Turnout booms in Georgia primary, led by resurgent Republicans

GOP voters flood polling places in a midterm without Trump
Early voters walk into the Cherokee County Elections Office on Monday. Turnout has been strong during early voting for Georgia's primary, with Republican voters leading the way. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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

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Early voters walk into the Cherokee County Elections Office on Monday. Turnout has been strong during early voting for Georgia's primary, with Republican voters leading the way. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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

In Georgia’s first post-Trump primary election, unprecedented waves of voters have already swept into polling places — most of them Republicans.

Early voting turnout was two and a half times higher than the last midterm primary in 2018, a sign of relentless voter participation in one of the most politically competitive states in the nation.

This time, Republicans are receiving the most votes after Georgia was nearly evenly split in the presidential general election race in 2020. About 57% of voters so far have cast Republican ballots.

The primary on Tuesday will help define the direction of the Republican Party in Georgia, setting a slate of candidates for a showdown with Democratic candidates including Stacey Abrams in November. Incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp faces former U.S. Sen. David Perdue in the race for governor, and a crowded GOP field including Herschel Walker is running for the U.S. Senate.

Turnout is booming, even without former President Donald Trump — who has endorsed Perdue and Walker — on the ballot. Trump is supporting a slate of 10 Georgia candidates, most of whom have repeated his debunked accusations that the presidential election was stolen, despite recounts, court cases and investigations showing otherwise.

Republican voters say they’re motivated by competitive races, anger over inflation and a desire to regain lost ground from 2020, when Democrats won the presidential race and two U.S. Senate seats.

“We’re voting for whoever would do the best job. Just because a candidate is a Trump person doesn’t mean they’ll do the best job,” said Kenneth Kelley, who works for an air-conditioning company, after voting in Cherokee County. “We’ve got options in our party.”

Other Republican voters expressed similar sentiments in the final days of early voting, saying they distributed their votes among a variety of Republican candidates, whether they’re endorsed by Trump or not.

“It’s a mixed bag. I don’t care what Trump thinks. I want to hear from the candidates,” said Mickey Morrison, a financial analyst and early voter in Forsyth County.

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

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

Georgia played a crucial role in Democratic victories in 2020, supporting Joe Biden for president and giving Democrats control of the U.S. Senate with the election of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

But midterm elections usually favor the political party that’s out of power nationally, and that appears to be the case in Georgia this year.

“People are fired up,” Kemp said. “They’re mad at Biden inflation. They’re mad about the crisis at the border, and they’re ready to push back.”

Democrats have less motivation to vote in the primary, with Abrams running unopposed for governor and Warnock facing a little-known candidate, Tamara Johnson-Shealey. There are several competitive down-ballot Democratic races, including lieutenant governor, secretary of state, insurance commissioner and congressional seats.

Perdue said Republicans who sat out the U.S. Senate runoffs in January 2021 are returning to the polls. Perdue lost to Ossoff in a runoff as Republican turnout declined after the presidential election.

“I had one lady say she didn’t vote in January ‘21, but she’d crawl across broken glass to vote this time,” Perdue said. “The surge in turnout helps my campaign. I trust the people of Georgia.”

Over 857,000 people had voted through the end of early voting on Friday, smashing previous in-person turnout records for a primary. At this point in 2018, about 321,000 people had cast ballots at this point.

Early voting typically accounts for about half of all votes cast, meaning total turnout this year might be about 1.5 million — or higher if election day turnout is strong. Overall turnout will probably fall short of the 2.3 million primary voters in the 2020 presidential election but surpass the 1.2 million seen in 2018.

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

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

Trump remains a strong force among Republicans, voters said in interviews at early voting locations, but they no longer feel obligated to follow his lead.

“A portion of the traditional Republican base felt alienated by the behavior of the previous administration and now feel more comfortable coming home to the Republican Party,” said Jordan Fuchs, a Republican consultant who is managing Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s reelection campaign.

Republican sentiment is divided among loyal Trump voters and conservatives who want to move on, but they’re united in their dislike of Biden and Abrams, Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint said.

Kemp’s lead in the polls is an indication that voters aren’t always supporting Trump’s hand-picked candidates, such as Perdue.

“Georgia is a test case. When you look at Brian Kemp, and if you’re a conservative Republican, he’s done a great job for you. He’s hit all the right notes policywise except the Trump factor,” Swint said. “That’s a sign that you don’t have to be in Trump’s corner to win a state race.”

While Democratic turnout is lagging behind, liberal politicians and voters say they’re not worried about the primary. The real challenge will come in the November general election.

Some traditionally Democratic voters have decided to participate in the Republican primary, crossing lines so they can vote against candidates whom they most dislike. About 7% of Republican ballots so far have come from voters who cast Democratic ballots in the 2020 primary. Georgia is an open primary state, meaning voters can choose which party’s ballot they want.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who is also chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, said high GOP turnout isn’t a surprise.

“That’s what happens when you have a contested primary. We’ll let them figure out their plans on their side while we’re continuing to do the work and talk to voters,” Williams said. “Stacey is ready for whoever comes out of their primary.”

The primary is the first statewide election since the General Assembly passed a new voting law last year, Senate Bill 202.

Much of the law tightened absentee voting rules, requiring additional ID, curtailing online ballot requests and limiting drop boxes. After more than 1.1 million people returned absentee ballots in the 2020 primary at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, just 61,000 absentee ballots have been returned so far this year, representing 7% of all votes.

The law also required a second Saturday of early voting statewide, a mandate that affected two-thirds of Georgia counties that previously only opened polls on a single Saturday. In those counties, about 4,000 people voted on the additional Saturday, according to state election data.

Democratic voters were rare in heavily Republican areas north of Atlanta during early voting this week, but there were a few.

Karen Pirkle, a retired nurse from Cumming, said more Democrats will show up on election day on Tuesday.

“I think people were scared their absentee ballots wouldn’t count,” Pirkle said. “There’s not a lot of Democrats running for big offices, but there are multiple down-ballot candidates.”

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

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

Republican voters said they want to elect candidates that will help reassert the party’s advantage — the GOP dominated elections in Georgia from 2002 until the last election — and stop Democrats from making further gains in Georgia.

“Everybody liked the policies of the last president. They just didn’t like his personality,” said Paulette Stripland, a retired elementary school assistant principal.

Voters such as Ashley Smith of Canton said she backed small-government conservatives, regardless of their allegiances or endorsements.

“I’m hopeful that maybe some of the Trump mania will be shed this election,” Smith said.

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

Election day is Tuesday

Voters can find their polling locations and sample ballots online through the state’s My Voter Page at mvp.sos.ga.gov. Precincts are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Absentee ballot drop boxes closed Friday at the conclusion of Georgia’s early voting period.

Voters who requested absentee ballots but didn’t return them in time can instead vote in person. Election workers can cancel absentee ballots and allow voters to use voting touchscreens.

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