voters embraced Kemp, who modeled himself on Trump. An analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that in 133 of the state’s 159 counties, Kemp drew a larger percentage of the vote than Trump did in 2016. If Kemp is ultimately certified as the winner of the contest, that solid wall of support will have made the difference.
But the other major takeaway from Tuesday was a collapse of the GOP in the northern suburbs of Atlanta. In Cobb and Gwinnett counties, where Republican Gov. Nathan Deal had cruised to victory just four years ago, Abrams won easily. Fulton County became even more solidly Democratic, as precincts in the northern part of the county flipped.
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The AJC sought out some voters who were waiting to catch the blue wave in areas that were on the verge of turning Democratic in the last election and finally made the switch this time. And in one county firmly in the red column, voters explained why their area keeps with that tradition.
GWINNETT COUNTY: DIVERSITY BRINGS CHANGE
A drive through Gwinnett County, past its older strip malls and around its uniform, modestly-priced residential developments, evinces the change that the county has undergone in the last decade. It has become less white and more international with new residents hailing from Asia, Latin America and Africa. They’ve joined longstanding African-American, Latino and Asian families who’ve also led the demographic changes in the county.
Some Gwinnett residents who spoke with the AJC said that by the 1980s it was a truism that a person had to be a Republican if they wanted to run for elected office in Gwinnett. The first bellwether of political change was when the county went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Now, the 2018 mid-terms suggest the change from Republican stronghold to a place that is at least solidly purple, may be irrevocable. The Gwinnett legislative delegation went from 15 Republicans and 10 Democrats to 17 Democrats and eight Republicans. And the congressional contest between Republican incumbent Rob Woodall and Democrat Carolyn Bordeaux was too close to call.
Sylvia Fisher moved from Lawrenceville to Duluth two years ago. A naturalized U.S. citizen of Korean descent, her experience as an immigrant informed her decision to vote in this election, she said. She disliked Trump’s effort to stir his base with a message of fear of immigrants.
“I just don’t like what Trump did,” Fisher said. “That’s why I voted.”
Fisher, who is self-employed, said she is politically independent. She said she realized that some lawbreakers might try to get into the country with the so-called ‘immigrant caravan’ but she believes the majority of people seeking to make it to the southern U.S. border were wrongfully demonized by the president.
“Some people can’t live in their country and we need to make space for them because it’s dangerous for them and they can’t go back to their country,” Fisher said. In the end, Fisher voted for Abrams.
Sharon Blackwood, a retired music teacher, has lived in Duluth for 38 years and has voted in nearly every election. She has worked with the League of Women Voters on its New Americans Project which as registered about 33,000 newly naturalized citizens in Georgia in the last five years.
“Gwinnett has become a younger county in terms of its electorate and it’s gotten much more diverse and yesterday’s vote is a result of that,” Blackwood said earlier this week. “We have approaching a million people here now and it’s incredibly diverse. Thirty percent of Gwinnett is Asian. We have Spanish ballots. And in general, Gwinnett has embraced that change.”
The vulnerability of incumbents on the ballot was a signal of seismic change.
“(Rep.) Brooks Coleman didn’t run for re-election and David Shafer ran for lieutenant governor and lost in the primary so you had two, new fresh faces on both of those ballots,” Blackwood said. “There were a lot of strong candidates and maybe some incumbents who were complacent. And there were two school board races that didn’t have incumbents in them.”
She declined to say how she has cast her ballot, allowing only that she looked at the qualifications and backgrounds of each person she voted for.
Todd Ferguson, is a teacher who grew up in Duluth but now lives with his wife and four young children in Dacula. He remembers a time when Democrats didn’t even run candidates in some races in the county.
“But that’s changing. There are fewer and fewer unopposed races,” Ferguson said.
He waited and an hour and 41 minutes to vote on Tuesday. He said he believed part of the long lines were due to turnout but adds, “Part of it was intentional suppression; power cords missing, exact-match, it was quite troubling.”
