Why Georgia is no longer safe Republican territory for Donald Trump

President Donald Trump wears a mask Saturday as he walks down the hallway during his visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Donald Trump wears a mask Saturday as he walks down the hallway during his visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

When President Donald Trump last visited Atlanta in March, he was riding high in the polls after the failed Democratic-led push to oust him from office and trying to calm jittery nerves about the growing coronavirus outbreak.

He’s confronting a very different political reality when he arrives Wednesday at a UPS facility near Atlanta’s airport to discuss transportation initiatives — and appear side by side with Georgia Republicans hoping he can rebound before November.

Polls show him neck-and-neck with Joe Biden, margins so tight that his campaign laid out a seven-figure ad buy this summer to defend a state that Republicans have carried in every presidential vote since 1996.

Nervous Republican-aligned groups have already set aside more than $22 million for ads to protect the two GOP-held U.S. Senate seats up for grabs, mindful that enthusiastic Democrats shattered turnout records during last month’s primary.

And Trump is facing criticism about his approach to the coronavirus pandemic, which has reached new heights in Georgia and triggered a growing rift between state and local officials over how to respond.

Also growing is the protest movement demanding racial justice, which has led Democrats to call for more sweeping changes to combat structural inequities and Republicans to emphasize a pro-law enforcement message and warn of threats to public safety.

Trump’s visit coincides with pressure on Biden’s campaign to expand the 2020 battleground map beyond the Rust Belt states that Hillary Clinton lost four years ago, plus other perennial swing states such as Florida and North Carolina. That bigger map would include Georgia and its 16 Electoral College votes.

That would mean millions of dollars pumping up the state party’s infrastructure — and more resources for down-ballot candidates challenging U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, and aiming to flip a suburban U.S. House seat and take control of the Georgia House.

“When is the last time a Republican presidential candidate had to advertise in Georgia at all, let alone in June?” said Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, who since her defeat has built the Fair Fight voting rights group into a national political force.

“When you add the enthusiasm, the moment, you know that Georgia isn’t just a battleground state,” she said. “It’s the battleground state.”

And yet Trump supporters can take solace in other factors. No Democrat has won statewide in Georgia in more than a decade, and Biden’s campaign has done little to suggest that it will heavily compete in the state.

On Tuesday, the former vice president launched a volley of customized TV ads in states that Clinton lost in 2016, including Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Texas. Georgia wasn't on the list.

And if Biden contests the state, which Trump carried by 5 percentage points in 2016, he’ll confront an entrenched Republican opponent. Trump spokeswoman Savannah Viar said the president’s Georgia campaign has more than 100 staffers and has made nearly 4 million voter contacts this cycle.

Viar cast the 2020 election as a choice between “safety, a return to a booming economy and American greatness — or Democrats’ promise of lawlessness, higher taxes and job losses.”

“Georgia Republicans have been on the ground since 2016 and are more prepared than ever for the November election,” she added. “Georgia is Trump country, and we intend it to stay that way.”

Anvil or asset?

Still, the fact that Georgia is no sure thing for Republicans has had top officials sounding the alarms for years. Perdue, for one, has long warned about the tight midterm in 2018 being a “wake-up call.” And the Trump administration has lavished more attention on Georgia in recent months.

It's a main reason Vice President Mike Pence trekked to Atlanta twice in one week in May to tout the state's coronavirus response, and it explains why Trump chose the city to highlight his transportation agenda.

The afternoon event Wednesday, set for the UPS airport hub in Hapeville, will feature the unveiling of a new process that the White House said will speed up environmental reviews for roads, bridges and highway projects, such as an I-75 expansion.

Though there’s no raucous rally scheduled, politics will inevitably share the spotlight. The GOP feud between Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who are both vying for Trump’s favor in the November special election for her seat, will be on display as both Republicans are set to join the president.

Protesters and supporters are expected to line Trump's route. And his return to Georgia will evoke reminders of his clash with Gov. Brian Kemp, who drew the president's anger when he began rolling back coronavirus restrictions in April. Trump later reversed himself and praised Georgia's approach.

The jockeying for Trump’s support underscores a dynamic at play in Georgia, and other Republican-held states, since 2016: Even as he struggles in polls among moderates and independents, Trump has a sky-high approval rating among Georgia Republicans.

Democrats are banking that Trump will be a political anvil that weighs down the rest of the GOP ticket.

Since his last visit, Democrats outvoted Republicans in the June primary and the party avoided what could have been damaging August runoffs in two of the year’s premier races: the contest against Perdue and a U.S. House race for a Gwinnett County-based district that’s one of the party’s top targets this year.

Ahead of Trump’s visit, Abrams’ Fair Fight group published a lengthy memo that outlined demographic trends in Georgia that underline Democratic hopes for carrying the state for the first time since 1992.

More Black Georgians voted in the 2020 primary than in the 2008 contest with Barack Obama on the ballot. And the electorate in Georgia continues to grow more diverse. Of the roughly 750,000 Georgians who have registered to vote since 2018, about half are voters of color and 45% are under the age of 30. Those demographic blocs, polls consistently show, tend to back Democrats.

The anti-Trump message is clear in Democratic messaging. When he ran for a Republican-held suburban U.S. House seat in 2017, Jon Ossoff steered clear of picking a fight with Trump late in his campaign.

Now the Democratic nominee to challenge Perdue, Ossoff has put the president’s close ties to the senator at the center of his November argument.

“Georgia’s hospitalizations are skyrocketing, thousands are dead, millions of Georgians need fast economic relief, and instead of coming here with a plan, Trump’s photo op is just more dithering from a president in denial and out of control,” Ossoff said.

Republicans aren’t shying away from the White House. Top Georgia GOP candidates have assailed the Black Lives Matter movement, blamed Democratic leaders for protests that turned violent and echoed Trump’s pro-police mantra.

Nancy Couch, a Republican activist, predicted the message will yield dividends for Trump’s campaign in suburban areas such as Cobb County, which Republicans lost in 2016 for the first time since Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

“I’m amazed at how many women I speak with that are just as enthusiastic as I am. He’s taking the lead on law-and-order issues, and he’s listening to businesses because of his private-sector background,” she said. “Our safety and security is the most important thing to citizens, and Trump recognizes that.”