MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The year is 2022, yet 2020 is on the ballot in Georgia's Republican primaries Tuesday. The big lie has been a big issue up and down the ballot in Georgia, including the race for governor. Here's former GOP Senator David Perdue, who is challenging Governor Brian Kemp for his job.
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DAVID PERDUE: The election in 2020 was rigged and stolen. The madness we see in the Biden administration started right here in Georgia, when Brian Kemp caved and let radical Democrats steal the election.
KELLY: That is false. But it is echoed by Jody Hice, who's running for secretary of state.
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JODY HICE: I believe the election here in Georgia reeked with fraudulent activity.
KELLY: It's not just GOP candidates who are still talking about the false claim, championed by former President Donald Trump, of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. It's also on the minds of voters like Steve Dallanegra, who finds the 2020 results hard to believe.
STEVE DALLANEGRA: You know, I drove all over the state, and I think I saw two Biden signs. And yet he won.
KELLY: And Robert Duffy, a two-time Trump voter who is now tired of the false 2020 claims, this time he is not supporting Trump's choice for governor in this primary.
ROBERT DUFFY: It's a bit of a turnoff at this point. Why are we looking back at this point? I think it's deterring our efforts in the Republican Party to move forward.
KELLY: CONSIDER THIS - voters in several states head to the polls Tuesday. In Georgia, the primary results will set up the stakes for the national balance of partisan power and perhaps the soul of the GOP. From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's May 23.
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KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. So, yeah, this is what the Republican primary for governor has sounded like in Georgia.
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PERDUE: He said it was a clean election. He denies anything happened.
BRIAN KEMP: I had never say that. I have never said that, ever.
PERDUE: Did you not think it was a clean election?
KEMP: I've never said it was a clean election. You're putting words in my mouth.
PERDUE: The difference between you and me, Governor - well...
KELLY: Brian Kemp, the current Republican governor, and David Perdue, his Republican challenger, backed by Donald Trump. You hear Kemp there insisting he never said the 2020 election was, quote, "clean," with Perdue going much farther, claiming falsely it was plagued by fraud.
RAHUL BALI, BYLINE: Perdue's top issue, like the former president's top issue, was that the 2020 election was stolen, including here in Georgia.
KELLY: Rahul Bali covers state politics in Georgia for WABE in Atlanta.
BALI: And we've said it once. We've said it plenty of times. There have been investigations, lawsuits, looking at what happened, and the claims have just not panned out.
KELLY: But so far, that hasn't stopped David Perdue or indeed many other Trump-backed Republican candidates for office around the country from repeating false claims about election fraud. The questions in Tuesday's primary election are, will voters in Georgia be motivated in 2022 by messages about 2020? And what does all of this say about the political power of the former president? I spoke with Rahul Bali about that and about Georgia's other big primaries this week. We started with the race for governor, where all the tension for this primary is on the Republican side.
BALI: You know, absolutely. It's because Democrat Stacey Abrams is running unopposed. Incumbent Governor Brian Kemp is being challenged by former U.S. Senator David Perdue. He was pushed into this race by the former president. And Perdue's top issue, like the former president's top issue, was that the 2020 election was stolen, including here in Georgia. And we've said it once. We've said it plenty of times. There have been investigations, lawsuits, looking at what happened, and the claims have just not panned out.
KELLY: This is false. Yeah.
KELLY: But Perdue is - I mean he opened more than one of his televised debates saying - repeating that line.
BALI: Exactly. There have been three televised debates. And this is how he opened two of them.
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PERDUE: The election in 2020 was rigged and stolen. The madness we see in the Biden administration started right here in Georgia, when Brian Kemp caved and let radical Democrats steal the election.
BALI: And we've been hearing the same thing on the campaign trail. This is usually the first thing that he brings up, these false claims around the 2020 elections.
KELLY: Are voters buying it? What do the polls say?
BALI: What it's looking like is that David Perdue has really not expanded that group of voters who believe that. His numbers have really kind of just stayed the same since he's announced. So there was a recent Fox News poll that showed Governor Brian Kemp with a lead of 32%. There was a new poll this morning from a local news organization that put the margin at 14%. But let me tell you - here's the number that matters - 50%. In the state of Georgia, you need 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff. And this is what it's all about. David Perdue is trying to get Governor Kemp into a runoff. Governor Kemp is just trying to avoid one.
