Low turnout, high stakes: What to watch in Tuesday’s Georgia runoffs

Trucking company owner Mike Collins, left, and former state Rep. Vernon Jones participate in the Atlanta Press Club debate ahead of the Republican runoff in Georgia's 10th Congressional District. Screenshot of Georgia Public Broadcasting livestream.

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Trucking company owner Mike Collins, left, and former state Rep. Vernon Jones participate in the Atlanta Press Club debate ahead of the Republican runoff in Georgia's 10th Congressional District. Screenshot of Georgia Public Broadcasting livestream.

The Georgia runoffs Tuesday won’t feature a marquee matchup for governor or the U.S. Senate. But they will set the stage for important down-ballot races for statewide offices and U.S. House seats.

Donald Trump’s influence will be put to the test again in two Republican-leaning congressional seats on the outskirts of Atlanta, as a pair of candidates backed by the former president face well-known front-runners who also cater to the pro-Trump crowd.

Stacey Abrams’ clout will be on the line in a trio of statewide races. She’s endorsed candidates for lieutenant governor, secretary of state and labor commissioner — each a volatile contest where her pick faces uncertain odds.

Also on the line is the GOP runoff to face U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Democrat who has represented a southwest Georgia district for three decades. After slightly redrawing the district’s boundaries, Republicans are angling to end his career.

And 11 state legislative races are on the runoff ballot, with two incumbents fighting to stay in office: state Rep. Sheri Gilligan, a Republican who is often at odds with GOP leadership, and Democratic state Rep. Roger Bruce.

Here’s what to watch:

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Republican Gov. Brian P. Kemp is again at odds with former President Donald Trump. Kemp recently endorsed Mike Collins in the 10th Congressional District GOP runoff over former state Rep. Vernon Jones, whom Trump has backed. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Republican Gov. Brian P. Kemp is again at odds with former President Donald Trump. Kemp recently endorsed Mike Collins in the 10th Congressional District GOP runoff over former state Rep. Vernon Jones, whom Trump has backed. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Republican Gov. Brian P. Kemp is again at odds with former President Donald Trump. Kemp recently endorsed Mike Collins in the 10th Congressional District GOP runoff over former state Rep. Vernon Jones, whom Trump has backed. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Trump vs. Kemp. After trouncing his Trump-backed rival in May’s primary, Gov. Brian Kemp’s standing in Georgia’s Republican circles may never be higher. And he’s using his political capital to avenge an old score by endorsing Mike Collins over Vernon Jones in the 10th Congressional District race.

Jones, a former Democrat, launched a short-lived primary challenge against Kemp last year, claiming the governor was a phony Republican who failed to help Trump reverse his election defeat.

But Jones was forced to abandon his bid for governor shortly after former U.S. Sen. David Perdue entered the contest with Trump’s blessing. Jones got the consolation prize, winning Trump’s endorsement for the open congressional seat.

That perturbed many grassroots Republicans in the mostly rural northeast Georgia district. They’ve lined up behind Collins, a trucking executive whose father once represented the region in the U.S. House. Kemp added his name to the list last week, calling Collins a “trusted conservative.”

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Former Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones, after switching parties, entered the GOP primary to unseat Gov. Brian Kemp. But he then moved into the 10th Congressional District race at the urging of former President Donald Trump, who was backing former U.S. Sen. David Perdue in the governor's race. Jones is running in Tuesday's GOP runoff against Mike Collins. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Former Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones, after switching parties, entered the GOP primary to unseat Gov. Brian Kemp. But he then moved into the 10th Congressional District race at the urging of former President Donald Trump, who was backing former U.S. Sen. David Perdue in the governor's race. Jones is running in Tuesday's GOP runoff against Mike Collins. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

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Former Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones, after switching parties, entered the GOP primary to unseat Gov. Brian Kemp. But he then moved into the 10th Congressional District race at the urging of former President Donald Trump, who was backing former U.S. Sen. David Perdue in the governor's race. Jones is running in Tuesday's GOP runoff against Mike Collins. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Trump’s brand is also in the crosshairs in the 6th Congressional District, which once was a stretch of close-in suburbs now redrawn to reach into the North Georgia mountains.

He’s supporting attorney Jake Evans — the son of a close ally — over Dr. Rich McCormick, who still retains high name recognition after finishing as the runner-up in a neighboring district in 2020.

