Trump aims to squeeze more votes out of rural Georgia

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Most of the attention in Georgia this year is directed toward Atlanta’s populous suburbs, which have turned hard against Republicans in the Trump era. But the outcome might come down to a less scrutinized force in this state: white rural voters.

Georgia, much like the rest of the country, has undergone enormous geographic party polarization, driving a wedge between rural and suburban-urban counties. In 2018, Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor, won nearly three-quarters of the predominantly urban or suburban counties, while GOP Gov. Brian Kemp won nearly 90 percent of the predominantly rural counties.

By targeting Trump voters who don’t typically vote in a midterm, Kemp improved on Trump’s 2016 margins by about 2 points across all rural counties, suggesting there’s room for Trump to grow in Georgia.

That’s good news for Trump because “any Brian Kemp voter in a rural county is a likely Donald Trump voter,” said Dan McLagan, a Georgia-based Republican consultant.

In 2016, “some, like me, were a little skeptical of Trump” during the Republican primary, said Georgia state Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, who said he voted for Ben Carson in the primary before backing Trump in the general election. “I think all of these skeptics that there may have been scattered in rural Georgia are now united behind Trump.”

All of that could help Trump stem some of the expected erosion among suburban women, where Biden holds a significant lead, according to recent in-state polling.

Still, one Georgia Republican strategist warned, Trump “can’t just rely on the rural areas anymore,” noting that “2018 was probably the last year that the numbers in the rural parts of the state would be enough to keep up with the metro areas. You have to have crossover appeal.”

Democrats believe they bottomed out with rural voters in 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost them overwhelmingly. Joe Biden could “claw back some of those rural voters by who he is and the campaign he’s running, while Trump doesn’t have Hillary Clinton as a foil,” said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster. “I think Biden can find three, five or six percent more in rural areas, while Trump and Republicans are going to find a new bottom in suburban areas.”

Seth Clark, a Democratic strategist and county commissioner-elect in Macon, saw the possibility of a more modest potential increase.

“We’re talking about a 2 percent increase in these counties, winning 19 percent of voters there from 17 percent, which could be, what, a net gain of 45 people in some counties,” Clark said. “This is not a major shift, it’s just about doing some work outside of I-285,” citing the highway that rings Atlanta and its sprawling suburbs.

There’s also a swath of Black rural voters, where Abrams improved Democrats’ performance in 2018, that Biden could tap into. “If there’s room for growth for Biden in the rural areas, it’s going to come from Black rural voters,” said Abigail Collazo, a Democratic strategist in the state. Collazo noted that the ballot request rate in majority-Black counties in rural southwest Georgia is often more than twice that of majority-white southeast rural counties.

Bob Trammell, the state House Minority Leader, argued that Biden’s “personal appeal” and profile, as a “son of Scranton and a state university graduate,” works in his favor with rural voters and “he’ll have success peeling off some of those votes.”

“Republicans have to get every conceivable vote in the rural parts of the state, and hope they can hold on,” Trammell said.

That dynamic played out in November 2018, when Chip Lake, a GOP strategist, was sitting in the then-GOP lieutenant governor candidate’s war room in Athens, Georgia, watching returns trickle in. He thought the night might be over early when the first dozen rural counties reported, showing Kemp’s margins up by 3 to 5 points ahead of Trump’s in 2016. But once the suburban-urban counties rolled in, showing Republicans “were 3 to 5 points below Trump’s margin, so it turned out to be very close,” he said.

“As much as Democrats have made inroads in suburban American and suburban Georgia, Republicans have relied on the rural counties to keep this state red,” Lake said. “I don’t think either dynamic is sustainable long-term for either party.”

Over the last month, fears that Georgia is tipping away from Republicans have only escalated. Those concerns can plainly be seen in recent TV spending: Trump’s campaign and Preserve America, a top pro-Trump super PAC, spent more than $11 million on TV ads there in September, more than double what that pair spent on TV ads in Michigan during the same period.

Senate Leadership Fund, the flagship GOP super PAC, is spending $17 million from now until Election Day in Georgia to boost its two Senate candidates, while Senate Majority PAC, the Democrats’ outside group, is spending just $6 million.

If Georgia ends up close on Election Night, local operatives from both political parties warn it could take up to a week or more for the state to declare a winner.

The state Board of Elections ruled that counties can process ballots two weeks and a day before Election Day, like checking signatures and removing from envelopes, but they cannot start tabulating results until polls close on Election Day.

The specter of the June primaries — when long lines, dysfunctional voting machines and a dearth of poll workers led to a messy, prolonged process — hangs over it all. Most Georgia political operatives note that the state has taken steps to address those challenges, including recruiting more poll workers.

“Even without a pandemic, Georgia counts slowly, so no one should expect a result on Election Night,” said Seth Bringman, spokesman for Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group founded by Abrams. “It could take a week or longer for a full picture of unofficial results, but what’s most important is that every eligible vote is counted.”

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