KELLY: If Kemp manages to succeed and avoid that runoff - if he gets his 50%, he would face, as you mentioned, Stacey Abrams in November, which would be quite the rematch from their last race. What would be different this time around?
BALI: It's four years later. You know, Governor Kemp has his record of four years as governor, something he's going to point to. Abrams is going to look at that same record, and she's going to attack it. You know, for Georgia Republicans, they're going to try to attach Stacey Abrams to the Biden administration and the issues that are plaguing the administration - for example, inflation. And then you've got to talk about abortion. You know, with the possibility of Roe being overturned, kicking it back to the states, you know, talking to people on the ground - it is going to engage both sides. It's going to engage abortion rights opponents and those who support them. The question is, how many more voters could this bring to the polls?
KELLY: Let's move to the Senate race. This is for the seat currently occupied by Democrat Raphael Warnock. He is trying to defend his seat. Where does this race stand?
BALI: So it's looking like the Republican choice is going to be Herschel Walker. That's a name that some people may recognize - they may not recognize it. It's a former football star. He was the centerpiece of the 1980 University of Georgia National Football Title team. A big name here, but so is Raphael Warnock. He is the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church - the church that was once pastored by Martin Luther King Jr. This is going to be two big names going after each other in a tight race. And these are both Black men fighting for a seat in the Deep South. So this is - it's going to be a really interesting race to watch. You're going to have star power, obviously. You're going to see Donald Trump, who has supported Herschel Walker's race - really pushed Herschel Walker into this race. And you can expect big names to come down to this state for Senator Warnock as well.
KELLY: One more race I want to throw in the mix - the race for secretary of state. This is the person who oversees elections in Georgia and not a race that usually we would be talking about on a national news program, but here we are.
BALI: That's right. You know, that's a race that doesn't really get attention here in Georgia as well. But, you know, the position was thrown into the national spotlight after the election in 2020. You may remember that former President Donald Trump had that phone call with the current Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger. That call was taped, and in that call, you hear him pressure to find enough votes to win the state of Georgia in 2020.
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DONALD TRUMP: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have, because we won the state...
BALI: And obviously, in the end, Raffensperger refused, along with Governor Kemp, and both of them became the target of former President Trump's rage. Raffensperger is running again. He's facing a whole field of candidates who are focusing on the false election claims of 2020. Leading that pack is current Congressman Jody Hice. And that is the heart of his argument - that the elections were given away in 2020 here in Georgia.
KELLY: May I just say, I'm struck listening to you by how much this race in 2022 still seems totally dominated by 2020 and by former President Trump? How large does he loom over these primaries tomorrow in Georgia?
BALI: He's a key factor. He's a key conversation point in all of this. You know, Donald Trump has endorsed 13 candidates up and down the ballot - congressional races. That's something we're going to be talking about. We just have to talk about it because it's - he's involved in the two top races on the Republican side - governor and U.S. Senate along with the secretary of state race we're talking about. Look, that is going to be a big conversation point on Wednesday morning when the results are in. What do these results mean? What is the power of the former president over voters - conservative and Republican voters in Georgia?
KELLY: So take me more inside the conversations that you are having with voters. I remember I was in Georgia last year for the runoff. I went to what ended up being Trump's last big outside D.C. rally as president. It was in Dalton in north Georgia. And person after person we spoke to were convinced that he had been robbed. What are you hearing now?
BALI: Mary Louise, it's not changed at all. The majority of Republican and conservative voters I talk to across this state believe something went wrong with the 2020 elections. The question simply is - how is that going to affect 2022? And the concern comes from voters like Lee from Commerce, Ga. - he wouldn't give his last name. I spoke to him at Donald Trump's rally in northeast Georgia earlier this year.
LEE: I'm afraid if you keep bringing it up, bringing it up, bringing it up, you're going to turn off a segment of our Republican conservative voters. I think that they might not come back and vote, you know, if it just keeps on and on, it was a fraud. It was a fraud. It was a fraud. You know, we need tough issues.
KELLY: Speaking of coming back and voting, Rahul, a record number of voters have already voted in early voting. How are you seeing the state's restrictive new voter laws play out?
