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Georgia primary could have ripple effect on national politics

The outcome of contests to determine the Republican nominee for the state's most critical government positions will show how much voters are still influenced by Trump and the 2020 election.

ATLANTA (CN) — Georgia took the national spotlight when former President Donald Trump slammed state officials for not backing his claims of a rigged election in 2020, and next month’s primary will show whether Peach State Republicans support his debunked theory.

"There's basically two wings of the Republican Party currently and Georgia is sort of a microcosm of that being fought out between the Trump wing and the non-Trump wing. And so, part of the question is also going to be who prevails and what what implications does that have for the general election," said Amy Steigerwalt, professor and associate chair of Georgia State University's Department of Political Science and editor-in-chief of the Justice System Journal.

She added, "There's a lot less of that type of either ideological or personal sort of division on the Democratic side, there's obviously a single candidate for the governor's race. So that makes it a lot easier for her, but that's going to be what everybody is watching."

Stacey Abrams, who has become well known in the Democratic community for her voting rights advocacy, is running again as the party's only candidate for governor with no challenger in the May 24 primary.

Abrams lost to Governor Brian Kemp in 2020, but they could potentially face a rematch in the November general election if Kemp advances as the Republican nominee.

Kemp, who has been repeatedly criticized by Trump in the aftermath of the 2020 election, faces a contentious challenge from the former president's chosen candidate, former U.S. Senator David Perdue.

The two have butted heads in two debates the past week, blaming one another for Republican election losses and arguing over who is more capable of beating Abrams.

Perdue has continued to reiterate Trump's disproven claim that the 2020 presidential election and the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia were "stolen" by Democrats and that Kemp is responsible.

"I was secretary of state for eight years," Kemp said during the first debate in Atlanta on Sunday, "and I don't need to be lectured by someone that lost their last election about what our voting laws are and who has responsibilities for those in our state."

A former executive at Reebok and Dollar General, Perdue notoriously skipped a debate against Democrat Jon Ossoff, who eventually took his Senate seat in the January 2021 runoff.

Public speaker and civil rights advocate Catherine Davis, longtime educator Kandiss Taylor, and Tom Williams will also appear on the ballot in the Republican race for Georgia's top seat. In a push to shore up conservative support, Kemp has signed several laws recently including permitless firearm carry, income tax reductions and a number of culture-war related education policies.

The outcome of this election could have national implications, according to University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

"If Trump's endorsees do poorly, that will encourage others like Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis and others to give more serious consideration to running for president in 2024 since it would indicate a weakening of Trump's influence with the GOP electorate," said Bullock.

According to a recent survey conducted by the University of Georgia's School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center, 40.5% of voters said a Trump endorsement would make them much more or somewhat more likely to vote for a particular candidate, compared to half (50.5%) who said an endorsement would make no difference in their choice.

The former president appeared to have little effect on the governor's race, with Kemp polling about 10 points ahead of Perdue.

In the race for a U.S. Senate seat, Trump endorsee and former NFL and University of Georgia football star Hershel Walker appears to be the dominant favorite among Republican voters, despite his low-radar campaign strategy of only attending small, private gatherings.

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In this Nov. 3, 2020, file photo, a poll worker talks to a voter before they vote on a paper ballot on Election Day in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

"In the U.S. Senate contest, with or without Trump's endorsement, Hershel Walker is so far ahead, it just doesn't really matter," said M.V. (Trey) Hood, University of Georgia political science professor and director of the survey research center.

Walker's absence at the first major Republican Senate debate in Gainesville, allowed more stage time for his opponents: state Agricultural Commissioner Gary Black; contractor and military veteran Kelvin King; ex-state Representative Josh Clark; former Navy SEAL Latham Saddler; and former Brigadier General of the U.S. Army Jonathan McColumn.

Adversaries of Walker question his past, after his ex-wife accused him of violently threatening her. On Thursday, a Democratic-leaning political action committee requested an investigation by the Department of Justice into his inconsistent business financial disclosures.

In last year's runoffs, Georgia voters elected Democrats to the U.S. Senate for the first time in two decades. The Reverend Raphael Warnock, a senior pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, became the state's first Black senator and now he is seeking reelection.

Warnock is up against one other Democratic candidate, Tamara Johnson-Shealey, who wants to provide financial services to descendants of slaves, raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and expand Medicare.

As some voters blame incumbent lawmakers for the inflated costs of gas and other goods, Warnock vowed to "lower the costs for consumers" and suspend the federal fuel tax.

Democratic victories in the last election were partly due to Georgia's changing demographics throughout recent years, according to Steigerwalt, creating what she compares to a twist ice cream cone of red and blue.

"A lot of people moving in to the cities. We've brought in a lot of industry here and so, we now have headquarters from major tech companies that are in Georgia and things like that. So what we've seen is a real change and that's becoming increasingly reflected in the politics," said Steigerwalt, the Georgia State University professor.

"It's sort of always been true that Atlanta has been blue, generally speaking cities are bluer than sort of, suburban, rural, and exurban areas, but what we've seen and what was kind of noticeable about 2020 is that the circle really expanded to where it was encompassing," she said. "On the other hand, a lot of the other parts of Georgia, that are red, became even redder."

Multiple Democratic candidates are pursuing the role of Georgia's top election official, including state Representative Bee Nguyen, cybersecurity expert Michael Owens, former state Senator Floyd Griffin, former Fulton County Commissioner John Eaves and former state Representative Dee Dawkins-Haigler.

Incumbent Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is up for reelection but has drawn scrutiny from both sides of the political coin for his handling of voting, most notably from Trump and his followers after Raffensperger refused to comply with Trump's request to "find" enough votes to give him a victory over President Joe Biden.

Although the state's electoral votes were certified by bipartisan officials in early January 2021, Trump's denial of his loss is echoed with his endorsement of Congressman Jody Hice, a "Stop the Steal" conspiracist who is leading Raffensperger in the latest survey.

Abram's voting rights advocacy group, Fair Fight Action, is also suing Raffensperger's office in federal court over several hurdles Georgian's face in the voting process.

"I think the number one concern for Georgians, hands down, is voting rights, and about ensuring we all have equitable access to the ballot box," said Dontaye Carter, communications chair of the Fulton County Democratic Committee.

From May 1-3, Georgia Public Broadcasting will livestream and broadcast debates scheduled for the governor, U.S. Senate secretary of state and lieutenant governor races, plus other contests, as part of the Loudermilk-Young Debate Series.

Early voting for the primary begins on May 2 and Georgia voters can check their registration status, find their poll precinct, and request a mail-in application here.

"We focus a lot on politics, the campaigns and on the horse race, but that's not what this is really about. It's about policy. It's about the actual laws that are going to be passed and the decisions that are made and how that's going to affect you every single day," Steigerwalt said.

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