Inside Trump’s Georgia ground game operation

Two years ago, Republican Brian Kemp narrowly won the race for governor with the help of a stealthy canvassing initiative aimed at supporters of President Donald Trump dubbed “Operation Red Wall.”

The program mobilized Trump voters in deep-red rural counties who typically skip midterm elections, and it ultimately knocked on more than 120,000 doors to help Republicans counter Democrat Stacey Abrams’ drive for new left-leaning voters.

As Trump prepares to face the voters in November, his Georgia campaign operation is expanding those on-the-ground efforts. Republican presidential candidates have carried Georgia in every vote since 1996, and a defeat here to Joe Biden could be fatal to Trump’s re-election chances.

The Republican’s Georgia campaign boasts more than 100 staffers and thousands of other volunteers who have hosted 1,000 events and knocked on a quarter-million doors.

Staffers and supporters have logged more than 4 million voter contacts this year — including calls, texts and in-person appeals — nearly doubling the total for all of 2016.

ExploreWhy Georgia is no longer safe Republican territory for Donald Trump

“Overall, it’s very much the same program that Gov. Kemp used — with a few more bells and whistles,” said Billy Kirkland, a Trump senior adviser.

At the heart of that outreach is an expanded effort promoting absentee ballots during the pandemic.

Georgia Democrats outvoted Republicans during the state’s June primary, smashing turnout records that party leaders trumpeted as a sign of unrivaled enthusiasm.

But Republicans took solace that they overperformed Democrats among voters age 65 and older — a key voting bloc that Trump must win to carry Georgia. The Republican’s campaign also said it gained more traction among lower-propensity voters who often bypass primaries.

The Trump campaign’s absentee ballot push will factor heavily into a presidential race shaped by the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike the June primary, state election officials will not send absentee ballot request forms to every active registered Georgia voter.

Instead, absentee ballots will be sent to a smaller group of voters who checked a box on their forms before the primary. Georgia law allows older, disabled, overseas and military voters to automatically receive absentee ballots after making a request. All other Georgia voters can also use absentee ballots, but they must request them for each election.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Ahead of the Aug. 11 primary runoff, more Republicans than Democratic voters are being sent absentee ballots without having to request them again. That’s because the state’s automatic ballot list is primarily used by voters over 65, a group that tends to vote Republican.

‘The long game'

Trump’s campaign has assigned staffers with its “absentee push and chase” program to encourage likely supporters to request the mail-in ballots and then follows up with each to ensure they’ve sent them in.

Once absentee voters can be crossed off a campaign’s target list, operatives can shift their focus to likely supporters who haven’t yet cast ballots or pursue undecided voters.

“We’ve played the long game here,” said Savannah Viar, Trump’s Georgia spokeswoman.

It’s a typical campaign strategy that helps free up resources in the closing weeks of a campaign, and Democrats are pursuing the same approach.

Polls show a tight race for president in Georgia, forcing Trump to start airing ads in the state over the summer. And Republican-aligned groups are pouring more than $21 million into TV campaigns backing GOP candidates for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats on the ballot.

Biden’s campaign still has little organizational footprint in Georgia, instead relying on the state Democratic Party and surrogates to promote his campaign and drive outreach efforts. And the Democratic National Committee lists the state among its top “battleground” targets, paving the way for a cash infusion.

Meanwhile, the state party shifted its organizing apparatus to focus on vote-by-mail, resulting in more than 1.6 million voter contacts revolving around absentee ballots this year.

“Georgia Democrats have an established voter protection and organizing infrastructure that, when the pandemic hit, was able to successfully pivot to center safe voting options,” said Saira Amir Draper, the party’s director of voter protection.

Cassidy Geoghegan of the Democratic National Committee said Georgia has become a “serious defensive liability” for Republicans and that “Trump is only making things worse for his party by turning off his own voters to using vote by mail.”

The Trump campaign’s vigorous pursuit of absentee ballots underscores an uncomfortable dynamic.

The president has frequently — and inaccurately — claimed that mail-in voting leads to widespread voter fraud even as absentee ballots have become a crucial pillar of modern-day politicking.

Some Georgia Republicans privately worry his attacks will undo years of work by his campaign to encourage more voters to cast ballots by mail. His advisers, however, downplay that possibility.

“It’s one reason why the Trump victory team is so heavily invested in the ground game,” Kirkland said. “We want to make sure whether it’s early votes, in-person or absentee ballots, they’re counted.”