The bombast of Trump and Kemp’s alliance with him propelled the teacher to the polls. He was his own blue wave and voted “a straight blue ticket.” As a father of school-aged children, Ferguson said that in Abrams he saw a candidate who is a champion of public education. In Kemp, he saw a candidate who wanted to turn education toward privatization.
RURAL GEORGIA: DOUBLING DOWN ON GOP
Daniel Reid took a quick break this week from waiting on customers at the Italian-American cafe he manages here in Haralson County so he could steal a glance of the TV suspended above the bar. He was hungry for any news about Georgia’s unsettled race for governor.
Kemp won Reid’s county west of Atlanta with a whopping 87 percent of the vote Tuesday, besting Donald Trump’s 2016 victory here by 3 percentage points.
Reid, who voted for both, has some ideas about why they did so well in Haralson: It is in the Deep South, the home of the Confederacy, he pointed out, and nearly 93 percent of the county’s roughly 29,000 residents are white
“They are not used to people of different cultures and people with progressive ideas,” said Reid, a 30-year-old University of West Georgia student who graduated from Bremen High School. “People have been here a long time and they are probably passing down the same values.”
But Reid, who voted for Barack Obama for president, said factors other than race influence his decisions at the polls. He favors Kemp and Trump because they support gun rights, less government regulation, and stricter vetting standards for immigrants and refugees.
To Reid, Abrams came off as “too extreme” during the campaign, particularly because of her proposal to tighten gun regulations. He was also wary of Abrams’ plan to expand Medicaid in Georgia.
“I don’t know that socialized medicine is the way to go,” he said.
Further, Reid is annoyed about the political correctness and intense opposition to Trump he sees among many Americans.
“This world we live in is in trouble,” he said. “It is just so divided. I don’t know how we are going to move forward. It is jut going to get worse and worse.”
The restaurant where Reid works sits just outside of downtown Buchanan, the county seat of Haralson. Nearly a fifth of all county residents there live in poverty, though the unemployment rate there was 3.1 percent in September. Haralson lies within Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, where Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Graves cruised to victory this week with over 76 percent of the vote.
Across from Reid’s restaurant sits Kimball’s General Store, where Brittany Hughes, 31, works as a cashier . Like Reid, she voted for Kemp and Trump. And she has similar ideas about why Democrats don’t do so well at the ballot box in Haralson: “We are country people.”
“I’ve been voting Republican ever since I could vote,” she said, adding about Trump: “He was going to make America Great. So far so good.”
Also like Reid, Hughes objects to Abrams’ proposals to tighten gun regulations and expand Medicaid. And she believes the criticism Kemp got for one of his campaign ads was overblown. In the ad, Kemp cleans a shotgun and then points it at a young man interested in dating his daughter. Kemp, she insisted, was joking in the ad.
“It was all blown out of proportion,” she said.
Johnny Boyd, 71, a retired Buchanan city worker, passed through Hughes’ store to pick up a carton of pinto beans and cornbread for lunch. He voted for Abrams precisely for the reasons Hughes did not: Her proposals to expand Medicaid and put more restrictions on guns. A grandfather, he empathizes with people who cannot afford medical insurance and it tears him up when he hears about children getting killed in mass shootings.
“I favor some kind of gun control,” he said.
Boyd voted for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, though she wasn’t his first choice. Trump, he said, has been divisive with the “crazy stuff” he says.He agrees the county’s majority white population helps Republicans get elected here.
The son of a black mother and white father, Boyd vividly recalls what Haralson was like during the Jim Crow era. He remembers seeing his uncle and grandfather loading their guns after someone burned a cross in his family’s yard in Haralson when he was a young boy. Race relations have steadily improved in the county, he said, adding he loves Haralson and finds most of its people nice.
“I just want to see it better.”
