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What to watch for in Georgia on Election Day

For a while it felt like nothing could touch the 2016 elections, when Georgians rendered judgment on two polarizing presidential candidates named Trump and Clinton. But a history-making gubernatorial race, paired with a volatile national political climate, have dialed up the intensity to new heights.

Georgians cast roughly 2.1 million early votes, shattering previous records and approaching the overall turnout from the midterm elections four years ago. And the top-of-the-ticket clash between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp has attracted an unprecedented amount of money, much of it from outside Georgia.

In recent months, a parade of A-list surrogates has visited the state to rally support for Abrams, Kemp and down-ticket candidates waging their own high-profile fights. Democrats hope to flip a spate of down-ticket statewide offices, a pair of suburban U.S. House seats and a range of state legislative races in competitive territory.

Each of the candidates hope his or her powerful surrogates — President Donald Trumpformer President Barack Obama,Vice President Mike Pence and Oprah Winfrey — will help fuel turnout among core supporters. But those aren’t the only factors that will determine who wins Tuesday’s contest and who fades into the background.

Here are other factors to watch for:

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Voting rights

The race for Georgia governor always seemed destined to heighten a clash between Abrams and Kemp over voting rights, extending a feud that’s raged for much of the past decade. But that fight has exploded in the final stretch of the race with legal battles and charges that Kemp is using his role as secretary of state to tip the scales.

Abrams and her allies have pummeled Kemp for remaining in his role, which oversees elections, even as he runs for Georgia’s top office. And he brought new scrutiny on himself when he alleged with scant evidence over the weekend that the state Democratic Party sought to hack a voter registration database.

It’s brought new life to long-running claims that Kemp’s voting policies are aimed at suppressing minority votes — which he calls a “farce” designed to rev up Democratic voters.

A small army of elections attorneys will be roaming voting sites on Election Day, monitoring for any hint of voter problems. Voters are being reminded to bring their photo IDs, stay in line no matter what and cast a provisional ballot if they run into any problems.

The electoral impact of the back-and-forth is also uncertain: Will talk of voter suppression dissuade the “unlikely” voters Abrams depends upon? Or will it fuel further voter participation?

Base turnout

Never mind the undecided voters stuck in the middle. The last weeks of the campaign directly targeted the candidates’ base supporters.

It’s why Abrams and the rest of the Democratic ticket joyously rallied with Obama on Friday — an image that past gubernatorial contenders eagerly avoided. And it’s why Kemp and other GOP contenders were front and center with Trump at Sunday’s rally in Macon, even if it meant turning off independent voters upset with the president.

That’s at the heart of each of their strategies. Abrams has relentlessly appealed to voters who often skip midterms and have liberal stances on gun control, criminal justice and some social issues — along with pledging to expand the Medicaid program.

And Kemp has staked his campaign on driving up support in conservative strongholds in rural and exurban areas, wielding warnings of Abrams’ “extremist” stances to rev up voters. He’s using Trump’s path to victory in Georgia in 2016 as a template to win the election even while losing densely populated suburbs.

Black voters

The appeal to core Democratic voters goes hand in glove with Abrams’ goal of motivating left-leaning minorities to help her bid to become the nation’s first black female governor.

Democratic candidates have long premised their campaigns for statewide office on getting to a vaunted number: Increasing African-American turnout to 30 percent of the state’s electorate.

Michelle Nunn came close to that mark in 2014 with her failed U.S. Senate campaign against David Perdue, and Abrams has reason to believe she’ll surpass it. An analysis of early-voting numbers suggests black turnout could have reached as high as 32 percent, bolstered by particularly high turnout among black women.

Republicans hope to swamp those numbers with robust Election Day turnout from older white voters, the GOP’s largest bloc of support.

Suburban shifts

One of the biggest shockers in Georgia in 2016 was not that Trump carried the state by a narrower margin than past Republicans. It was that he was still able to win by 5 percentage points despite losing most of Atlanta’s suburbs, including the once-solid GOP bastions of Cobb and Gwinnett counties.

Democrats are looking to consolidate those gains on Tuesday by keeping those territories in their column and challenging Republican candidates in a sweep of suburban communities. A strong Democratic showing in Atlanta’s suburbs could swing two U.S. House seats and as many as a dozen state legislative offices — and give Abrams and other statewide candidates some cushion from GOP routs in rural areas.

The biggest question in the suburbs centers on white women. Kemp has a solid double-digit lead among men in the latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll, while Abrams has a commanding edge among women. But the results among white women are more nuanced: Kemp’s support among white woman has dipped slightly over the past month from 69 percent to 63 percent.

