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Long A Republican Stronghold, Georgia Is Starting To Look Like A Swing State

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Georgia has long been considered a Republican stronghold. But in this unusual election season, it's looking more and more like it could be a swing state. We've been checking in with member station reporters around the country to find out what they say voters are thinking about and saying. We're joined now by Emma Hurt of WABE in Atlanta. Emma, thanks so much for being with us.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: There's been some, what I'll call, neck-and-neck polling out there on the presidential race. But tell us about other - some of the significant statewide races and how they seem to be shaping up.

HURT: Yeah, so Georgia has this special status this year of being the only state with both of our Senate seats up for election in November. So I'll start with the traditional regularly scheduled race for Republican incumbent David Perdue's seat. He's in a tight race, too, with Jon Ossoff, the Democratic nominee. And Perdue is known as a close Trump ally, so he's having to walk a pretty fine line, trying to win over a state that's become competitive.

And then we also have this wild special election race. Senator Kelly Loeffler is a Republican who was appointed about 10 months ago. And according to the Georgia Constitution, that triggers a special election which is a free-for-all, so no party primaries. Everybody's on the same ballot in November. She's got 20 challengers, and one of them is Congressman Doug Collins, who's also a Republican. And that race has just become this bloody intraparty fight for Georgia Republicans that's highly likely to end up in a runoff in January.

SIMON: Probably not what Republicans wanted going into this November - is it? - a bloody intraparty quarrel.

HURT: Definitely not. And, you know, Loeffler has spent millions of her own money - she's independently wealthy - hammering Collins. He's been hammering her back, both questioning each other's Republican, you know, bona fides, trying to establish their own and trying to win over the conservative base. It's fair to say they're trying to out-Trump each other. And it's dividing the base. I was at a conservative conference in Atlanta last week, and a lot of people wouldn't even tell me who they were voting for in front of their friends. But I did meet two friends who would, and they're each voting for the other candidate. They're both from Woodstock, which is a town north of Atlanta. And Katrina Singletary, she's going to go with Loeffler even though she also likes Collins, though.

KATRINA SINGLETARY: I think Collins has a great track record, and I think he's a great Georgian. But Nikki Haley and our governor, Brian Kemp, has asked me to give Kelly a chance, so I'm going to do that. She hasn't let me down yet, but she's only been in there since the beginning of the year. So I'm going to hang in there with Kelly. I'm going to give her a chance to prove herself.

HURT: But then her friend, Maria Murray, said Loeffler feels like the establishment candidate, and she trusts Collins's track record more. That's, of course, the opposite of what Loeffler is trying to say about Collins. It's head-spinning. And as you said, a lot of strategists would say this is the last thing Georgia Republicans need heading to what's likely to be a competitive runoff.

And then there's this other tension, I think, for Republicans in Georgia right now. That's the candidacy of Marjorie Taylor Greene. So she won the Republican primary in a really conservative north Georgia House district and is pretty much guaranteed headed to Congress right now. And she's become controversial as someone who's repeated several Q-Anon conspiracy theories. And her popularity makes things really difficult for Republicans in the state who are trying to appeal statewide to more moderate voters.

SIMON: And you have to ask, in 2020, how do you think the pandemic has affected campaigns in the state and the feelings that many people have towards campaigning in politics?

HURT: There's been a big difference on the ground between Republican and Democratic campaigns. Republican campaigns, some of them almost look normal now - you know, large groups, few masks, sometimes, you know, all indoors. Democratic events are just starting, and they're very masked, very socially distant. I went to one Democratic event for Senate candidates last weekend. They were handing out signs to voters in their cars. And I talked to Imani Marley Husbands. She's from Lithonia. And she's really excited herself, but she sees this exhaustion in her neighbors and peers because of all of that.

IMANI MARLEY HUSBANDS: My neighbors, on a 1-to-10, I'd give them a 6 1/2. I saw a few signs in yards, mostly Biden-Harris. Other than that, there's not a lot of fervor because people are just sick of it. They're overdrawn because of COVID-19. That's draining enough.

HURT: I think we can all relate to that. But I also want to talk about this history for Georgia Democrats. Several election cycles in the past, there's hope the state will flip, and then it doesn't. And that's something that I heard from Judy Barnett. So she is a Democrat who lives in Columbus, decided to get more politically active in 2016. But she's still worried.

JUDY BARNETT: I don't want to even think that because I'm so encouraged. But, you know, I've gotten my hopes built up so many times that - and I've just decided I do think if he wins again, I don't think I can be political anymore. I'm just going to have to step away.

HURT: And I do just want to say, you can't deny that there's a new level of investment from the presidential campaigns and the Senate races on both sides of the aisle as people are fighting for these seats. But there is still this quiet anxiety for Democrats.

SIMON: Emma Hurt at WABE in Atlanta, thanks so much for being with us.

HURT: Thank you for having me. **** Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.