Abrams and Warnock need rural Black voters to turnout again One group that could help 2022 statewide Democratic candidates is Georgia's rural Black voters. They helped Stacey Abrams get close in 2018 and later pushed two Democratic U.S. senators to victory.

Georgia's rural Black voters helped propel Democrats before. Will they do it again?

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

People frequently make assumptions in politics, such as Democrats sweep cities and often the suburbs. Republicans, on the other hand, dominate rural America. So why are Democrats like Stacey Abrams and Senator Raphael Warnock campaigning in some of the most rural stretches of Georgia? WABE's Sam Gringlas explains.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Johnnie Armstrong has voted in Albany, Ga., since 1955. Though he remembers a time when local officials tried to keep Black voters like him from the ballot box.

JOHNNIE ARMSTRONG: Give you a bottle - a big thing - got a lot of marbles in it. You guess how many marbles, then you can vote.

GRINGLAS: So for Armstrong, it felt remarkable that, some 70 years later, he got to help elect Georgia's first Black U.S. Senator, Raphael Warnock, and that today Warnock has come to Albany as he campaigns for a full term right in front of the Ray Charles statue downtown.

RAPHAEL WARNOCK: More importantly, let's win the future for all of our children. God bless you, Albany, Ga.

GRINGLAS: Until recently, a statewide candidate spending time here in this thinly populated, substantially Black southwest corner of Georgia was virtually unheard of. For years, Democrats failed to win statewide in Georgia. But the ground shifted four years ago when Stacey Abrams made her first bid for governor. Instead of bending over backwards to court more conservative voters, Abrams focused on activating nonvoters and irregular voters, especially people of color, in overlooked parts of the state.

DEMETRIUS YOUNG: We have to kind of hold the ground that we've gained.

GRINGLAS: That's Albany commissioner Demetrius Young.

ARMSTRONG: I know everybody kind of looks at Atlanta as an African American mecca, but if you followed this blue wave, it came right through Albany, down into southwest Georgia.

GRINGLAS: Abrams' strategy got her within 55,000 votes of the governor's mansion in 2018. Two years later, it helped deliver wins for Joe Biden and two Democratic senators. This year, the races for Senate and governor are tight. Young says he's glad candidates come here now, but they need to deliver on their promises for a region that's not benefited as much from the state's economic growth.

YOUNG: You know, with the pandemic, it ripped wide open the disparities that we knew already were there.

GRINGLAS: Roughly a quarter of southwest Georgians live below the poverty line. For a time, Albany had the country's worst per capita death rate from COVID. And after several grueling election cycles, many voters are tired. Organizers like Shayla Jackson are trying to combat that.

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GRINGLAS: On a drizzly Monday, Jackson is canvassing a block of small homes. Backyard chickens roam freely.

SHAYLA JACKSON: Hello. Hi. My name is Shayla. I'm with the New Georgia Project. I was trying to find Ms. Lavasha Hooks.

LAVASHA HOOKS: Yes, ma’am.

GRINGLAS: The nonpartisan New Georgia Project is one group working to engage voters. More than 50,000 have registered in southwest Georgia since 2018. The New Georgia Project says the majority are nonwhite.

JACKSON: What is the one thing you would like to change in the community, or what motivates you to vote?

HOOKS: I mean, there’s so many to choose from, it’s just hard to just say one.

GRINGLAS: Hooks says she plans to vote, but she hasn't really thought about the midterms yet. And frankly, she doesn't think politicians have done much to improve things.

HOOKS: The wages are too low at my current job. Everything is just more expensive.

GRINGLAS: Outside Albany, city blocks give way to acres of cotton and peanut crops. An hour up U.S. 82 is the town of Cuthbert. Its only hospital closed a few years ago.

RHONDA JONES-JOHNSON: When the hospital closed, it became like a sudden death to us. It broke some of our lives.

GRINGLAS: Rhonda Jones-Johnson was a nurse there. This spring, she spoke alongside Stacey Abrams, who held her first formal campaign stop in front of the shuttered hospital and has made rural hospital closures a focus of her candidacy. At the event, Jones-Johnson described how her aunt died waiting to access care.

JONES-JOHNSON: We had only one ambulance in the county, no emergent care. If only we had a hospital open here, I truly believe that her life could have been saved.

GRINGLAS: Both parties are trying to convince voters far from metro Atlanta that they're listening. Republicans, like Governor Brian Kemp and Senate candidate Herschel Walker, are barnstorming wider rural communities, rallying their most reliable voters. Democrats, meanwhile, need to slice into the GOP's margins in rural counties.

Youth organizer Maggie Bell appreciates the specific challenges this region faces.

MAGGIE BELL: Just here, just swatting the gnats as I go.

GRINGLAS: She also says the rural South is more diverse and more vibrant than outsiders may imagine. Just spend an afternoon on the campus of Albany State University, a historically Black college and home of the Marching Rams.

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GRINGLAS: Bell graduated in the spring.

BELL: I think when people think of rural voters, they think of farmers, white people. But really, there are Black people down here. There are Black people who want to be a part of the election process, but they don't get a knock at their door.

GRINGLAS: Bell feels the weight of history here, too. In 1961, Albany launched the country's first mass civil rights movement to desegregate a city. Bell says she's optimistic about what can happen as voters here harness their power.

BELL: Pay attention to these counties because once you engage and mobilize Black people and brown people in these counties, you will actually see your work come to fruition.

GRINGLAS: Most analysts say that suburban voters are still the most important group determining swingy elections in Georgia. Bell believes organizers have to work for every vote, especially in a state where election outcomes have become famously close.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Albany, Ga.

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