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Runoff takeaways: Trump’s long shadow not fading yet

Bill Barrow
Associated Press

Atlanta – 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 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.

Election workers tabulate ballots at the Beauty P. Baldwin Voter Registrations and Elections Building, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, in Lawrenceville, Ga.

Here are some early takeaways:

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.

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 even 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 better Tuesday as they watched steady turnout in conservative counties where early voting had lagged the fall pace considerably. Republicans also reported strong 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.

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.

TEAM SPIRIT

The four candidates ran essentially as two teams, a reflection of the national stakes. But there was always the possibility of a split result – most likely driven by a slice of voters who might vote in just one of the two races.

Indeed, as early returns piled up Tuesday night, Warnock consistently had several thousand more votes than Ossoff. The early vote showed a strong Black turnout; Warnock would be Georgia’s first Black senator in history.

Republicans need just one Georgia win for a majority in Washington. Democrats need both seats.

TRUMPISM WON’T FADE

Whatever the final outcomes, the prospects of such a close election almost certainly won’t discourage Republicans from continuing to model their appeals after Trump. Maybe not the wholesale embrace that Perdue and Loeffler used, but certainly not a full-scale retreat.

Trump continued to demonstrate an iron grip on the party even after he lost his own reelection bid. He’s still the president who drew thousands to rallies where attendees were clearly more enamored with him than with either Georgia senator, and that’s the core of the Republican primary electorate that chooses nominees.

Because of Democrats’ strength in metro Atlanta, Trump’s appeal ultimately could fall short – but it’s also what overwhelmed Democratic Senate challengers in several other hotly contested races around the country in November, putting the GOP in position to defend a majority that many observers thought was lost heading into November.

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 with him after getting a boost from all her voter registration work for Democrats. Now it 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.