Georgia voters get used to new reality: Battleground status

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's visit to Georgia this past week is the surest of signs that the state is an election battleground this year. ALYSSA POINTER / THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's visit to Georgia this past week is the surest of signs that the state is an election battleground this year. ALYSSA POINTER / THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

MANCHESTER — On the eve of Joe Biden’s visit to west Georgia, local Republicans put out the word about a boisterous rally at an abandoned textile mill to counter the Democratic nominee. Dozens heeded the call, waving pro-Trump flags against the towering brick facade.

Several top officials each downplayed Biden’s chances and promised President Donald Trump would score a resounding victory. Joseph Brannan, who arrived early to help stage the event, took a slightly different viewpoint.

“We’re not coasting anymore,” said Brannan, a Columbus-area Republican activist. “But that means there’s even more reason for us to show up.”

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Though polls showed tight races in past elections, it took Stacey Abrams' near miss in the 2018 race for governor to cement Georgia as a hypercompetitive state worthy of the national attention and resources that go along with battleground status. Voters need look no further than the glut of advertisements, or string of late big-name visits, for proof.

Gov. Brian Kemp now routinely refers to Georgia as a “battleground.” Trump rallied here just two weeks ago and is set to return Sunday. So is Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, followed by a Monday visit from former President Barack Obama.

As he surveyed an Atlanta parking lot crammed with supporters, even Biden marveled that the race was close enough to merit his visit last week.

On the cusp of Election Day in a presidential race, Georgia’s no afterthought like it was four years ago or four years before that or four years before that. It’s smack in the middle of the searing spotlight — and with the prospect of at least one U.S. Senate runoff, it will be at the center of the political universe through the year’s end.

Biden and Trump are neck and neck in polls, and races for both U.S. Senate seats are up for grabs. More than $200 million has been spent on TV ads in those contests — and there’s more spending to come.

The attention has translated into unprecedented voter participation. Despite the still-raging pandemic — or perhaps because of it — turnout has skyrocketed. More than 3.9 million Georgians have already cast ballots, an early-vote total that rivals Georgia’s overall turnout record of 4.1 million.

“People are ready for change,” said Madeline Dobkin, who joined a group of friends at a rally this week for Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff in Athens. “The country right now — in my lifetime — I’ve never seen anything like it. I think people are realizing that our leadership is not sufficient.”

Even as Trump and other GOP officials take Biden’s threat seriously, many grassroots conservatives dismiss talk of close polls — eager to point out past elections that showed razor-thin polls only to yield solid Republican victories.

President Donald Trump, shown speaking earlier this month at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, will return to Georgia for one last rally before Election Day in a state crucial to his reelection.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
President Donald Trump, shown speaking earlier this month at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, will return to Georgia for one last rally before Election Day in a state crucial to his reelection. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

“I’m so confident Trump will pull this out,” Samira Dean, an entrepreneur, said after a pro-Trump meetup in Morrow where she heard U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue mock polls that showed him headed for resounding defeat in the 2002 governor’s race.

“We’d better get Joe Biden’s retirement party ready," Dean said. "Georgia is a conservative state — I believe that to my core.”

‘Win this war’

Much is at stake, starting at the top of the ticket. A victory for Biden in Georgia would give Democrats bragging rights, but even if he loses the state, he still has multiple paths to the presidency.

But if Trump loses the state, it dramatically narrows — possibly dooms — his reelection chances. His strategy hinges on winning Georgia’s 16 electoral votes, and his campaign has enthusiastically invited Biden to pump money into a state Democrats last carried in 1992.

“Georgia is a battleground state, but we’re going to do whatever it takes to win this war,” Kemp told voters in Manchester, blaming GOP complacency for his narrow victory in 2018. “People think, ‘There’s no way.’ But there is a way. If we grow tired and weary, we can lose.”

During a GOP rally in Manchester meant to counter Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's visit the same day in nearby Warm Springs, Gov. Brian Kemp said, “Georgia is a battleground state, but we’re going to do whatever it takes to win this war.”
During a GOP rally in Manchester meant to counter Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's visit the same day in nearby Warm Springs, Gov. Brian Kemp said, “Georgia is a battleground state, but we’re going to do whatever it takes to win this war.”

