The biggest question marks ahead of Georgia’s 2020 election season

Gwinnett County residents cast their votes during the Georgia primary elections at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church in Duluth on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Gwinnett County residents cast their votes during the Georgia primary elections at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church in Duluth on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

A recap of the conventions and a preview of what to expect before and after Election Day in Georgia

Below is a transcript of the latest episode of the Politically Georgia podcast. In this episode, host Greg Bluestein and AJC Washington correspondent Tia Mitchell discuss the biggest question marks ahead of Georgia’s 2020 election season. The conversation includes a recap of the conventions and a preview of what to expect before and after Election Day in Georgia. Listen and subscribe to our podcast: Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayStitcherSpotify

Greg Bluestein: Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the Politically Georgia podcast, where we bring you news and analysis from all the latest Georgia shenanigans in Congress and under the Gold Dome. And today we’re joined by AJC Washington correspondent Tia Mitchell to recap the Democratic and Republican national conventions that we saw in a back to-back week full of politics and about 16 hours of primetime programming. We watched a lot TV and otherwise we would have been there in person in Charlotte/Jacksonville and Milwaukee to see it ourselves. But you know, if we have to watch it from the comfort of our living rooms, it’s not too bad as it, Tia?

Tia Mitchell: No, it wasn’t too bad. I guess we saved the hassle of traveling and trying to hustle through the convention centers.

Bluestein: You do lose a lot, right? Like, you know, you don’t have that personal interaction, you don’t pick up the anecdotes, you don’t see the side story, you know, you don’t have the sideline chatter. You lose a lot of the drama, just not being there in person and seeing the magnitude of these events, but there are still some pretty solid takeaway moments.

Mitchell: Right. And especially because the Republican convention was so pared down, you know, Democrats tried to replicate a normal convention, virtually. The republicans basically cut out the normal convention, handled the business that they had to do and then focused on primetime. But as a result, there was even less opportunity for us to, like you said dig into the people in the personalities that make up the rank and file Republican party because those people in personalities by and large, they didn’t have much to do. The delegates weren’t given much to do because of the revamped convention.

Bluestein: And this is sort of a programming note for us. And had we been there in person, we have kind of wall-to-wall coverage plans. And, you know, the big story of the day and delegation coverage and all sorts of side stories. I think four years ago, in the span of a week, we probably, you know, our team probably read something like 60 stories off the convention. And that’s, that might be underestimating. These conditions were different. First of all, the democrats gave us a lot more access. We were able to zoom in on their virtual delegation breakfast meetings, you know, things that we would have been covering in person had we been there. So we were able to get a little bit more. Republicans either didn’t have them at all or didn’t give us access to it. I wasn’t able to get a clear answer on that but we didn’t have that sort of same access. But either way, you’re talking about less coverage in general, from local newspapers and local media outlets throughout the big speeches still got lots of coverage where as the actual delegations didn’t get as much attention because there wasn’t as much for them to do.

Mitchell: Right. Yeah. And they, in a lot of ways, even on the Democratic side, the delegates’ experience wasn’t much different than just a normal person watching from home, which was good and bad, because, you know, for the democrats for the first time, anyone, no matter where you were, could participate in the convention in the different caucus meetings and the different conversations that were held throughout the day, whereas in past years, you had to be there. You had to be a delegate or know someone who could get you a guest pass, but I don’t know how many regular folks took the democrats up on that offer. But, you know, it was interesting watching those caucus meetings and they would have like a little chat box and people are like, hey, from California. Hey, from Kentucky. Hey, from Illinois. Hey, from Georgia. And, you know, to have that interaction.

Bluestein: And the caucus meetings is where you get a really good glimpse of the party priorities, right? About what’s been part of the debate, but also if Joe Biden wins or even if he loses, what sort of agenda items will drive the Democratic Party over the next four years?

Mitchell: Right, exactly. And so, it was interesting because there were caucuses, for example, the LGBTQ caucus of the Democratic Party, had a spin off caucus just to focus on transgender and non-binary people. And there were enough transgender and non-binary delegates that started their own little mini caucus. And so it shows how, particularly on the Democratic side, there are all these little mini constituency groups that form a caucus or form a council to talk about how they want the party to reflect their agenda.

