ATLANTA (CN) — As Georgians headed to the polls Tuesday to cast their votes in statewide primary races for a number of state offices and Congress, all eyes are on the race for governor, where Democrats will decided whether Stacey Abrams or Stacey Evans is the state’s first female nominee for governor.
If Abrams prevails and goes on to win the November election, she would become the first black female governor in any state capital and a standard-bearer for the so-called “blue wave” inspired by disapproval of President Donald Trump.
In all, five Republicans and two Democrats are competing to succeed Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who cannot run for reelection due to term limits.
Abrams, a former Georgia House minority leader Evans, an attorney and former state Representative, are competing for the change to bring home the first gubernatorial win for Democrats since Roy Barnes was elected Georgia governor in 1998.
Abrams, who has received national attention thanks to endorsements from high-profile politicians including Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and California Sen. Kamala Harris, hopes to edge out Evans with a strategy focused on winning over left-leaning minority voters.
Evans has adopted a more conventional Democratic strategy focusing on appealing to independent voters and moderates.
According to Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University, Abrams’ gamble may pay off.
“The Democratic primary electorate is going to be probably 60% or more African-American. That would give a significant advantage, I would think, to Stacey Abrams in the primary,” Abramowitz explained. “Evans would have to win over a pretty large share of African-American votes. She’d have to make significant in-roads there… We’ve seen white candidates win Democratic primaries in Georgia, but whether she can do it against an African-American candidate is the question.”
But Abrams and Evans are up against a formidable field of Republican challengers. Voters will choose between five Republican men: incumbent Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle, former state Senator Hunter Hill, incumbent Secretary of State Brian Kemp, ex-Navy SEAL Clay Tippins, and former state Senator Michael Williams.
Republicans currently control every statewide office in Georgia and maintain a majority in the Georgia legislature.
“In terms of bench strength, Republicans currently have the advantage,” Abramowitz said. “But I think Georgia is not as much of a Republican stronghold as it used to be. Trump only carried Georgia by 5 percentage points.”
With three statewide election victories, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is undoubtedly the man to beat.
Cagle, who made headlines in Feb. 2018 for threatening to kill tax benefits for Delta Air Lines after the airline ended its affiliation with the National Rifle Association, has received the endorsement of the NRA and promised to expand gun rights if elected. He has also vowed to a sign a “religious liberty” bill and promised to “sign the toughest abortion laws in the country.” He maintains a significant lead in the polls.
Cagle’s closest polling competitor, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, has made similar promises in his campaign to win over rural conservative voters. Kemp has adopted a “Georgia First” mantra to echo President Trump’s rallying cry and pledged to crack down on illegal immigration.
It’s likely that voters will be split between Kemp and Cagle and that neither candidate will receive 50 percent of the vote. Experts say that a July 24 runoff between the candidates is imminent.
Despite the efforts of Georgia Democrats energized by Sen. Doug Jones’ Dec. 2017 win in Alabama and Jon Ossoff’s June 2017 near-win in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, Republican turnout during early voting, which began on April 30, surpassed Democratic turnout.
During the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, Republican ballots made up 61 percent of early and absentee primary votes. Democratic ballots made up only 37 percent.
Data released by Kemp’s office showed that the share of Republican ballots during early voting this year shrunk to 53 percent while Democratic ballots grew to 46 percent.
The total number of early voting ballots cast was down from roughly 329,000 in 2016 to 320,000 this year.
It was Cobb County women who made up a majority of the primary voters going in and out of the Cochise Riverview Clubhouse on a hot Tuesday afternoon to cast their ballots.
Democrat Shymere Whatley said she voted for Stacey Evans for governor over Stacey Abrams and emphasized the importance of participating in primary elections.
“I think honestly it gives the community an actual opportunity to exercise what it is they feel like will bring the best type of demographics to the community, mass transit to the community as well as being able to vocalize what it is that you want to see done for the betterment of the community,” Whatley said.
Wrenda Crain and her husband Ken voted for Hunter Hill in the Republican primary.
“We feel like he’s served in the military and he’s been a Green Beret and he stands for Christian ethics,” Crain said.
Raquel Campbell, a Democrat, said she wasn’t sure who she was going to vote for upon entering the precinct.
“I’m not political, I’m just doing my part,” Campbell said.
A woman who asked not to be identified said she voted for “Democrats and only women.”
According to the Cobb County elections office, just under 13,000 county residents voted early as of May 18, and 1,7000 voted by mail.
Young Democrats turned out in Chatham County in force.
“It’s a pivotal moment in the state of Georgia in terms of elections and leadership. There’s a lot on this ballot,” says Katie Willoughby, 31, whose background is in public administration.
Willoughby is from Savannah but lived in Washington for several years. She’s a Stacey Abrams advocate for governor since Stacey Evans “went negative towards the end,” she said.
“We used to be really red [in Georgia] and now there’s a direction towards blue for a number of reasons: there are lots of people moving into Georgia because of industry change, also there’s more local engagement in rural areas. We need to change gerrymandering because that’s a big issue here,” she said.
“There’s a lot of actual competition in the primaries now. But I feel like there’s not enough engagement in the primaries [with voters].”
Lauren Middleton, a 31-year-old doctor, said she doesn’t think Trump is going to be impeached.
“For the same reason that we’re commenting that not many people are here [at the polls], there’s not enough of an active movement to make it through,” Middleton said. “This is the first primary I’ve ever voted in, I’m embarrassed to say. We’re closer to a black woman being governor than Trump being impeached.”
Travis Easterlin, 34-year-old boat captain, believes Trump will be impeached. He said he was a Republican but became a Democrat after learning more about the party from his fiancée and her family.
“Nationally, I believe it’s [the Democratic party] a little more fair for the people,” he said. “I never really followed politics because of the drama, but then my fiancée got me into it.”
Easterlin is originally from South Carolina and moved to Savannah.
NBC News freelancer Doug Suttle, 39, says it’s his duty to vote in the primaries and he’s grateful to have the opportunity to vote. He said he has voted in the primaries since 2008.
“We need to utilize this right. It’s more important now than ever. I’ve had issues in the past about voting and felt like it didn’t matter. At primaries there’s not a high turnout but it’s important to vote and show we care,” Suttle said.
“Things have changed with this administration. Things are so crazy right now that Pence doesn’t make me nervous at all. Where we are now makes me nervous. They’re not doing enough for the American people. If someone is accountable for illegal actions, we need to hold them to that, just like with Bill Clinton.”
Alexander Brown, 32, is an arborist originally from North Carolina who just moved from California to Georgia.
“This is my first time voting in Georgia. In California, it’s so easy because there’s just a ton of information sent to you and there’s such a giant conversation. I don’t think any of my co-workers voted today. They asked me if today was election day.”
One of Brown’s primary concerns in the state’s mass transit system.
“How money flows around and how people are able to move around is very important – this is why there’s a giant economic disparity in Georgia. Money and people need to be able to move around.”
Brown said he also wants political leaders who support the LGBT community.
Aimee Sachs in Cobb County and Eva Fedderly in Chatham County contributed to this report.