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Georgia enters final days of pivotal Senate races

We're now just days away from the final elections of the 2020 campaign, with two critical runoffs in Georgia determining control in the U.S. Senate. More than 2.8 million people have cast ballots so far. Stephen Fowler, a political reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, joins Woodruff to discuss what is at stake.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're now just days away from the final elections of the 2020 campaign, two critical run-offs in Georgia that will determine control of the U.S. Senate.

    Today is the final day of in person early voting in the state, and more than 2.8 million people have cast ballots so far.

    For an update on what's at stake, I'm joined by Stephen Fowler. He is a political reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting. He's also host of the "Battleground: Ballot Box" podcast.

    Stephen Fowler, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    I guess the news today is that Senator David Perdue is quarantining after being exposed to COVID. Where does that leave this contest?

  • Stephen Fowler:

    For the last several weeks, really, all of the candidates have been crisscrossing Georgia, trying to squeeze out every vote that they can get.

    And David Perdue announced today that he — one of his campaign staffers tested positive for COVID-19. He and his wife both tested negative today, but, out of an abundance of caution, they are going to be quarantining.

    Now, the last day of early voting is today, and the next big day is Tuesday, January 5. But the night before, Perdue and Senator Kelly Loeffler are supposed to headline at a big get-out-the-vote rally in Northwest Georgia headlined by President Donald Trump.

    It's unclear at this time whether David Perdue will be in attendance, but it's definitely something that you don't want to have happen days before the biggest election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No question, a complicating factor.

    President Trump, he has been critical of the governor of the state and others who didn't want to challenge the victory of Joe Biden in Georgia. The two senators — it's put the two senators, you were telling us, in very much of a box.

    How is that working? The president's been tweeting about Georgia. How do you see the president's role right now in this race?

  • Stephen Fowler:

    President Trump has put Perdue and Loeffler between a rock and a hard place.

    On the one hand, you have President Trump attacking Georgia's elections, attacking the Republican governor, the Republican secretary of state, and claiming that the election was rigged and there was fraud and that people shouldn't trust the outcome.

    On the other hand, you have plenty of voters that are turned off by that kind of rhetoric and are saying that they're going to stay home and that they're not going to participate in this election or they're going to vote for the Democrats because the Democrats aren't trying to undermine democracy.

    So, Perdue and Loeffler have been trying to make sure that they capture enough of Georgia's Republican base in this run-off by siding with the president and calling for our secretary of state to resign, but, at the same time, they have to try to remember that Georgia is a very, very purple state right now, and they can't turn off those moderates by making false claims of election fraud.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we have been reading about concern among Republicans about what the president's going to say when he is in Georgia.

    But let's talk about the Democrats today. Big turnout, we have seen throughout the early voting period right up through today. What does that tell you in terms of these long lines, Stephen Fowler, and where they are?

  • Stephen Fowler:

    Well, Judy, there are three key constituencies to watch for in Georgia.

    One is what you're seeing right now in suburban Atlanta. Those are the voters that voted for Joe Biden in the presidential race that may end up still voting for Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in this election. And Metro Atlanta is turning outs in full force.

    Another one to watch is down in Southwest Georgia, the Black Belt of Georgia, where there's a large African American Democratic population. They have been turning out in force as well, coming very close to the general election levels. In fact, some of the early voting data that I have looked at suggests that there are about 3 percent of the electorate is higher — there's about 3 percent more African American percentage of voters in this election than in the general election, which is a good sign for Democrats.

    And the final one is up in Northwest Georgia, the Republican base, where turnout is lagging behind, and Republicans hope that a big Election Day surge can counteract this huge Democratic early vote.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's a challenge without President Trump on the ballot.

  • Stephen Fowler:

    That's right, without President Trump on the ballot, and with President Trump saying don't trust absentee-by-mail voting or Georgia's election system and the voting machines, which are, frankly, the only two ways to vote.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That coupled, as you say, with the remarkable turnout in communities where Black voters are turning out in large numbers is something everybody's watching.

    But, very quickly, Stephen Fowler, to what the candidates are saying. We have seen the Republican candidates going after the Democrats, calling them radical liberals. And we're seeing the Democrats push back.

    Let's just listen to a short clip of each one, of each side.

  • Sen. Kelly Loeffler:

    Radical liberal Raphael Warnock.

    Radical liberal Raphael Warnock.

    Radical liberal Raphael Warnock.

    From radical liberal Raphael Warnock.

  • Jon Ossoff:

    Here's the bottom line, Kelly Loeffler has been campaigning with a Klansman. Kelly Loeffler has been campaigning with a Klansman.

    And so she is stooping to these vicious personal attacks to distract from the fact that she has been campaigning with a former member of the Ku Klux Klan.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Stephen Fowler, that comment yesterday from Jon Ossoff, who, of course, is running against David Perdue. The Kelly Loeffler comments which we put together were from a debate a few weeks ago.

    But it gives you a sense of the flavor of this contest.

  • Stephen Fowler:

    The key to trying to define the opposition from both Democrats and Republicans is these short-and-sweet phrases.

    In the one debate David Perdue did conduct with Jon Ossoff, he kept calling him and his radical socialist tendencies over and over again. So the Republicans are trying to paint Ossoff and Warnock as these two extremely liberal, radical, out-of-touch politicians that aren't good for Georgia.

    And Ossoff and Warnock are trying to paint Perdue and Loeffler as crooks who don't have Georgia's best interests at heart and are out of touch with reality.

    So, the key message also that we're seeing there are really resonating on both sides with this turnout that we're seeing and with the closing messages of this campaign.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You were telling us, Stephen Fowler, I mean, this is a state, of course, Georgia has voted red, has sent mostly Republicans to Washington.

    So, for the Democrats to be holding their own at this point is somewhat remarkable in the state of Georgia, isn't it??

  • Stephen Fowler:

    Well, to the outsiders, perhaps, but, in Georgia, for the last two years, it's been something building.

    The demographics of Georgia have changed in the last decade .There have been a million so voters that have come in Metro Atlanta alone, two million in the state overall.

    And in the 2018 governor's race, where Stacey Abrams narrowly lost to Brian Kemp, the Democrats invested in parts of the state that didn't normally get a lot of attention. And they put grassroots campaigns and door-knocking and canvassing, and slowly started to eat into the margins there, while ramping up operations in Metro Atlanta.

    And that's only built up for the last two years, where you have got a competitive infrastructure, and you have got Democrats showing up in force, and ultimately putting about 12,000 votes ahead to give Joe Biden the electoral votes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it is a race, two races that the nation is watching very closely.

    Stephen Fowler with Georgia Public Broadcasting, thank you so much. And happy new year.

  • Stephen Fowler:

    Thank you.

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