Republicans focus on GOP heartland in final spurt of runoff races

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Republicans are ending the high-stakes runoffs for control of the U.S. Senate much the same way they finished the general election campaign: with a relentless focus on the exurbs and small towns where they hope to counteract Democratic gains in metro Atlanta.

U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are fanning out to campaign stops in the exurbs of Woodstock and Cumming, and small towns such as Sandersville, Milledgeville and Greensboro, in search of Republicans who backed President Donald Trump but still haven’t joined the more than 2.3 million voters who have cast early ballots.

While Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock spend the closing stretch in heavily-Democratic metro Atlanta and mid-size urban areas, seeking to energize their core supporters, the Republicans are taking their campaigns to areas where they hope to drive up turnout among a largely white GOP base.

The November vote between Trump and President-elect Joe Biden offers a guidepost for the path the rival tickets are taking. Metro Atlanta turned a deeper shade of blue, with Biden netting about 575,000 votes over Trump across Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton counties, and gained another roughly 200,000 votes in the inner suburbs circling the city.

But across north Georgia, a stretch of dozens of counties from the Alabama border to South Carolina that includes Atlanta’s northern exurbs, Trump outdid Biden by roughly 440,000 votes, tallying 80% or higher in many counties. If there’s a linchpin to this territory, it might be Cherokee County.

The county — a mix of outer suburbs and exurbs — gave Trump and Perdue nearly 100,000 votes in November, making it the most important Republican stronghold in Georgia. The GOP vote total in Cherokee trailed only three far more populous — and solidly-Democratic — metro Atlanta counties.

“Everyone knows if you’re not going to get out every Republican vote you can here, you’re not going to win,” said Cherokee County GOP Chairman Kerry Luedke. “If you can’t do that, you’re not going to offset the Democratic vote in Atlanta.”

A surprising battleground

And yet Cherokee County also highlights the GOP challenges. Cherokee’s early vote turnout is among the lowest in the state. And even though Trump garnered about 20,000 more votes in Cherokee than he did in 2016, a surprising Democratic showing ate into his margins.

Trump won about two-thirds of the county’s vote in November, down from the 71% he tallied four years ago. Democrats captured about 42,000 votes in the county — almost the same number as they tallied in Macon’s Bibb County, a left-leaning area.

That’s partly because of voters such as Ray Blount, who talks of his love for the late Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee in 2008, but sided with Democrats in the presidential race this year.

“I am just not sure what the Republican Party stands for right now,” said Blount, who lives in Woodstock. “Free trade or tariffs? A balanced budget or deficit spending? Rule of law or just winning at all costs? If I vote Republican, which will show up in Congress in February?”

The Republicans are trying to shore up that support. The first joint event with Loeffler and Perdue was held at a restaurant in Forsyth, the second-most populous Republican-leaning county. And earlier this week, Loeffler made a beeline for Woodstock, stumping for Cherokee County voters in a downtown that combines condo towers with antique shops.

Among the crowd was Richard Jackson, who had already voted for the Republicans when he went to get a picture with Loeffler on Tuesday at the gazebo in downtown Woodstock.

“I’m not a fan of the Democratic policies, so I don’t want to see two more Democrats get in there and slant everything in that direction,” he said. “If Loeffler and Perdue lose, and then you pretty much have no balance. Government already has issues. We don’t need to get any more unbalanced.”

Still, Jackson said, he knows the same changes that turned neighboring Cobb County into a newfound Democratic stronghold could be creeping toward the exurbs.

“I’ve never seen a sign for the Democrats. You drive around our neighborhood, drive up and down the streets around our neighborhood, Trump signs everywhere,” he said. “But I think a lot more Democrats are moving in. I do feel like it’s getting diluted.”

The push to widen the GOP margin in Cherokee is driving Luedke. With help from national Republicans, she feels like she has more volunteers than she can handle.

“They’re making calls, they’re driving people to the polls, they’re waving signs,” she said. “You’ve got the entire country focused on our state, and we’re going to deliver.”

Counting on exurbia

This story looks at Republican efforts to drum up votes for the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs in conservative exurbia and rural Georgia. On Wednesday, we explored how growth and demographic changes in Henry and Rockdale counties helped Democrats make inroads in the Nov. 3 general election.