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Georgia Republicans May Lose Control Over The State's Politics After Almost 20 Years

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Georgia is one of a handful of states holding primary elections tomorrow. Two U.S. Senate seats are up for grabs. It's a tough political moment for Republicans, who've been in power for nearly two decades in the state. The coronavirus pandemic, street protests and political infighting are not helping the party as it goes up against energized Democrats. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Emma Hurt reports.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is visiting a produce wholesaler south of Atlanta which benefited from federal coronavirus relief.

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SONNY PERDUE: But I want to thank our congressional delegation for being here. Senator Loeffler's back here, Representative Austin Scott, Representative Doug Collins, Representative Rick Allen.

HURT: It's no accident Perdue drew so many politicians to the event. He was Georgia's first Republican governor in 130 years. His 2002 election heralded a new era of Georgia politics - one ruled by Republicans. And when asked whether the pendulum has started to swing back towards Democrats, he conceded there's truth to that.

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PERDUE: That's the way politics work. I think when one political party in power has it for a long time, there's a complacency that comes in. And that's why people have choices. It holds us all accountable.

HURT: Still, Perdue doesn't think Georgia's going to flip this year, but he sees the parallels. So does Heath Garrett, a Republican strategist who's worked in Georgia politics for decades. He says that the state's electorate has gotten younger, more diverse and more Democratic-leaning. Meanwhile, Republicans aren't changing as quickly, just like Democrats didn't years ago.

HEATH GARRETT: We also see a lot of very competitive intraparty Republican fighting trying to pull the Republican primaries farther to the right just about the same time that the general election in Georgia is moving more to the center, which creates the same conundrum for Republicans today that Democrats had 20 years ago.

HURT: Two of the politicians with Sonny Perdue at that warehouse, Senator Kelly Loeffler and Congressman Doug Collins, are at the center of one of those intraparty fights for Loeffler's Senate seat. It's the last thing Georgia Republicans needed in a race that was already going to be tough. Democrats have been narrowing the margins in Georgia for years. In 2016, Donald Trump won by about five points; in 2018, Republican Governor Brian Kemp by just 1 1/2. Recent Georgia polling puts Joe Biden neck and neck with President Trump.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: In general, Georgia Republicans have to just really reckon with the fact that it's not 2006 anymore...

HURT: Andra Gillespie teaches political science at Emory University.

GILLESPIE: ...And that they shouldn't expect to win elections in landslides and by comfortable margins.

HURT: It's all compounded, she says, by this season's headlines - protests, the pandemic, President Trump's approval ratings. Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, has been talking about the state's growing competitiveness for years. He's seen two main responses from Republicans - those that moderate their policies...

CHARLES BULLOCK: But then for others, I would characterize them as maybe kamikazes - that yeah, they see the Democrats coming, but...

HURT: They push through polarizing conservative legislation anyway, he says, like Georgia's recent anti-abortion law. Meanwhile, Georgia Democrats have been organizing. In 2018, they flipped one Republican House seat and came close to winning another. Teresa Tomlinson has been in Georgia politics for years and is running in the Democratic Senate primary.

TERESA TOMLINSON: And now you see Republicans beginning to wake up and take note and wonder if the strategy they had in the can is going to pull them out this time.

HURT: One Republican who says he's awake to the change is Sen. David Perdue. In audio obtained by CNN, he told activists that Georgia is in play. Still, his spokeswoman says Perdue remains confident voters will reelect him in November.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.