A third closely watched Republican runoff involves a clash between attorney Chris West and veteran Jeremy Hunt for the 2nd Congressional District in southwest Georgia. The victor in that race faces an uphill battle against Bishop in November.

No matter who wins the GOP runoffs, each candidate has embraced a similar set of values. All frequently praise Trump, staunchly oppose abortion, support expanding access to guns and back cultural issues aimed at exciting conservatives.

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has taken the rare step of endorsing three candidates in the party's down-ticket runoffs. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has taken the rare step of endorsing three candidates in the party's down-ticket runoffs. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has taken the rare step of endorsing three candidates in the party's down-ticket runoffs. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Stacey Abrams’ clout. The Democratic nominee for governor took the unusual step of endorsing candidates in three unpredictable statewide runoffs.

She’s backing state Rep. Bee Nguyen for secretary of state, Charlie Bailey for lieutenant governor and state Rep. William Boddie for labor commissioner. Her campaign has unleashed fundraising appeals, radio ads and media statements promoting the endorsements.

Abrams didn’t wade into a fourth race, the matchup for insurance commissioner between Janice Laws Robinson, the party’s 2018 nominee, and insurance salesman Raphael Baker.

By taking sides in the trio of contests, Abrams risks landing on the November ballot with a fellow Democrat she actively opposed. But she believes the reward is worth the gamble for a chance to shape the ticket running with her in November.

She has deep ties to Nguyen, who represents the Atlanta-based Georgia House district that Abrams once did. And Democrats hope Bailey, a former anti-gang prosecutor, helps inoculate them from soft-on-crime attacks that Republicans are certain to ramp up.

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Former state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, left, and state Rep. Bee Nguyen face each other in Tuesday's Democratic runoff for secretary of state. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Former state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, left, and state Rep. Bee Nguyen face each other in Tuesday's Democratic runoff for secretary of state. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

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Former state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, left, and state Rep. Bee Nguyen face each other in Tuesday's Democratic runoff for secretary of state. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Black voting power. Black voters make up the backbone of the state Democratic Party and routinely form a majority of the primary electorate. Some party figures are pushing to nominate more Black candidates to motivate the party’s base.

Former state Sen. Floyd Griffin, who lost his bid for secretary of state, is among Democrats pushing a “Georgia Black Slate” that includes former state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler for secretary of state, Kwanza Hall for lieutenant governor and Boddie.

Dawkins-Haigler, in particular, is centering her campaign on Black voters by presenting herself as an experienced champion for people of color who she said have been threatened with disenfranchisement by GOP policies.

Their opponents highlight their own backgrounds. Nguyen would be the first Asian American elected to a statewide executive post in Georgia history. And Bailey would be the only white male on the party’s ticket and one of the only Democratic nominees with rural roots.

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Democrats Charlie Bailey, left, and Kwanza Hall are competing in the party's runoff Tuesday for lieutenant governor. Submitted photos.

Credit: Maya T. Prabhu

Democrats Charlie Bailey, left, and Kwanza Hall are competing in the party's runoff Tuesday for lieutenant governor. Submitted photos.

Credit: Maya T. Prabhu

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Democrats Charlie Bailey, left, and Kwanza Hall are competing in the party's runoff Tuesday for lieutenant governor. Submitted photos.

Credit: Maya T. Prabhu

Credit: Maya T. Prabhu

Turnout. In runoffs with such low voter participation, the campaigns rely more on get-out-the-vote efforts than courting undecided voters. These races will put those mobilization efforts to the test.

Some candidates have attended every forum they can to reach as many voters as possible. Others have taken an arms-length approach to campaigning, content that enough of their core supporters will show up with the right prodding.

With no statewide GOP race on the ballot, Republicans are waging increasingly ugly contests to motivate their supporters — and depress their rivals’ turnout. The race between Collins and Jones, for instance, has featured rape whistles and misleading robocalls in the final stretch.

The candidates are pursuing a small slice of the electorate. State election data shows that roughly 167,000 ballots have been cast, a steep decline from the record 795,000 people who cast ballots in advance of last month’s primary.

More voters have cast Democratic ballots so far than Republican ballots. With runoffs in several statewide races, Democratic voters accounted for about 61% of early turnout in the runoffs after Republican voters dominated the primary last month.