Big Questions: Georgia tests battleground status, Trump era

Politics

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., speaks as President Donald Trump listens during a campaign rally in support of Senate candidates Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., and David Perdue in Dalton, Ga., Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

The two Georgia runoffs that will determine control of the Senate have kept President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden in campaign mode and run up a half-billion-dollar tab in the process.

The money matches the stakes: Either Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff will sweep, giving Democrats both chambers of Congress and the executive branch, or Republicans will pick up at least one victory from Sen. Kelly Loeffler or David Perdue to maintain their Senate majority and force Biden to contend with divided government.

Georgia also will offer the first referendum on American politics without Trump on the ballot.

Here are some big questions as the 2020 election cycle finally nears a close:

DOES TRUMP HELP OR HURT HIS PARTY?

Perdue, who is trying to win a second term after his first one expired Sunday, and Loeffler, an appointed senator trying to win her first election, tethered themselves to Trump, ever the turnout driver, every step of the campaign.

The senators even indulged the president claiming Biden won through fraud that Trump’s attorney general and numerous federal courts said didn’t happen. When audio of a recent telephone call revealed Trump demanding that Georgia’s secretary of state, a Republican, “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s victory, Perdue didn’t criticize Trump. He instead called it “disgusting” that someone recorded and leaked the call. The senators have remained mum as Trump repeatedly blasted Gov. Brian Kemp, who appointed Loeffler, for not stepping in.

But anger has always helped Trump juice Republican turnout. In November, he got 385,000 more votes in Georgia than he did in 2016. But he’s also a powerful motivator for Democrats: Biden got 600,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016, enough to win by 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast.

Republicans are worried the president’s grievance tour of the last two months could depress turnout among Trump hardliners — those most likely to believe his assertions of a rigged process — while also repelling some traditional Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, especially in Atlanta suburbs that can be decisive in statewide races.

“If Kelly and David don’t end up winning,” said Chip Lake, a longtime Georgia GOP operative, “it’s going to be hard for a reasonable person not to come to a conclusion that all the chaos cost them the race.”

CAN DEMOCRATS PROVE GEORGIA IS TRULY A BATTLEGROUND?

Democrats point to decades of organizing work, especially leading up to and since Stacey Abrams’ near miss in the 2018 governor’s race, to push back on the idea that Biden’s Georgia victory was simply a backlash against Trump.

“It’s not the work of a single moment,” said Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, crediting Abrams and others with capitalizing on Georgia’s growth and diversity. O’Malley Dillon added that flipping a Republican stronghold like Georgia helps solidify new and once-sporadic voters, because they’ve seen a tangible victory. Now, she said, “People feel like they have a voice as part of this party.”

Early voting figures suggest there’s something to that. Analysis of the 3 million early runoff ballots shows the state’s most concentrated Democratic congressional districts (in the core of metro Atlanta) are closer to matching their general election pace than Georgia’s most concentrated Republican districts (small-town and rural jurisdictions).

Still, even with Biden’s win, Democrats failed in November to make gains in the Georgia General Assembly. “This is still a center-right state,” insisted Michael McNeely, a former state GOP executive.

WHAT KIND OF HISTORY WILL BE MADE?

If Loeffler defeats Warnock, she’d become the first woman elected as a Georgia senator. If Warnock wins, he’d become the state’s first Black senator. Ossoff, meanwhile, would become the current Senate’s youngest member, at 33, if he defeats Perdue, 71. There have been several younger senators throughout history, notably the president-elect. Biden was 30, the minimum age under the Constitution, when he joined the Senate from Delaware in 1973.

WHAT DO TICKET-SPLITTERS DO?

While Biden nipped Trump, Perdue led Ossoff by about 88,000 votes in November, finishing just short of the outright majority required to avoid a runoff. Perdue was within a few thousand votes of Trump, leaving Ossoff about 100,000 votes behind Biden’s pace. About 115,000 Senate votes in the Perdue-Ossoff contest went to a Libertarian.

All of that suggests there weren’t many ticket-splitters, but that a notable slice of the 2.5 million Georgians who voted for Biden didn’t back Ossoff or Warnock. Most notably, Perdue ran ahead of Trump in several affluent precincts north of downtown Atlanta. Republicans hope those are moderate-to-conservative voters who will cast runoff ballots for divided government. In tight races, they could be decisive.

COULD THERE BE A DIVIDED RESULT?

The candidates ran essentially as two teams, reflecting the national stakes. But if the races are as close as the presidential contest, a split is possible. How might it happen? Loeffler faced a bitter first-round fight with a conservative congressman, Doug Collins, a Tea Party wing favorite. Some of his backers remain sore and could conceivably back Perdue but skip the second race. Warnock, meanwhile, appears to be driving a surge in Black turnout, according to early voting figures. That comes in part from more sporadic voters who could opt out on the Perdue-Ossoff matchup. A split result still would give Republicans a Senate majority.

WHICH GEORGIA ULTIMATELY PREVAILS

Georgia’s evolution from Democrats’ “Solid South” to one-party GOP domination and now to two-party battleground isn’t as much about changing minds as it is population growth and generational shifts. Metro Atlanta’s core now accounts for more than 40 percent of the state’s 10.7 million residents. The extended metro area accounts for more than half. The state gets less white every year, with whites under 18 already a plurality, not a majority, in that age group.

Warnock and Ossoff talk often of a “new Georgia” as they concentrate efforts around Atlanta and the state’s mid-size cities. Republicans have aimed at smaller cities, towns and rural areas, warning that GOP losses would “change Georgia and change America.”

That rhetoric, and the candidates themselves, illustrate the longstanding urban-rural split in American politics that has hardened in the Trump era.

Perdue, the son of public-school educators, grew up in small-town middle Georgia. Loeffler, raised on an Illinois farm and now the wealthiest U.S. senator, is among the successful transplants to metro Atlanta, proof she’s “lived the American dream.” Ossoff, a millennial native of the northern Atlanta suburbs, touts himself as the “Jewish son of an immigrant.” Warnock “grew up in public housing” in Savannah and “went to college on a Pell Grant” before eventually becoming the pastor of Martin Luther King’s church in Atlanta.

Together, the four candidates reflect the whole of a diverse state. Just two will be senators.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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