Bluestein: And it’s really interesting because on the Republican side, something you’d never see during convention because everyone’s in the convention city is open campaigning going on back in Georgia. So I was able to go to, you know, right now as I’m sitting here, I just left the Kelly Loeffler event up in Cobb County. But Sen. Leffler was all over South Georgia week. Doug Collins was having events in very small towns. Baconton, Georgia. He had an event that apparently attracted about 80 people because they don’t have to (attend the convention) in person. So they hit the campaign trail. David Perdue used the week to get knee surgery. Yeah, otherwise he would probably be front and center in Charlotte and or Jacksonville wherever the convention was supposed to be had. So you’ve seen sort of resumption of or continuation of campaigning, no pause there that you’d have, you’d have otherwise seen had there been a big huge in person event.

Bluestein: These last two weeks have come amid a backdrop of never ending news. Of course the pandemic, which has now claimed more than 180,000 American lives. You’ve got ongoing political divisiveness over every issue it seems, including masks. You’ve got Gov. Kemp, which, this is a whole different podcast, but Gov. Kemp, lashing out at AJC over our coverage of his handling of the pandemic, a renewed March on Washington. And of course, the sports world stopping after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times by a police officer while his kid was in the car. And a an epic hurricane that barrelled into the coast of Louisiana and lashed both Louisiana and Texas. Even as President Trump was preparing to give his acceptance speech. So major issues and threatened overwhelm, both these conventions and critics out there said both Democrats and Republicans didn’t pay enough mind to some, some of them not all of them, but some of these issues, particularly republicans and the pandemic.

Mitchell: Yeah, I was gonna say, you know, I think the Republicans were very razor focused in their speeches throughout the Republican convention week in that focus was on, you know, boosting President Trump and his accomplishments and describing Democrats, you know, as bringing in a socialist regime if they’re allowed to gain control of the White House and the Senate. And so there was very little that derived from one of those two messages. Yes, there was the occasional mention of the hurricane, there was the occasional mention of the pandemic, but usually it was with not necessarily acknowledging the people who had died or the people on the frontlines as much as it was trying to put the pandemic in terms that are favorable to the President. And, of course with the protests, no acknowledgement of, known acknowledgement, or I don’t think anyone using the phrase black lives matter for that. There was just only talk about the protests in the scope of them being riots, dangerous, anti police and indicative of socialism that should scare people and worry people if Republicans are not kept in control.

Bluestein: That is the common theme throughout the Republican convention, that Republicans are the only party that can restore order from chaos that Republicans say is sweeping the streets of cities. I think residents of some of those cities would be shocked to hear about the dystopian sort of image that Republicans laid out for their hometowns. The smoldering ruins of places like Minneapolis that are you know, just chugging along fine. Or to a degree right I mean, there’s there’s unrest in these places, but city life as we know, it still continues. But this is a message that is aimed right at the conservative base but really at the suburban moderates who might have voted for President Trump holding their nose four years ago because they didn’t like Hillary Clinton, they were traditional republicans, that have since started to flee the party and in surely we saw in 2018 how Atlanta suburbs decisively, most of the inner suburbs at least, flipped blue. So this message was aimed at mobilizing those voters to come back into the Republican fold.

Mitchell: Right. And we have to also remember there’s a racial element. The Republicans are talking to white people, by and large. Because we know black people, by and large are not voting Republican right now. And Latinos, and other persons of color aren’t studied as much. But generally speaking, this tribalism, nationalism that is the law and order message doesn’t necessarily resonate, particularly if a person of color is an immigrant or comes from an immigrant family, because law and order also has shadows of the anti-immigration stance that the Trump administration has had. So, yes, but you’re right, though, and speaking to white people in the suburbs, who we know are more likely to kind of vote who they think will be best for their pocketbooks and their families. What President Trump and Republican leaders are hoping is that those voters will be fearful about losing their way of life. It still is the whole shade of “make America great again.” And what does that mean to defend the suburbs? What is the element that we want to keep out of the suburbs and what’s unsaid is that these dangerous protesters can come and set fire to your house or in it and sometimes it is said just like that. They’ve used images of black and brown people protesting, which we know the protests are pretty multicultural. But there have been images that focus on the fact that there are black and brown people protesting and making it you know, again, those shades of racism.