BALI: So the jury is still out. Many of the changes had to do with absentee balloting. But did absentee balloting drop because people have gone back to in-person voting, setting those records you just mentioned? And also, did the numbers in absentee balloting drop because the Democratic races are not that compelling at the tops? As we mentioned, Stacey Abrams is unopposed. Senator Raphael Warnock has minimal opposition. So, you know, maybe we're going to have to wait till the runoff or November to really get an understanding of what Georgia's new election and voting law really means.
KELLY: So much suspense still ahead. Rahul Bali, thanks so much.
BALI: Thank you.
KELLY: There's a pretty suspenseful down-ballot primary happening in Georgia tomorrow, too. It is in the state's seventh congressional district. And if you remember seeing a lot of stories about redistricting, the redrawing of voting maps, this is one example of how it is playing out. Redistricting wiped out swing districts in Georgia, those that tend to flip between blue and red, including in suburban Atlanta. And Sam Gringlas of WABE in Atlanta says that has set up a very contentious showdown between two incumbent members of Congress.
SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: The sign-in table at this meeting of the Gwinnett County Democrats is covered in literature. There are sheets listing early voting locations, stacks of glossy campaign flyers and colorful maps of the new congressional districts. These new maps have Democrats like Catherine Valyi facing a difficult choice.
CATHERINE VALYI: We're talking about strong, intelligent, powerful ladies. But I'm leaning toward McBath.
GRINGLAS: Lucy McBath currently represents a district next door. She's a prominent gun control advocate who flipped the seat in 2018. But when Republican lawmakers redrew the maps last year, they made McBath's district a lot more friendly to Republicans. They squeezed as many Democrats as possible into this neighboring district currently represented by another Democrat, a former professor named Carolyn Bourdeaux. Two competitive districts became one very red district and one very blue district. McBath chose to challenge Bourdeaux in this safely blue seat.
LAURA RAYMOND: You know, she made her choice, and we just have to go with it.
GRINGLAS: Laura Raymond is working the sign-in desk. She's voting for Bourdeaux and thinks McBath should have stayed put and tried to engage more voters in her current district.
RAYMOND: I have found more Democrats who thought they were the only one in their neighborhood, and they're not.
GRINGLAS: Only a few dozen congressional seats are considered competitive in 2022 out of 435. Safe seats leave voters in the middle, who like having a choice of candidates in November, without much say. Brenda Lopez, who chairs the Gwinnett County Democrats, thinks that also makes Congress more dysfunctional. As a state legislator, Lopez saw how the proliferation of safe districts undercut the ability to work across the aisle. She heard that from her Republican colleagues all the time.
BRENDA LOPEZ: And the answer would be, you know, you're right. This is a bad idea. This is a bad policy. This is a bad law. But I have to vote for it because otherwise, they risk challenges in primaries.
GRINGLAS: Ryan McLaughlin says it's frustrating that, in Georgia, redistricting will likely result in one less Democrat in Congress just as they're building political power in Georgia. But McLaughlin doesn't think drawing competitive districts just for the sake of bipartisanship makes sense, either.
RYAN MCLAUGHLIN: We can't get into that trap of, it's got to be bipartisan. You know, every once in a while, fine. But, I mean, we just tried to codify Roe v. Wade after we had some pearl-clutching, and all those Republicans voted against it.
GRINGLAS: Now let's go to Lucy McBath's current district, the one she's leaving to challenge Bourdeaux.
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GRINGLAS: That's where I meet Jeanna Kelly and her dog, Baxter.
JEANNA KELLY: Do you want to show Sam your backyard (laughter)?
GRINGLAS: Kelly moved to this area a few years ago from a very conservative part of Georgia, excited to elect a candidate like McBath.
J KELLY: In Georgia, I haven't had the opportunity very often to feel like I'm ideologically aligned with a candidate who is poised to represent me.
GRINGLAS: Now this stretch of rapidly growing suburbia has been drawn into a district poised to elect a Republican. The top candidates are all pushing false claims about election fraud in 2020. Kelly worries safe districts elevate candidates who only reinforce the most extreme views of their voters.
J KELLY: Everything is so charged now in our current political climate, and I think that it's only getting worse.
GRINGLAS: Kelly is not deterred. She says she's going to keep volunteering, hoping that one day her district will become competitive again, giving her a shot to elect a candidate she's proud of.
KELLY: That was Sam Gringlas of member station WABE reporting. You also heard more of his reporting at the top of this episode.
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KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.
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