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Georgia candidates head to party bastions amid early voting
Georgia's top candidates fanned out Thursday to parts of the state that already embrace them, trying to dig up every bit of support they can amid a big turnout in early voting.
For Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, that meant a trip to parts of rural southeastern Georgia that have become among the most GOP-dominated areas of the state. His Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams, meanwhile, headed to Milledgeville and Augusta, showing how she visits both cities and small towns, but almost always places with significant numbers of the Black voters who are the backbone of Georgia Democratic politics.
In narrowly divided Georgia, both sides are trying to pry votes out of every cranny, knowing that even as more than 4 million people are likely to vote by Nov. 8, the outcome could be decided by mere thousands of ballots. President Joe Biden won Georgia by fewer than 12,000 votes in 2020, while Kemp defeated Abrams by fewer than 55,000 in 2018.
The focus on energizing each party's base comes amid heavy early turnout in Georgia, where more than 1.25 million voters had already cast ballots as of Thursday and still nine days of early in-person voting to go in some counties. Mail-in ballots, although diminished from the torrent of 2020, are also arriving at county election offices.
Kemp stumped Thursday at a restaurant in rural Jesup, about 65 miles (100 kilometers) southwest of Savannah, where he spoke to roughly 80 people eating fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans. Kemp worked the room before and after his speech, shaking hands and taking selfies.
Only 30,000 people live in Jesup and surrounding Wayne County. But it's a deeply conservative area that Kemp carried with 80% of the vote in 2018.
"We've got to do it again this year," Kemp implored the lunchtime crowd at Altamaha Steak and Seafood. "Because we're in a fight for the soul of our state."
Hitting the biggest applause line in his stump speech, Kemp asked the crowd to help him "make sure that Stacey Abrams is not going to be your governor or your next president."
During his 20-minute speech, Kemp slammed Abrams for supporting prolonged pandemic shutdowns and being insufficiently supportive of police. He also noted that Abrams had been considered a potential vice presidential running mate for Biden, whom Kemp blames for inflation.
"These are the policies that are crushing hard-working Georgians right now," Kemp said. "Those are the things that policy has done to us. What we're doing is helping you fight through that."
At the same time, Abrams was imploring a majority-Black crowd at a plaza in downtown Milledgeville to back her policy-heavy agenda.
"If you want more money in your pocket, say more!," Abrams shouted, hoarse from campaigning. "If you want more opportunity in your community, say more! If you want more freedom in your lives, say more! If you want more for the future of our children, say more!"
Milledgeville is the largest town in Baldwin County, which is home to a state university, a lakeside retiree community and a substantial Black population. It's one of a handful of politically competitive rural Georgia counties, with Abrams narrowly losing in 2018 before Biden narrowly won in 2020. And though Abrams must have a big turnout in cities, she's also trying to mobilize rural Black voters. "I know that Georgia is more than 285," Abrams told the Milledgeville crowd, referring to the traffic-clotted Interstate 285 loop around Atlanta.
Kemp wasn't done in Jesup, going on to the crossroads of Nahunta. It's a place that might draw blank stares among Atlanta Democrats, but it's the county seat of Brantley County, the most Republican county in Georgia in recent years. Kemp won 91% of the vote there in 2018.
Georgia's Republican Party grew to dominance combining strong performances in the Atlanta suburbs and rural areas. But the suburban arm of that coalition has faltered with the rise of Donald Trump, with some suburban voters rejecting Trump's brand of Republican politics. Those defections, along with a growing nonwhite population, have turned a onetime Republican stronghold into the South's premier swing state. It also means Republicans in Georgia, as they do nationwide, look to rural areas as their most reliable strongholds. Such ultra-Republican areas, including a larger swath of GOP bastions in the mountains north of Atlanta, are typically much whiter than the state as a whole.
Kemp's host for the Wayne County stop was David Keith, an insurance salesman and former Jesup mayor.
"Hopefully we're not sitting on our laurels thinking, `Don't worry, we carried him last time,'" Keith said of Kemp. "He will carry Wayne County, but you've got to have a large majority to overtake some of the other areas that aren't going to be so successful" in turning out Republicans.
That reality has also been reflected in Republican Senate challenger Herschel Walker's schedule this week. After the first week of early voting took Walker to Democratic-dominated cities like Macon and Athens, Walker has headed into the mountains this week, sometimes dipping into Atlanta exurbs where Republicans still thrive.
Incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock's travels show less of a partisan lean, reflecting a campaign that's trying to run toward the middle of the electorate. The average county where he's campaigning in the first two weeks of early voting is only 50% Democratic. But even Warnock is headed back to the heavily Democratic Atlanta suburb of College Park to rally with Abrams and Democratic former President Barack Obama on Friday.