Bluestein: As we know, suburbs aren’t these homogenous entities they used to be. You look at Gwinnett County in Georgia, Cobb County and to a growing extent, the Dekalb and North Fulton County and these are the areas, parts of these counties at least, are the areas where Democrats are winning state legislative seats. Gwinnett County is one of the most diverse counties in the eastern seaboard. And so that message of fear and concern about outsiders who might come in and rampage through your neighborhoods is being coned increasingly diverse crowd of voters that is hard to kind of pin down. It also dovetails into a second thing, which we’ve talked about this a lot over the last week or so. The only Georgia politician to speak at the Republican National Convention in primetime was not Sen. David Perdue, wasn’t Senator Kelly Loeffler, wasn’t Gov. Brian Kemp. It was Vernon Jones, a Democratic state lawmaker, who’s Black. One of the things we heard him say, he’s been saying this back in Georgia as well, is that Black people should not be beholden to the Democratic Party in any way. But really the tactical purpose of his message is not to try to win over African American voters. But it’s in a way to give permission for white voters to feel better about voting for President Trump.

Mitchell: Right. And that’s a good point a lot. Even when Black people were speaking during the Republican convention, they were by and large speaking, both literally and figuratively to white people. Because again, most Black people are not persuadable on this. But what what they can do by vouching for President Trump is exactly what you said. Give white people cover to say, well, Trump can’t be racist because look at all these Black people who support him and I think one of the things that was really noticeable is the Republican convention organizers did a great job in making sure the speakers were diverse as much as possible. There were several African American male speakers. At least one African American female speaker and some other people of color. The audience, when there were audiences, was not nearly as diverse. And so again, I think the people of color who are watching, they see both. They see that duality of tes, the part that you can produce is your your giving a nod to diversity, but then in the audience of the people who are actually there. Not so much.

Bluestein: Let’s contrast that with the photos at the Democratic Convention, because Vernon Jones, we should remind everyone, he’s a former Dekalb chief executive. He’s a Democrat. But he also has really ticked off his party, not just recently, which he obviously has recently with the endorsement of Trump, but for years, taking controversial stances, bucking his party line, endorsing George W. Bush way back in 2004. All sorts of rifts with his party to the point where he’s been called a traitor, his local party thought about sanctioning him, the DeKalb County Democrats, and he’s become a hero to not all and not maybe even not many, but to a big, big group of Republicans, who see him as someone who’s not afraid to speak truth to his Democratic colleagues. But while he was the Democrat who spoke at the Republican convention, Georgia was firmly in the spotlight over four days at the Democratic Convention.

Mitchell: Right and that was a big surprise for me. We know that Democrats have their eye on Georgia. And then we also know that Georgia, just Atlanta being a big city with a big Black population and a prominent mayor who has been a Biden surrogate from the beginning.

John Lewis had just been funeralized, so there were many ways that we knew Democrats were going to feature Georgia, but I was surprised about how little Georgia was represented in primetime at the Republican convention, because again, if democrats see Georgia as a battleground state, you’ve got to think Republicans see Georgia as a state they want to make sure that they defend and hold up as important. And like you said, two of the most closely watched congressional races are in Georgia, district six and district seven. Those Republican candidates, not only were they not invited to speak, but they were not among the dozens of candidates who were asked to submit videos.

Bluestein: Yeah. You know, it’s a good point because I was with the Republican Party’s local watch party at the Grand Hyatt in Buckhead on Thursday night to watch President Trump’s acceptance speech, and Majorie Taylor Green, the very controversial 14th District nominee accepted an invitation from the president to be there in person. But guess who was back in Atlanta speaking to the crowd, from a hotel ballroom, both Rich McCormick and Karen Handel, two congressional candidates you just talked about. So it kind of made for a weird scene. Let me go back real quick. You’re talking about how important Georgia is and given your back on Florida politics, you know better than pretty much anyone what a must win state Florida is for Republicans. But it is hard to see any path for Trump victory without keeping Georgia in the fold. That’s why you see so much investment from the Trump campaign in Georgia. And even though Biden has not unleashed a huge amount of resources in Georgia, he’s just starting to hire team and air ads and so they’re not ignoring Georgia by any means. But you’re not seeing battleground state money like you see in Pennsylvania or even Ohio to that level in Georgia yet. But Republicans and Republicans have hundreds of field staffers, they’re knocking on doors and doing all the stuff because they can’t afford to lose Georgia. There’s just no way they can win the election (without it). I mean, there is but there’s a very narrow path for them winning this election without keeping Georgia in the red.

