ATLANTA (AP) — Ballots are still being counted in the Georgia runoffs that will determine control of the U.S. Senate and the scope of President-elect Joe Biden's agenda. Tuesday’s vote also offers the first clues about the direction of American politics after the turbulent presidency of Donald Trump.
Republicans David Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler are trying to hold off strong challenges from their respective Democratic opponents, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, in a race where half a billion dollars was spent to shape the outcome.
Here are some early takeaways: GEORGIA SHOWING BATTLEGROUND BONA FIDES
When President-elect Joe Biden won Georgia by 12,000 votes out of 5 million, plenty of observers assumed it was about a Trump backlash.
While that was no doubt true, a Democratic presidential nominee doesn't get nearly 2.5 million votes and then watch Democratic Senate candidates follow it up with more than 2 million votes each in razor-thin runoffs two months later unless there's a legitimate party infrastructure, good campaigns and a deep pool of voters to be tapped. Georgia proved its status as a two-party battleground going forward.
TRUMP’S FALSE CLAIMS FIND FAVOR WITH GOP VOTERS
Trump may have lost the presidency but his campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the election clearly succeeded with Republican voters in Georgia.
About three-quarters of voters who backed Perdue and Loeffler told the AP VoteCast survey that Biden was not legitimately elected in November. AP VoteCast interviewed more than 3,600 voters to measure the electorate’s views on a range of topics.
Roughly 9 in 10 of the Republicans’ backers said they lacked confidence that votes in November’s presidential contest were accurately counted. Half said they have no confidence at all in the vote count. That’s roughly five times as many Republicans who said in November they had no confidence that votes would be counted accurately.
That sentiment clearly tracks Trump’s false rhetoric about election fraud, a claim that has been rejected by Attorney General William Barr, dozens of federal courts and several prominent Republican senators. And the findings clearly demonstrate Trump's continued hold on the Republican base, something his fellow GOP politicians will contend with even after he leaves office.
TRUMP STILL A TURNOUT DRIVER -- FOR BOTH SIDES
Even though it carried risk, Perdue, who is trying to win a second term after his first one expired Sunday, and Loeffler, an appointed senator trying to win her first election, tethered themselves to Trump every step of the campaign.
Early returns and turnout projections show why.
Democrats were running stronger in the early voting than they did in November, and that had Republicans nervous. Those worries followed weeks of Trump railing that Biden stole the election, spurring GOP fears that he’d drive some of his loyalists to skip the runoff out of protest while also repelling moderate and GOP-leaning independents in urban and suburban areas.
GOP strategists felt somewhat better Tuesday as they watched turnout in conservative counties where early voting had lagged the fall pace considerably. Republicans also reported solid turnout in the outer ring of metro Atlanta, counties where Republicans still have troves of votes.
But, as it goes in the era of Trump, Democratic turnout appeared to stay strong as well. Officials in Fulton County, the most populous in the state and home to Atlanta, said Election Day turnout there exceeded what it was in November. Turnout among Black voters, who trend overwhelmingly Democratic, was particularly strong statewide. That adds up to a steep climb for Republicans.
RELATIVELY SMOOTH SO FAR
Even with Trump's steady drumbeat of falsehoods about the voting process, state elections authorities and officials from both parties said Tuesday’s voting and the count appeared smooth.
A few precincts had extended hours but there were no reports of hours-long lines or precincts that ran out of provisional paper ballots. Elections officials also took advantage of rules changes since November that allowed advance processing of absentee ballots — so they can be counted more quickly.
That doesn’t mean the count won’t last into Wednesday or beyond, but for now, Georgia officials seemed to be managing the process without major issues.
KEMP FACES TROUBLE
Trump endorsed Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp during a contentious GOP primary in 2018, only to call him “incompetent” and promise to campaign against him in 2022 because he didn’t heed Trump’s demands to reverse the Georgia presidential election results.
According to AP VoteCast, Republican voters are siding with Trump.
About 6 in 10 Republican voters approve of Kemp’s handling of the election aftermath. In November, AP VoteCast found about 9 in 10 Trump backers approved of Kemp’s overall job performance.
Kemp already was facing the prospect of a strong general election challenge from Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is expected to seek a rematch from her 2018 loss. She would come into the race with a boost from all her voter registration work that paid off with Biden's win and competitive Senate races. But for Kemp, it now appears he has to shore up his standing in his own party before thinking about a general election.
DEMOCRATS HIGH-TOUCH GROUND GAME
Democrats seem to have had a broader reach than Republicans in contacting voters. About 6 in 10 voters say they were contacted on behalf of Democratic candidates, compared with about half for Republican candidates.
Democrats’ ground game may have helped them turn out voters. Overall, about 4 in 10 said they were contacted and responded with a pledge or commitment to vote. These voters were more likely to favor Ossoff and Warnock than Perdue and Loeffler.
NEW RESIDENTS CHANGING POLITICS
AP VoteCast showed signs that newcomers to Georgia were more Democratic than longtime residents of the state. Those who have lived in the state for longer than 20 years leaned Republican, while those who have moved more recently favored Democrats.
Associated Press reporters Josh Boak and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington and Kate Brumback in Atlanta a contributed.