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Just as pivotal will be the battles for Georgia’s two Senate races. Both contests could determine control of the U.S. Senate — and both could end in Jan. 5 runoffs between the two top finishers.

That’s a near certainty in the crowded and chaotic race for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat, with 20 candidates sharing the same free-for-all ballot. Georgia law requires a majority of the vote to win outright, and few polls have the contenders nearing the 50% mark.

Democrat Raphael Warnock has emerged as the clear front-runner, thanks to a well-financed campaign that has the support of national and state Democratic leaders. He’s also benefited from infighting between Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, two Republicans in a brutal race for the No. 2 spot.

No matter which Republican rises, overtime in that race is going to be a grueling nine-week affair.

Georgia's spot in the national spotlight this campaign season goes beyond its toss-up status in the presidential race. There are two U.S. Senate contests, including a special election that has seen brutal infighting between two high-profile Republicans in a free-for-all special election: U.S. Rep. Doug Collins and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler. They're now battling it out for what will likely be the No. 2 spot in Tuesday's vote, likely enough to qualify for a place in a Jan. 5 runoff against Democrat Raphael Warnock. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)
Georgia's spot in the national spotlight this campaign season goes beyond its toss-up status in the presidential race. There are two U.S. Senate contests, including a special election that has seen brutal infighting between two high-profile Republicans in a free-for-all special election: U.S. Rep. Doug Collins and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler. They're now battling it out for what will likely be the No. 2 spot in Tuesday's vote, likely enough to qualify for a place in a Jan. 5 runoff against Democrat Raphael Warnock. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)

Credit: Wire

Credit: Wire

Also hanging in the balance is the contest between Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff, a former investigative journalist and congressional aide who burst onto the political scene in 2017 with his narrow defeat in a nationally watched congressional race.

Polls show that race is too close to call, with margins so tight that even the slimmest of support for Libertarian Shane Hazel could force the race into a runoff. That sets up the possibility of twin Senate contests through the holiday season.

“In addition to the presidency, control of the Senate could very well get decided by Georgia voters,” said Glen Smith, a University of North Georgia political scientist.

“One thing is for sure: If Democrats win even one of the Georgia seats, they are almost certain to control the U.S. Senate next year,” Smith said.

‘Tipping point'

Other important decisions loom. Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath aims to stave off a comeback attempt from her Republican predecessor Karen Handel. And Republican Rich McCormick is dueling with Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux over a GOP-controlled district based in Gwinnett County that was the tightest U.S. House election in the nation two years ago.

State legislative races take on outsized importance as Democrats battle to flip control of the Georgia House — and give themselves a say over the redrawing of political maps that follows every U.S. census.

From the top down, candidates are spending the closing days of the race mostly preaching to the converted rather than the conflicted.

After his speech in Warm Springs, Biden revved up hundreds of hardcore Democrats at a drive-in rally in an Atlanta parking lot. Trump’s last rally in Georgia brought him to an airport near Macon, where thousands of mostly rural white conservatives cheered him on.

“The time for persuasion is over,” said Sonny Perdue, a former two-term governor. “People have already made up their minds. We need to get out now and get our folks out.”

When Warnock’s bus rumbled up to a park pavilion a few days ago in Carrollton, more than 150 people awaited his arrival, stretched out among picnic tables and lawn chairs for a glimpse of the Senate candidate they knew largely from his TV ads.

Kemp won 70% of the surrounding Carroll County in 2018, but Warnock’s strategy involves undercutting the GOP’s margins in rural areas by squeezing out more Democratic turnout in sometimes overlooked places.

“It’s finally starting to shift here,” said Dr. Bernice Brooks, among the Democrats who waited in a lengthy line after Warnock’s event for a selfie. “The Democratic Party is activated. People are waking up. They know it’s not just about the presidential election but local races.”

Voters might as well get used to the newfound attention. Abrams, who has long maintained that the state is more competitive than it seems, said Democrats fought hard to ensure Georgia has earned its place among battleground states.

“Demographic changes are both fast and slow. They happen over time, but their impact can sometimes seem immediate when they hit a tipping point,” Abrams said. “We’ve hit the tipping point."

Staff writer Patricia Murphy contributed to this article.

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