Why Georgia Democrats are searching for votes in deep-red areas

Democratic candidate for Georgia governor Stacy Abrams campaigned recently in Mitchell County, which has grown more Republican in the past decade. Abrams believes there are still votes there to be had. “You don’t win by county. You win by person,” she said. “I know that in the deepest reddest states in the deepest reddest counties, there are bright blue spots. There are light blue spots. There are purple spots that can be tinted a little bit.” (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Democratic candidate for Georgia governor Stacy Abrams campaigned recently in Mitchell County, which has grown more Republican in the past decade. Abrams believes there are still votes there to be had. “You don’t win by county. You win by person,” she said. “I know that in the deepest reddest states in the deepest reddest counties, there are bright blue spots. There are light blue spots. There are purple spots that can be tinted a little bit.” (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

CAMILLA — As campaign events go, a recent gathering in this southwest Georgia town seemed a world apart from the glitzier events of bigger cities. A few dozen curious voters filled rows of folding chairs on the lawn outside a church to await Stacey Abrams’ arrival.

Some arrived an hour early, towing games to occupy children as they swatted gnats with makeshift fans. A lone truck bearing a Donald Trump banner roared by, honking disapproval.

“I know folks paid a lot of attention to the numbers coming out of metro Atlanta. But I watched the numbers go up down here in southwest Georgia,” Abrams, speaking about vote totals in the past few election cycles, said to warm applause from the crowd.

“You’re the sneaky ones. Y’all went in there and boosted those numbers,” Abrams, running once again for governor, said. “And we’ve got to do it again.”

Behind in the polls, Abrams has been doing a lot of hunting for votes lately. In a race that could be decided by a sliver of the electorate, Democrats are anxious to cut the margins in overwhelmingly conservative territory far from the urban and suburban areas that form their base.

Mitchell County, a racially split county about 200 miles southwest of Atlanta, epitomizes that strategy. Over the past decade, the county of about 21,000 people has grown more Republican.

Divided by less than 1 percentage point in the 2012 presidential race, Mitchell gave Trump 55% of its vote in 2020. Kemp garnered about the same percentage of the county’s roughly 8,000 voters in 2018, besting Abrams by double digits.

But for Abrams and other Democrats, shaking free a minority of voters in deep-red areas is central to a goal of building on the party’s wins in the last campaign cycle, when victories were fueled by new gains in the suburbs and mixed successes in rural parts of the state.

Participants cheer on speakers at the Democratic Party of Georgia’s state convention Saturday in Columbus, 2022. Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Faced with the prospect of a midterm dropoff in metro Atlanta voters without Trump on the ballot or in the White House, Democrats want to string together more rural support to help buoy turnout.

“We’re headed back to all 159 counties to build on this momentum,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, the state Democratic Party’s chairwoman. “We have to make sure we can maximize our support. There’s no secret sauce — we just have to continue to knock on doors, make calls and outwork Republicans.”

‘Walked the walk’

This is not a new plan of action for Democrats. Abrams visited all of Georgia’s 159 counties in her 2018 bid and has made a point to trek back to many of those stops this campaign season.

And U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, whose family hails from tiny towns in southeast Georgia, has made a beeline for conservative territory, too. On Tuesday he journeyed to Coweta County, where Democrats were beaten by a 2-to-1 ratio on the 2020 ballot.

“The job description is to represent all of the people in the state,” Warnock said after addressing about 100 people in a Newnan park in the scorching early afternoon heat. “You can’t represent all of the people in the state if you’re not willing to talk to them.”

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks during a campaign stop in Newnan on Tuesday, August 30, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“Democrats have learned that it pays to go where they have not gone in the past,” said Audrey Haynes, a University of Georgia political scientist.

“They started doing this in 2018 and learned lessons from Democratic campaigns in other Southern states where they could mobilize voters by simply showing up and listening to people who were often not canvassed,” Haynes said.

The strategy contrasts with top Republicans, who have so far ventured to friendlier territory — with the notable exception of Athens, the college town that Kemp calls home and where Herschel Walker made his name playing football.

Top Republican candidates such as U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker, from left, Gov. Brian Kemp and state Sen. Burt Jones, the party's nominee for lieutenant governor, have largely concentrated their campaign visits to friendly territory.

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Now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, Walker has largely stuck to Republican-leaning venues even when he visits the more competitive suburbs. He drew supportive audiences, for instance, with recent trips to Alpharetta, Kennesaw and Milton — all areas with large pockets of GOP voters.

Kemp has employed a similar tack that dates to 2018. Though his campaign was headquartered in Buckhead, he largely skirted events in metro Atlanta, opting instead for stops in small towns where he was greeted by sizable crowds.

This election, Kemp is expected to target suburban voters with a focus on education policies that borrow from the blueprint that helped Glenn Youngkin score an upset victory in the race for Virginia governor last year.

But the bulk of his campaign stops center on rural Georgia, where he and other Republican contenders focus on their conservative records.

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks Saturday at a reelection campaign event in Perry. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

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“Actions speak louder than words — and no matter how many times Stacey Abrams talks the talk, Brian Kemp and I have walked the walk for rural Georgia,” said Tyler Harper, the GOP nominee for agriculture commissioner. “And it’s why we are going to win in November.”

‘Win by person’

In Camilla, the mere presence of a statewide candidate caused a stir. Local officials sent a welcoming party, and former Mayor Rufus Davis, one of the best-known political figures in this corner of Georgia, delivered a spirited introduction.

“Stacey Abrams has gone to all 159 counties to look voters in the eye,” Davis said. “And that says something about the type of person she is.”

One of the first to arrive was Wanda Johnson, who camped out in one of the white folding chairs long before Abrams was set to speak.

“It says a lot to me that Stacey came to visit. I just got off work, went and got my grandbaby and came straight here,” said Johnson, who works at the nearby Tyson plant. “There’s going to be a great turnout here. Like Stacey said, we can be sneaky. We’re going to come out when we have to.”

John Hayes said the 70 or so residents who gathered to hear Abrams will long remember her trip to a “forgotten” area of Georgia.

“This part of the state matters,” said Hayes, a former commissioner in nearby Dougherty County now seeking a state House seat. “We have abject poverty. We have rural health hospitals closing. There are serious policy concerns that are affecting our people.”

Abrams touched on those concerns during her speech, promising that a “generational” change in state funding will bring the expansion of Medicaid, new child care access, free technical college tuition and need-based higher education aid financed by the legalization of casinos and sports betting.

When a local leader pressed Abrams about stagnant wages and rising costs undermining an uncertain economic climate, she promised to bring a more equitable approach to luring jobs to rural parts of the state.

“I’m not disparaging economic development. But that economic development needs to be spread out across the state,” she said. “And when the same places get the same help over and over again, and other places get left behind, we’re not developing Georgia.”

With Abrams facing an uphill battle against Kemp, who holds steady single-digit leads in most polls, even some Camilla residents quietly wondered why she devoted several hours of campaign time in a county with so few voters. Abrams shrugged off the concerns.

“You don’t win by county. You win by person,” she said. “I know that in the deepest reddest states in the deepest reddest counties, there are bright blue spots. There are light blue spots. There are purple spots that can be tinted a little bit.”

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