The Libertarian effect?

Even after a nearly two-year-long campaign, Tuesday’s vote may not spell the end.

Libertarian Ted Metz, polling below 2 percent in most surveys, could trigger a Dec. 4 runoff in the governor’s race if neither Kemp nor Abrams gets the majority vote needed to win outright.

Many analysts predict the gubernatorial contest will avoid a runoff because such a polarizing race will squeeze third-party support. But Libertarian vote share tends to grow down the ballot, and a slate of other races such as secretary of state and Public Service Commission — could go into overtime because there are three candidates in those contests.

Obamacare

Just a few years ago, many Democrats were running away from the Affordable Care Act. Now Obama’s landmark health care law is central to their re-election strategies.

Expanding Medicaid has been a constant theme from Abrams and other statewide Democratic contenders since entering the race. And in the two competitive U.S. House races in suburban Atlanta, Democratic challengers Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux have seized on the House’s repeal-and-replace votes and called their GOP opponents, U.S. Reps. Karen Handel and Rob Woodall, complicit in efforts to erase protections for pre-existing conditions.

The Republicans have vehemently rejected that notion and underscored their support for such coverage, even as they’ve continued to highlight what they see as Obamacare’s flaws. And Kemp has steadfastly stuck to the same position on Medicaid expansion that Gov. Nathan Deal carved out, saying an expansion would be too costly in the long run even if it could bring short-term benefits.

Trump effect

Midterm elections are always seen as referendums on the president, and that’s particularly true this year given Trump’s larger-than-life persona. Pence said as much last week when he sold the idea that a vote for Kemp is a seal of approval for the administration’s agenda.

The president is adored among Georgia Republicans: More than 91 percent of likely GOP voters said they approved of him in the latest AJC/Channel 2 poll, and thousands of rapturous supporters crowded a Macon airplane hanger on Sunday to catch a glimpse of him. But among Democrats and independents his popularity is underwater. Overall, 46 percent of likely Georgia voters said they approved of his performance in the late October survey, an improvement from January, when only 37 percent of voters said the same thing.

Kemp has closely tied himself to Trump since entering the governors race — as have many GOP officeseekers — but some suburban Republican candidates have created a little more distance from the commander in chief as they’ve sought to win over female voters uncomfortable with his slash-and-burn style. Democratic challengers, meanwhile, haven’t been afraid to take shots at the president. That includes Obama, who at a campaign rally for Abrams on Friday blasted Trump for “trying to scare you with all sorts of bogeymen, trying to scare you with all kinds of divisive issues.”

An Election Day primer

Election Day 2018 probably couldn’t come soon enough for Georgia voters, and it may well not bring the last word we hear from candidates this year. Voters will find a ballot chock-full of statewide and local races, with a bonus of several ballot questions. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Here’s what you need to know:

Where do I vote?

Before you go, find personalized sample ballots and your polling location on the secretary of state’s “My Voter Page” website (www.mvp.sos.ga.gov). If you mailed in an absentee ballot, you can also check that site to see whether it has been received.

If you’re already out, you can check the same information on the state’s mobile apps. You can download the free apps for Apple or Android operating systems using either the iTunes app store for an iPhone or iPad, or Google Play for Android.

What if I don’t know if I’m registered?

Check the secretary of state’s web page. Or contact your local election office directly. You can find a phone number through a telephone directory or on the Secretary of State Office’s website at www.sos.ga.gov/cgi-bin/countyregistrarsindex.asp.

What to bring with you

Georgia requires voters to show photo identification when they vote in person. Approved forms of identification include a Georgia driver’s license, even if it’s expired; a state-issued voter identification card; a valid U.S. passport; and a valid U.S. military photo ID.

Runoffs

Georgia requires election winners to receive a majority of the vote — you’ll often hear politicos refer to this margin as “50 percent plus one (vote).” Several key races this fall have more than two candidates, making runoff elections possible. That means a Dec. 4 runoff is a possibility in the governor’s race and a sweep of down-ticket races with a Libertarian candidate.

Problems

If you see or experience problems, contact your local elections office or call the nonpartisan Election Protection coalition at 866-OUR-VOTE. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is also covering problems at the polls in partnership with Electionland, a project covering ballot access and voting rights issues. To report problems, send a text message with the word “VOTE” or “VOTA” (for Spanish language) to 81380, or use Facebook Messenger by visiting m.me/electionland.

OUR REPORTING

It’s a busy election year, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is keeping the spotlight on the leading candidates for governor, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Recent AJC stories have examined Kemp’s finances and Abrams’ position while in the state Legislature as a leading collector of per diem. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.

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