Mitchell: I think I’ve said it before even on this podcast. I do think, you know, at this point, we still expect Georgia to be red. Democrats can win. There’s always a chance, Stacey Abrams showed there’s chance, but it’s still, you know, the republicans race to lose. It would be a huge upset for Democrats to win in Georgia, which is unlike Florida, where Democrats have won statewide, as recently as 2018. You know, so it’s different in Georgia because Republicans are in the driver’s seat. To me there. It’s not and I get that maybe Rich McCormick and Karen Handel, they might not have wanted a speaking role at the convention. They are trying to appeal to moderates, but there was no mention of her and Herman Cain. As we know, a lot of the speakers were Trump insiders. Again, going back to those themes they were trying to hammer, and I think the The Democrats were much more like opening up the arms and welcoming, you know, the party as a whole, whereas the Republican theme was, we’re focusing on the Trump administration, and so they weren’t necessarily amenable, for example, to welcoming their party’s most recent nominees, or most recent presidents, not even a mention of their most recent nominees or recent presidents.

Bluestein: I mean, the only living republican former president, George W. Bush was nowhere to be found he would have nothing to do with it, and some of his advisors and allies came out along with some other advisors to former presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former U.S. Sen. John McCain endorsed Joe Biden. On the Democratic side, we saw a sort of showcase of Georgia’s past, present and future Democratic political stars. I mean, the past we had president Jimmy Carter, who couldn’t be there in person. He is 95. So his travel has slowed down a lot lately. But he delivered a videotape statement in support of Joe Biden, who he’s known for decades, as well as a very moving tribute to the late congressman John Lewis, that that the convention devoted a considerable amount of time to.

Mitchell: Not only was there an official tribute, right on the final day that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms played a role in. I first started counting, I lost count of how many times his name was evoked every night by various speakers, including some of the most prominent ones, Michelle Obama, you know. But even in the caucus meetings, the Black Caucus had a meeting during the week, during the daytime that had a tribute to John Lewis, And of course, the Georgia delegation, Nikema Williams was in front of that iconic hero mural. And again, John Lewis’s legacy, what he stood for civil rights, and in particular, voting rights is a big part of the Democrats platform this year. So you know, it wasn’t just that a prominent member of the party had died. It was a prominent member of the party had died, who stood for the very things that so many people were speaking on throughout the week. And it just made it that much easier to kind of reflect on him and honor him. But it was, again, it just sent that message over and over again that like Georgia is on Democrats’ mind.

Bluestein: And another ever present part of the convention was talk of getting a voter plan together. Each state has different voting rules. George is one of those those three weeks of early voting and and more excused absentee ballot, which means you don’t have to have a reason in particular to get an absentee ballot request form. But other states have different rules. And so throughout that convention, we heard Democrats, whether it be Joe Biden on down, say, get a plan, figure out how you’re going to vote, whether it’s going to be in person, if you’re going to do an absentee ballot work that system early because of concerns about postal delays, and really a recognition that the pandemic could be one of the most trying times for local elections officials than we’ve ever seen in the history of the nation.

Mitchell: And I think that’s, that’s the main question going into this election season, which we know will start you know, mid October in Georgia with early voting and absentee ballots will probably be received around that time, if not earlier, but there’s so much uncertainty about the post office and if there really are slowdowns there. You know, the fact that the Postmaster General, of course, accused Democrats of kind of creating a controversy and stirring up controversy where there is none. But it’s the Postmaster General who sent those letters to all the states saying, we might not be able to process your mail-in ballots in time. Warning, you know, heads up. If it’s a controversy, it’s one that the Postmaster General himself was a participant in. And that’s a real question mark. Because if there are races, including the presidential race that are close, then every ballot needs to be counted and the longer that takes, and the more legal challenges and things there are, then the longer it will take to determine a real winner. And the longer it takes to determine a real winner, the more room there will be for people to question the outcome of the race and that’s something real that we know that happened, particularly if Donald Trump does not prevail.

Bluestein: And look, we sat we sat questions about the accuracy of Georgia’s vote in 2018 when Stacey Abrams, as is her right, called for every absentee ballot, every provisional ballot to be counted until she made her decision whether or not to contest the election. And as we both remember there was about 10 days of this kind of weird purgatory before she quit the race but did not concede, but it’s not going to be some tidy thing that we probably know around 2 a.m. or earlier, like in years past. This could go on for days, weeks, and, and you’re right and question the very integrity of our system.

