Trump, turnout and townies: What to watch in Georgia’s runoff elections


A Republican runoff for governor with more twists than a back road. An increasingly bitter pair of contests to represent suburban Atlanta U.S. House districts. And lower-key contests for other statewide offices, including lieutenant governor and secretary of state, along with legislative seats.

Voters across the state will hit the polls Tuesday to settle a host of runoffs that will determine which candidates will land on the Nov. 6 general election ballots. And coming in the teeth of summer vacation season, campaigns are counting on the faithful to offset low turnout predictions.

The show-stopping race on the GOP ticket is the contest between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp for the right to face Democrat Stacey Abrams in November’s gubernatorial election.

Cagle entered the race as the undisputed front-runner, but the release of a damaging secretly made recording coupled with President Donald Trump’s surprise endorsement of his rival have rocked the race.

Kemp, meanwhile, has begun shifting his sights on the general election as he fashions himself an insurgent underdog who can inspire the state’s conservative base.

Here’s a look at a few key factors that could decide the vote:

Trump effect

The president was a dominant force in this year’s gubernatorial contest even before his “full and total” endorsement of Kemp on Twitter last week caught both campaigns off guard.

Kemp and Cagle each spent much of the nine-week campaign period for the runoff in a fervent battle to prove he was more loyal to the president, even though neither one was a particularly vocal Trump supporter as he was battling for the 2016 nomination.

They had calculating political reasons for embracing Trump: The president maintains sky-high approval ratings among Georgia conservatives, and an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll shows roughly one-fifth of GOP runoff voters consider loyalty to the president the main factor in choosing the next governor.

Trump’s endorsement shook the tables roughly 48 hours after Cagle’s campaign touted the backing of Gov. Nathan Deal, the most popular Republican official in the state. While Kemp stumped with Vice President Mike Pence in Macon, Cagle walked a narrow line of explaining the snub without alienating Trump supporters.

“The president decided to do this because some Washington insiders who have weaseled their way into his ear convinced him to make a power play,” Cagle said in an op-ed published Monday. “Why? So they’ll have a governor who answers to them instead of to Georgians.”

Further down the ballot, GOP statewide candidates have played up their loyalty to Trump. And in the 6th and 7th congressional districts, the four first-time Democratic candidates have not been shy to denounce the president’s sharp-elbowed brand of politics, as well as his positions on issues such as immigration and health care.

Early voting

Analysts will have a good opportunity to find out which way the governor’s race leans when the results from the three weeks of early voting before the runoff are tabulated.

For Cagle, the early-voting period is a test of his expensive get-out-the-vote operation, which has spent months targeting his most likely voters. That starts with the 236,000 Republicans who cast ballots for him in May — Cagle said he’ll win the race if each returns to the polls on Tuesday.

Kemp is relying on robust Election Day turnout to fuel his march to victory. Trump’s endorsement late Wednesday came too late to make much of a dent on early voting, but Kemp has flooded the airwaves with ads highlighting Trump’s tweets about his campaign. Pence’s visit Saturday only helped spread the word.

So far, the numbers suggest a stronger turnout than the last open race for governor. The Secretary of State’s Office reports that more than 239,000 people cast ballots during the early-voting period, outpacing that 2010 contest.

More than 60 percent of those ballots were cast by Republicans, not surprising considering the party has more races on the ballot, including statewide contests for lieutenant governor and secretary of state.

Female voters 

Female voters have become a driving political force over the past 18 months, and Georgia is no exception. Female volunteers have organized to campaign for candidates across the state and run for office, many for the first time.

Much of the energy has been concentrated on the left and in the Atlanta suburbs, a political arena that’s long been dominated by men. Conservative women have also raised their voices to counter the narrative that all women involved in politics are Democrats.

In the 6th and 7th congressional districts north of Atlanta, gun control advocate Lucy McBath and college professor Carolyn Bourdeaux are first-time candidates running against male opponents on Tuesday.

Both have been endorsed by Emily’s List, a national political action committee that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, and they have not been shy about discussing equal pay and maintaining robust women’s health care options.

Should she win this week, McBath would go head to head this fall against U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, R-Roswell, the only woman serving in Georgia’s congressional delegation. Handel is backed by the Susan B. Anthony List, the conservative answer to Emily’s List.

Female voters could also help decide the gubernatorial runoff. While Cagle narrowly bested Kemp among male voters in the AJC’s latest poll of likely GOP voters, the two were evenly split among Republican women. The same AJC poll showed Kemp dominating among younger women. Tuesday’s winner will take on Abrams, who has made history as the first female gubernatorial nominee in Georgia’s history.

Hometown strength 

In what could be a low-turnout race, the candidates are appealing to the voters who know them best.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s native Hall County was the difference-maker for his 2010 runoff, when he won nearly 80 percent of its vote. Cagle comes from the same territory and is betting on a big victory there. But he didn’t carry the county in the primary — falling just short at 49 percent — and Kemp is conceding nothing.

Kemp’s biggest strength, meanwhile, may be in the northeast Georgia stretch around Athens where he is from. He won a 14-county stretch around his hometown of Athens in the May vote, some by double-digit margins, and he’s banking on bigger margins Tuesday.

In the down-ticket races, the hometown appeal may be even more crucial. State Sen. David Shafer’s base of support in the lieutenant governor’s race is in Gwinnett County, while his opponent, former state Rep. Geoff Duncan, expects heavy turnout in his Forsyth County backyard.


Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Homepage