After Primaries Debacle, Georgia Democrats Gearing Up For Best Election ‘In Many Generations’
WASHINGTON – Election season got off to a rocky start in Georgia on Tuesday with voters across the state facing long lines and technical glitches with new ballot machines during the primaries, which had been delayed twice due to the coronavirus.
The widespread irregularities quickly led to a finger-pointing match between state election authorities and county officials, and before the end of the day Georgia House Speaker David Ralston had called for an investigation.
“Our elections must be efficient and voters must be confident that their votes will be properly counted,” said Ralston. “I have directed Chairman Blackmon and our House Governmental Affairs Committee to investigate today’s primary elections process and recommend changes — legislative or administrative — to correct these issues and prevent future problems.”
Georgia has been one of the most closely watched states in 2020 with two hotly-contested races for U.S. Senate and at least two competitive races in the House. Voters this year will also be picking candidates for Georgia’s state legislature and other local races.
The fiasco on Tuesday added to the sense among political experts that the outcome will be difficult to predict this year, and that Democrats could be poised for significant gains. “This is the best year shaping up for Democrats in many generations,” says Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia.
As in many other states this year, a surge in absentee voting tied to the coronavirus pandemic could be a game changer by expanding Georgia’s electorate. But other factors are contributing to uncertainty in the Peach State, which has been reliably Republican for nearly four decades.
For instance, recent social upheaval sparked by the killing of George Floyd could motivate African American voters to turn out in droves. Meanwhile, Senator Kelly Loeffler is struggling after facing a federal investigation into potentially illegal stock trades amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s going to be an election unlike anything we’ve seen here before,” says Bullock, an expert in southern politics who has taught at UGA since 1968.
More than 1.2 million people sent in absentee ballots ahead of Georgia’s June 9 primaries, a 30-fold increase from the roughly 40,000 ballots that are typically mailed in. The long waits at polling centers in the primaries could push even more people to vote absentee in the general election, Bullock says.
In 2016, Georgia broke its record for voter turnout with 63% of registered voters — 4.1 out of 6.6 million — casting a ballot in the fall. Bullock says there’s still a lot of room for the electorate to grow in November.
“Even in a presidential year, with all the things encouraging turnout, a lot of Georgians didn’t bother to vote,” he said. “So there’s a huge area for possible expansion of the electorate simply among those who are registered.”
The Abrams Factor
Adding to a sense of uncertainty this year are rumors that Stacey Abrams, who galvanized Democrats in 2018 by nearly flipping the seat for Georgia governor, is being considered as a vice-presidential running mate for presidential hopeful Joe Biden.
Bullock says that putting Abrams on the presidential ticket could be a “huge impetus” for Democrats — particularly minority voters — to come out to the polls in November. “She was very successful in mobilizing African Americans in 2018 in the midterm election,” he says.
If Abrams gets the pick, Bullock says, she could use the ill-fated primaries to revive the idea that minority voters are being suppressed in Georgia, a major theme of her 2018 campaign.
Moreover, nationwide protests against police violence sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota could motivate more African American voters to show up at the polls in November, Bullock says. “People who cared enough to protest would probably care enough to go and vote.”
Two Shaky Senate Seats
Georgia is the only presidential battleground with two competitive Senate races in 2020.
Republican Senator David Perdue, a first-term incumbent and former CEO of Reebok, will face off with Jon Ossoff, who narrowly avoided a run-off election gathering 50.8% of the vote in the primaries. His closest challenger, Teresa Tomlinson, fell far behind with just 15.3%.
Ossoff, a 33-year-old media executive, has attracted a lot of attention from the Democratic party since coming close to flipping a House seat in a 2017 special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.
Polls show he could be a strong challenger in the general election. He recently came in two points ahead of Perdue in a survey by Democratic pollster Civiqs.
Georgia’s other Senate contest will be disputed in a special election following the resignation of Sen. Johnny Isaakson in December due to his deteriorating health. The seat is currently held by Republican Kelly Loeffler, a former Wall Street executive appointed by Governor Brian Kemp in January.
Loeffler has been fighting to save her political career since March, when the Department of Justice opened an investigation into stock trades she made shortly before a plunge in the stock market amid the coronavirus.
The investigation has since been closed, but polling shows Loeffler has little support among voters. The Civiqs survey has her trailing behind three candidates, coming in fourth in a crowded roster of Democrats and Republicans.
The top contender for the seat appears to be Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican who currently represents Georgia’s 9th Congressional District. In the Civiqs poll, 34% of respondents said they would pick Collins, while just 12% favored Loeffler.
Barring a comeback from Loeffler, Bullock says, the race could end up being a runoff election between Collins and Democrat Raphael Warnock, an Atlanta pastor who is leading the Democratic pack with 18% of the vote, according to Civiqs.
Toss-ups in the House
The consensus among forecasters is that at least two House races will be toss-ups in Georgia this year.
The announced retirement of Republican Rep. Rob Woodall at the end of his term has left a vacancy in the 7th Congressional District, which is now a top target for House Democrats.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced in January that the 7th Congressional District was one of the 33 targets on its 2020 battleground map “to fortify and expand our new Democratic Majority.”
In 2018, Woodall faced a tough challenge from Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, who lost by just 419 votes after a recount, and is now taking another shot at the seat. After falling short of a majority in the primaries with 46.3% of the vote, Bourdeaux is now headed into a primary run-off against top Democratic challenger Brenda Lopez Romero
She is expected to beat Lopez Romero and go on to face Republican Rich McCormick, who easily defeated six other candidates in the Republican primary, avoiding a runoff with 55% of the vote.
A former military pilot and emergency room doctor with no experience in public office, McCormick has largely self-financed his campaign, contributing more than $500,000 to the operation, according to Federal Election Commision filings.
Ahead of the primaries, McCormick had $222,000 left on hand, while Bourdeaux had amassed around $1.7 million in campaign contributions with roughly $600,000 remaining, however, Bordeaux will be forced to spend some of that on her run-off with Lopez Romero.
Meanwhile, Democratic incumbent Rep. Lucy McBath will once again face off with Republican Karen Handel in the 6th Congressional District. Handel briefly held the seat after a special election in 2017, but lost it to McBath in the 2018 midterms, falling short by just a few thousand votes.
As was the case in 2018, the race is expected to be close, though there has been little public polling so far. An April survey of 400 registered voters by North Star Opinion Research showed Handel just two points ahead of McBath with 49% of the vote.