Mitchell: The difference is Stacey Abrams stopped contesting the outcome of the race, but she never conceded. The difference is if Donald Trump decides he does not like the outcome of the race, what happens if he refuses to concede? What happens if he says he’s not vacating the White House? Yep. And I know there are people who will say, Well, he wouldn’t do that, you guys are just, you know, being alarmist. Are we really, knowing that he’s been very unpredictable in the past and he is not committed to accepting the outcome of the race. He has not committed to that, he has been asked. And he has said, well, we’ll have to see how things go.

Bluestein: Yeah, I keep going back to 2016 when he won. He still said there were millions of fraudulent ballots with no evidence, a baseless claim. That millions of fraudulent ballots that would have gone or that went to Hillary Clinton were a result of voter fraud. And so that was when he won. So you’re exactly right. If he loses, then imagine what could happen and that this is what this is about. This is why Democrats are saying at this moment, make it a rout. That’s one of the other message we heard from the convention was, Democrats need to get out with force to make sure that if President Trump loses, there’s no questioning the outcome. And of course, Republicans are saying the same thing. Show these pollsters show these pundits, show these Democrats that they’re wrong about this race that is not nearly as close because they have a point too. In 2016, we weren’t talking about Pennsylvania, It was a close state, but most prognosticators not Pennsylvania was gonna go pretty solidly blue. Few people had the map that drew President Trump winning, of Wisconsin, of Michigan, Pennsylvania, of course, of Ohio.

Republicans see sort of a replay of that. Now the polls are showing Trump with a bigger deficit than he faced against Hillary Clinton, a bigger battleground deficit and the bigger just national deficit. But we’ve got about 60 days left and a lot can happen.

Mitchell: Right. And and that’s the other thing is we don’t know what kind of bounce the president will get after this convention. We don’t know, as unrest continues in many cities, and there was even recent protests in Atlanta that there was some vandalism of a police precinct. You know, Republicans think, and some Democrats think that that’s turning off people who might support the Democratic ticket, that people are getting weary of the protests and and wary of some of the physical damage and may ring out even though I am not necessarily seeing that with the regular people that I interact with. But, I do also listen. There was recently the protests in Kenosha where a guy who was trying to be a vigilante to “back to blue,” kill two people who were just exercising their first amendment right, whether you agree with how they exercise their first amendment right, most people believe that protesting is a First Amendment. And so they were killed. Back in June, when George Floyd was killed and the protests first began, public sentiment began to shift in support of the protests. If that happens, another wave of that, that will not help President Trump.

Bluestein: Images of violence. And by the way, these are, these are not the protesters. The vast majority, overwhelming majority of protesters aren’t supporting the violence that sometimes these these these, these protests kind of devolve into, but Republicans are using every incident they can of violence in streets and images of fires and looting and whatever, you know, all these things that the protesters themselves say have been hijacked, their movements have been hijacked by some of these groups, and so this will continue to play into their argument that there needs to be a restoration of law and order, and the like. And what’s been one of the interesting things that has come out of this argument is that President Trump’s speech to me, his acceptance speech sent the message that Joe Biden’s presidency would lead to a further decay of law and order in the cities. But what it sort of ignores is he’s the one in charge now. And it’s happening. So that’s the fundamental sort of hedge that I keep on hearing in all speeches. He’s not an insurgent candidate. He’s the incumbent, but he’s trying to play it as both.

Mitchell: Right. And that’s why, you know, there’s a little bit of mental gymnastics required because he’s blaming the mayors, if the city has a Democratic mayor, he’s blaming the governors, if the state has a Democratic governor, but for example, in Atlanta, he blames Mayor Bottoms, not Gov. Kemp. But then again, he doesn’t take any responsibility himself. And the other thing is the places where he has said what he’ll do, sometimes they’re not. He said, I’m gonna send the National Guard to do this, that and the other. Sometimes that has not played out well, either particularly in Portland.

Bluestein: Yeah, you’re exactly right. Well, we’ll wrap this double bonus convention episode. But really it’s so much more to cover over the next couple months. And of course don’t forget the election season even if it even if it drags on past November 3, we’re far from over here in Georgia. People think that you know we go on vacation or something after the election, our work only is beginning because we’ll also, I’m sure, have a January run off in the U.S. senate and we’ll have plenty of coverage to go with a new legislative session. So much work to be done. It’s overwhelming, but Tia will be all over it. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mitchell: Thank you for having me.

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