Battle for Georgia heats up
Georgia: It’s the first day of early voting in Georgia and dozens of people are waiting patiently outside the High Museum of Art in Midtown Atlanta, ready to cast their vote for the US midterm elections.
There are no Australian-style “democracy sausages”, no party volunteers handing out how-to-vote cards, and no corflutes with candidates’ faces lining the path to the polling centre.
As a modest reward for exercising their democratic right, voters are simply handed a small white sticker with a picture of a peach – Georgia’s emblem – emblazoned with the words: “I Secured My Vote.”
David Sandor emerges from the polling booth shortly after 11.30am, one of millions of Americans whose choices will soon determine control of Congress, the fate of Joe Biden’s policy agenda, and the leadership of this battleground state.
“The economy is paramount for me,” says the recently unemployed father-of-two, who voted for state and federal Republican candidates across the ballot.
“Inflation and the cost of just about everything has gone up. You have to start thinking of trade-offs just to manage – like whether to travel for the holiday season or whether you should go out to eat – but Biden doesn’t seem to get it.
“It’s like the stages of grief: first there was denial that things were this bad, then there was blame shifting. Now I feel he’s finally at acceptance.”
While Biden won’t be on the ballot until the presidential election in 2024 – assuming the 79-year-old runs for the White House again – midterm elections are almost always a referendum on the incumbent administration.
But in Georgia, the Deep South state that secured Biden’s 2020 victory when it flipped to the Democrats for the first time in decades, the November 8 contest has taken on even greater potency.
Georgia is now home to two of the most critical races of this year’s midterms. The first could shift the balance of power in the all-important Senate, where Trump-backed candidate Herschel Walker, a former NFL player, is trying to unseat Democrat freshman Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s first black Senator and a pastor at one of Atlanta’s biggest churches.
The heated contest between the pair reached new heights last week amid claims that Walker, who has backed a national ban on abortion, quietly paid a former girlfriend to terminate a pregnancy – allegations he describes as a “flat out lie”.
The second race is the governor’s contest between Republican incumbent Brian Kemp, one of the few GOP officials who pushed back against Trump’s attempt to overturn the presidential election result, and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, whose effort to mobilise black voters in Georgia is widely credited for Biden’s victory.
The pair faced off in 2018 for the state’s top job, but Abrams refused to concede, accusing Kemp of voter suppression tactics.
Now, the stakes are even higher because whoever wins this year’s rematch will have immense power over a swathe of contentious new issues: from abortion access and electoral rules to the way race or diversity is taught in schools.
What makes this battleground so unpredictable is the rapidly changing demographics.
For years, Georgia had been among the safest Republican strongholds in the country, and until Biden came along, no Democratic presidential candidate had carried the state since Bill Clinton in 1992.
However, census data shows that the Peach State is now younger, more progressive, and less white.
It’s also increasingly urban as its population shifts away from the rural areas that were once its backbone, to its three fastest growing cities: the capital, Atlanta; the picturesque haven of Savannah; and the golfing mecca of Augusta.
Ted Terry has spent years keenly watching the changes unfold. The 38-year-old used to be the mayor of Clarkston, but these days spends much of his time training and mobilising Democrats across DeKalb County, one of the diverse regions the party needs to hold if it has any hope of retaining its Congressional majority.
“Midterms are always tough, especially after a very busy presidential election only two years ago, so you’re definitely sensing fatigue out there,” says Terry, the vice chair of the Georgia Democrats.
“But at the same time, there are tons of new people and volunteers that have engaged with us, and the Roe v Wade decision [to overturn federal abortion rights] has galvanised a lot of women voters. So it’s kind of a mixed bag.”
Much has also changed since Biden defeated Trump by a mere 11,779 votes in Georgia – a tiny margin of 0.23 per cent.
Indeed, as The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age travelled around the state this week, it was apparent that Georgians were aware of the power of their vote.
Many also felt worn down by the hyper-partisan political landscape in America and were increasingly concerned about “kitchen table” issues such as education, health and cost-of-living pressures.
In the gentrified Midtown district of Atlanta, where rental prices have spiked 14 per cent over the past year, 39-year-old consultant Travis Duawalter said his vote was partly based on housing affordability, which he believed the Democrats were more likely to address.
In the rural town of Toccoa, Julie Paysen from the Chamber of Commerce cited the economy as her number one concern but also lamented the Biden administration’s immigration policies, which she said were “causing great stress on the entirety of our state” due to the influx of illegal immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border.
And in the suburb of College Park, taxi driver Kali Saunders wasn’t planning to vote at all, insisting that the election “is gonna go how it’s gonna go, regardless.”
“Everything nowadays is just kinda set up already,” the 45-year-old African American tells me. “It all just seems corrupt and it’s all about money.”
Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown agrees there’s a level of antipathy in Georgia, with some voters feeling they hadn’t gained enough for giving the Democrats Congress and the White House two years ago.
In January, Brown was one of them, declining to attend a major speech Biden gave in Atlanta highlighting the importance of voting rights – something he promised to reform but was unable to deliver because he didn’t have the numbers in the evenly-split Senate.
“We’re beyond speeches. We’re beyond events. What we are demanding is federal legislation,” she said at the time.
Now, however, the activist and her group are doing everything they can to “turn out the vote”, knowing it will be the deciding factor in a tight race where the majority of voters have already made up their minds.
Their strategy involves crisscrossing the state highlighting the issues that are widening the inequality gap for people of colour: the hospitals that have closed under Kemp; new laws she believes will make it harder for minorities to vote; the threat of “white supremacy” and extremism in America.
Similar outreach efforts are taking place within the Latino community, too. Earlier this week, community group GALEO held a “Taco Tuesday” event with Martin Luther King III – the son of one of the world’s most renowned civil rights leaders – in a bid to sign up more Hispanic voters.
King points to the four years under Trump – when Republicans controlled the Senate and were able to appoint more conservative judges to the Supreme Court – as an example of how important the majority is to the social fabric of the country.
“I’m very concerned about the outcome of this election and that’s why I’m going around the country encouraging people to turn out and vote,” he tells me. “It would be ideal and wonderful if Democrats could hold the House but I don’t think that’s still on the cards, so winning the Senate is critical.”
Both sides of politics agree, and with less than three weeks to go, the signs of this high stakes battle are everywhere. Tens of millions of dollars have been poured into attack ads in Georgia – including duelling ads taking aim at Warnock and Walker over domestic violence allegations.
Former president Barack Obama will headline a rally later this month. And the first day of early in-person voting showed a record 131,000 ballots cast – up from roughly 71,000 at the last midterms in 2018.
What’s more, if neither candidate secures more than 50 per cent of the vote, voters will be forced to head to the polls again within weeks at a special “runoff” election, thanks to a unique quirk in the state’s electoral rules.
Back in Midown Atlanta, David Sandor hopes it doesn’t come to that but believes the result will be “very close.”
“Chances are we will have a very divided government for the next two years, which means we’re going to have a very divided country for the next two years,” he predicts. “And that’s pretty depressing.”
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