NORTH FULTON/SOUTH COBB: A DEMOCRATIC UPSET
In the 16 years that Darrell Speck has lived in Sandy Springs, he said no one who ever represented him in an elected office, actually “represented” him.
That is no longer the case. Speck, a software developer smiles when he talks about how both the state House and Senate seats for his area both flipped from Republican to Democrat.
“Trump came into office and the rural areas love him, but the educated people in the suburbs don’t,” said Speck, whose wife was born in China and now teaches at Georgia Tech. “This talk of immigrants being bad is wrong. I think in an international city like Atlanta, who want good jobs and international connections, Trump is seen as bad. The suburbs are rejecting Trump.”
Speck, who canvassed for Democrats up and down the ticket, said the suburban shift has been gradual. Last year, John Ossoff barely lost to Handel. This year, McBath, an absolute newcomer to politics, beat her.
Just two years earlier, Republican Tom Price had trounced his opponent, winning 62 percent of the vote
Abrams close defeat in the gubernatorial race was also telling, Speck said.
“Even to come so close, people didn’t think Stacey had a chance,” Speck said. “They have to recognize that Georgia is changing, and Atlanta is the engine of that change.”
In 2017, Le’Dor Milteer tried to make history in Sandy Springs by becoming the first black elected official on the city council. She knocked on 2,000 doors in her grassroots campaign, but ultimately lost.
“That was the first time anybody has done that,” Milteer said. “Nobody had ever invested in Sandy Springs in terms of grassroots. People saw it as red.”
Milteer said she has no immediate plans to dip her toes back into running, but she has remained active in politics. She works as a precinct captain for the 2018 election and worked closely with Abrams and McBath.
“This election says, finally, people are understanding how important this is. Getting involved is everything,” Milteer said.
Trump also helped, she said.
“Because the conversation of race, lies and sexism, people are getting fed up,” Milteer said. “The same way Trump can stir up emotions with nationalists, he is stirring us up as well. If you are not a white man, everyone is insulted. And it is showing up at the polls.”
Corey Waller wanted to be part of that change. He worked in the Ossoff campaign in 2017 and wanted to keep the momentum going, so he joined McBath, even organizing the “Black Men Stand for Lucy McBath,” event.
“My ask was they make an effort of minority outreach, which Ossoff did not,” said Waller, a 45-year-old Army veteran. “I wanted to go into the barbershops and North DeKalb. I wanted them to take diversity seriously and to my pleasure, they did that.”
Waller said McBath was able to turn her traditionally red district blue, by abandoning the centrist playbook in favor of a message “for the whole community,” that reached out to minorities, the LGBT community and young voters.
“For any Democrat who realizes that the suburbs are becoming more diverse and complex, if they come around to a higher-defined message that represents diversity, they will be more successful. Karen Handel didn’t represent this area and what Lucy McBath did was brilliant.”
Matt Courtoy, a married dad of two, is from South Georgia but has lived in Cobb County since 2001.
“Four, five or six years ago no one would have thought a candidate like Stacey Abrams would have had such an impact,” he said. “It is hopeful.”
Given the rancorous election, he wonders how well people from opposing political camps will be able to move forward.
“It’s going to be tough. I think it’s going to be tough for anyone to let it go, that’s both sides,” he said.
The governor’s race attracted national attention and prominent support on behalf of both candidates. Celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Will Ferrell, John Legend, Yung Joc and Will Packer were active on Abrams’ behalf while Kemp had the White House on his side. Vice President Mike Pence appeared with him numerous times and President Donald Trump scheduled a Macon rally the Sunday before the election.
“Celebrities did not matter to me but I did appreciate the fact that they were involved in the campaign process, particularly ones that have brought a lot to the economy of Georgia. ,” Courtoy said.
“Anyone who supports Trump or his rhetoric” was a non-starter for Courtoy.
“I didn’t vote a strictly Democrat ticket,” he said, “but Democrats did factor into the choices I made.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution data specialist Jennifer Peebles and Emily Merwin contributed to this report