How voters in Georgia’s most competitive county see the runoff

MILLEDGEVILLE — What does it mean to be the swingiest county in Georgia?

(Don’t snicker.)

It means its residents are nearly evenly split politically — an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. It means they historically have had tight contests. It means that no wave, neither blue nor red, will sweep bums out of office or usher new ones in.

It means Baldwin County, where the gap between blue and red is as thin as a paper cut.

Some context is in order. Statewide, the race between Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker was a squeaker. Out of more than 3.9 million votes cast, the difference between the candidates totaled 37,675.

In Baldwin, a two-hour drive southeast of Atlanta, the vote difference: 89.

Eighty-nine votes, 89 voters. That’s not enough people to fill two MARTA train cars.

That brings us to six of those 89. Like the county itself, they are split — three Democrats, an equal number of Republicans. They cite different reasons for their support of one candidate over the other — national security, voting rights, their guy is a good guy.

They all share one conviction: This Tuesday’s runoff is important.

Credit: Mark Davis

Credit: Mark Davis

‘Incredible asset’

Joannah Hollis’ marriage was over, and she was having second thoughts about her career selling commercial real estate.

If I get complacent, she thought to herself, I’ll stay where I am.

Hollis returned to the city where she has lived since enrolling at and graduating from Georgia College & State University. She divested herself of the job that had served her so well for more than a decade. Semi-retired, Hollis began assessing where she was, where she wanted to be.

Maybe it was time to get more involved in public life? To try and improve life for Georgians not as fortunate as she?

Last week, as Georgians across the state voted early in the Senate runoff, Hollis took her place in line at the Baldwin County Government Center. When her turn came, Hollis didn’t hesitate. She voted for Walker.

For Hollis, 39, her support underscores a conservative upbringing in Warner Robins. When her parents went to vote, young Joannah came along.

“The Republican ideals just made more sense to me,” Hollis said.

Hollis is pro-business. She supports fewer governmental controls. Fiscally conservative policies are best for this nation, she thinks. To her, a vote for Walker is a vote for the nation’s well-being.

She’s also aware that abortion is an issue that has helped define the election as well as the runoff. “That is such a personal issue,” Hollis said. She declined to elaborate.

“I wish we could just focus more on what government does … that will affect every person on a daily basis.”

She’s read the stories. She’s seen the news. Walker, Hollis knows, is far from perfect. But that’s OK.

“I’d rather take someone who is a redeemed sinner, is self-aware, who is willing to admit” mistakes in life, Hollis said. She’s seen Walker up close in his campaign. “He is one of the most kind, gentle giants I have ever seen.”

The nation would be well-served with a Sen. Walker, Hollis said. “I think Herschel would be an incredible asset for Georgia,” she said. “I hope we can get him in there.”

Credit: Statesoro Herald

Credit: Statesoro Herald

‘Proud to say it’

Clarence Hall was 3 when Congress passed a piece of legislation that has loomed throughout his life.

“We’re not that removed from the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Hall said recently. He leaned into a pearlescent white fender of a Cadillac parked outside his Grateful Detail Shop.

Hall, 60, has pretty much always been active in politics, at least since he was old enough to pay attention. “I am proud to say it: I’m a Democrat.”

And more. He’s vice president of the local NAACP chapter and a former steward (deacon) at Flipper Chapel AME Church. Hall also is tireless in urging people to vote.

Credit: handout

Credit: handout

Everyone in his family, he added, is registered to vote. That’s himself, wife Veronica, three children and four grandchildren. That makes him smile.

How’d he get them all registered? “It’s like pulling a tooth,” he said. “You just keep pulling, pulling, until it comes out.”

He thinks the Democratic Party has helped African Americans achieve progress. “It’s been like molasses moving in winter. But we’re moving.”

Asked to characterize Warnock in one word, Hall didn’t hesitate. “Integrity,” he said. “He is a righteous man.”

And Walker? “It’s not what he can do for the (Republican) Party,” Hall said. “It’s what the Republican Party is going to do to him.”

Hall stepped back and admired the Caddy’s fender. It sparkled.

‘We’re all flawed’

When Mary Nevins talks about Democrats, you can almost hear the sigh in her voice.

“Democrats, in general, have lost their common sense,” Nevins said.

What kind of party supports a ban on domestic oil drilling but is OK with purchasing foreign oil? That appears unconcerned with border security?

And abortion? Nevins feels that the incumbent’s position on abortion is too extreme. “Unfettered,” she said. “I just can’t go there.”

Credit: handout

Credit: handout

Nevins, 72, is a relative newcomer to Baldwin County. She and her 75-year-old husband, Bill, moved to Milledgeville in 2017. For Mary Nevins, the move capped a 28-year life in Fulton County. Now, they live near a son and grandchildren.

Since moving, the Nevinses have become involved in Baldwin County GOP activities.

On Tuesday, she and her husband plan to vote for Walker — again.

A vote for Walker, she said, is a vote for common sense — for U.S oil drilling, for better border security, some reasonable restrictions on abortion.

Walker is not perfect, Nevins said. She voted for former Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black in his failed run for the Senate GOP nomination; in that race, Walker breezed past Black and other hopefuls.

“I know he’s flawed,” Nevins said. “We’re all flawed characters.”

And there are those commercials. The Warnock ads she’s seen on TV get under her skin.

“They’re so slick. I think Hollywood is making them,” she said. “I think the commercial is not what we’re getting.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

‘Last thing we need’

Quentin T. Howell likens the runoff to professional wrestling — or, to the cognoscenti, “wrasslin’.”

In one corner is Dusty Rhodes, “The American Dream.” Opposite him is “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, who may be as well known for his signature whoop — Wooo! — as his 16 world championships.

Howell, a lifetime wrasslin’ fan, is a Rhodes guy. Rhodes, who died in 2015, was dependable, Howell said. He went about throwing opponents to the mat the same way Howell’s working-class family went about the business of life — with resolve to get the job done.

Flair? “He hoots,” Howell said.

That, Howell said, is the crux of the Warnock-Walker bout — er, runoff. Warnock has proved himself an adept participant in the sport of legislation, Howell said. Walker has merely generated noise.

Credit: handout

Credit: handout

Howell, 45, is a busy man. He and his wife, Latonya, own a medical-supply company. Each is active in an array of Democratic organizations. Sunday nights, people who tune in to WVKZ, the Christian station Love 103.7, will hear Howell hosting a weekly talk show.

This year, he has voiced support for the blue ticket, up and down the ballot — perhaps none more so than Warnock. Recently, standing in a Milledgeville parking lot filled with Warnock supporters, he urged folks to send the pastor back to Washington.

Walker, he warned, “will do what Donald Trump tells him to do.”

“The last thing we need is someone who will get told what to do,” Howell said.

All Walker has, Howell said, is “a huge name in football.”

Howell is not a real big football fan. But put two big men in a ring?

He’ll cheer for the guy on the left.

‘My favorite place’

It is a good thing to serve. That sentiment has driven Henry Craig for most of his 75 years. He devoted two decades to the U.S. Army, flying over a contested piece of turf called Vietnam. Then he worked 20 more years for Continental Airlines.

After 40 years of work, Craig looked homeward — home, to Milledgeville, where a long-ago Baldwin County boy worked with his dad at Central Hospital, at one time the nation’s largest mental care facility; where he attended high school and junior college before joining the Army; and where he met Celia, now his wife. Married 54 years, they have two children, four grandchildren and a great-grandchild who should make his debut early next year.

“This little part of the world is my favorite place,” said Craig, chair of the Baldwin County Commission. “I think it has a lot of potential.”

That’s why he supports Walker. Craig thinks a strong Republican presence in the Senate — a 50-50 split among parties — will promote cooperation across the political aisle. That would mean better national security, tighter national borders and a healthier economy.

The Democrats, he said, have failed in all three areas.

Credit: Mark Davis

Credit: Mark Davis

He and Celia recently went to Europe for a two-week jaunt that included stops in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and France. They rented a car. Fueling up, Craig noticed that gas in Europe had gone up about 20% — far less than the amount fuel prices had spiked in the United States.

And this: “Everywhere I went, I never saw any ‘Help Wanted’ signs,” he said. “I looked, too.”

His takeaway: The United States, under a Democratic administration, was not keeping pace with some other parts of the world. He still thinks that is the case, and that is why he wants a 50-50 Senate.

That means a vote for Walker.

A ‘better world’

Credit the kid with getting Melissa Smith involved in Democratic politics. When Everett Smith was born, 11 years ago, his mother took a good look at the world around her. Her baby, she knew, one day would be an inheritor of the planet.

“I realized he needed a better world,” Smith said.

The Georgia native vowed to make a small part of it better. Smith joined the Water Supply Board of Hingham, Massachusetts, where she and her husband, Ben, lived. She enrolled and graduated from the local Citizens Police Academy. The mom became active in Scouting.

She also helped Democratic candidates run in Massachusetts and has done the same since moving back to Georgia during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think we have a duty to each other,” the 47-year-old said. “Government is the best way to do that.”

Warnock, she said, embodies her belief.

“He reminds us of our collective duty to look after each other,” she said. “We are all made better by having him as a leader.”

Everett, whose birth pushed her into activism, is now a sixth-grader. Smith likes to think this world has gotten a bit better since his birth.

Come runoff day, Smith said, she’ll try to make it an even more promising place for a boy. She’ll vote for Warnock.

Credit: Mark Davis

Credit: Mark Davis