ATLANTA – At Atlanta's Chastain Park, investment bank logos abut ads for pizza joints and dentists on the outfield fences of the baseball diamonds. Sprinkled among Dodges and Toyotas are Audis and Alfa Romeos.
Some of Georgia's most affluent voters, formerly reliable cornerstones of the state's once-ascendant Republican majority, live in million-dollar houses here. They might be swayed by Joe Biden's calls to give him a chance to govern by electing Democrats in Georgia's twin Jan. 5 runoffs to decide which party controls the U.S. Senate. Or they might be Republicans who voted against President Donald Trump in November but will come home to the GOP, seeking divided government and low taxes.
George Peterson and his wife said they would call themselves Republicans, but voted for Biden in November because of Trump's “lack of leadership and lack of moral character.”
But Saturday they cast early ballots for Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler over Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
“We would like to see a balance of power between the three branches and we are not completely comfortable with the agenda of the left wing,” Peterson said. “We're that mythical middle you're looking for,” adding that he couldn't picture himself becoming a Democrat unless the party makes “dramatic” changes on the issues.
The choices of voters like the Petersons could determine the outcome of the elections. Biden eked out a narrow win of fewer than 12,000 votes in November out of nearly 5 million statewide, but it took all the elements of a surging coalition to get him there, including Republicans who defected from Trump. Perdue led Ossoff by about 88,000 votes, although the incumbent fell short of the majority required in Georgia because of votes won by a Libertarian.
Perdue outperformed Trump in many places where affluent voters predominate. His edge was obvious in eastern Cobb County, part of a suburban congressional district that Newt Gingrich once represented but where Democrat Lucy McBath comfortably won reelection to Congress. It showed in the exurban Republican stronghold of Forsyth County where Asian American voters are increasing, in the planned community of Peachtree City south of Atlanta, and in parts of the Augusta suburb of Columbia County. Perdue also ran ahead of Trump in wealthier areas of DeKalb County, a Democratic bastion where Trump won only two of 191 precincts and lost some areas 20-to-1.
“I think the attitude is I don't like Trump, but just give me a Republican I can vote for,” said J. Miles Coleman of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, who has studied Republican defections in Georgia. “I think they're still loyal to the party to some extent, but I think Trump has put those people more up for grabs.”
On the flip side, Trump won more votes than Perdue in many precincts dominated by African American voters, as well as in some rural Republican areas.
The place where Perdue had his biggest edge over Trump was in wealthy precincts on the north side of the city of Atlanta. In two precincts that normally vote at the Chastain Park gym, Trump edged Biden by 39 votes out of nearly 4,000 ballots. Perdue blew out Ossoff, winning 60% of the vote. That's more in line with historic Republican performance in the area, where Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama nearly 2-to-1 in 2012.
Republicans may have lost some voters permanently. Paige Levin said her switch came four years ago, when she voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Once a registered Republican in Pennsylvania — Georgia doesn't register voters by party — Levin said she has “zero respect” for Perdue and Loeffler. Still, she suspects many of her neighbors will back the Republicans.
“I know my neighbors,” Levin said. “You saw very few people put up Trump signs. Lots of people put up Perdue and Loeffler signs.”
Lee Kneer said he was drawn to Warnock, although “I still don’t necessarily consider myself a Democrat.”
Kneer said that too much of American life “seems to be set up to continue access and privilege for a small minority.”
“I think a lot of people just had enough of Trump, his shortcomings eventually outstripped the tax break,” Kneer said. “The people I know, they’re single-issue voters, and their single issue is how are their taxes going to be affected.”
Others are sticking with the GOP. Karen Forrester describes herself as “super-liberal on my social policy” but fiscally conservative.
“It’s hard to be a Republican right now,” she said, adding that she was backing Perdue — who she has met — citing his experience in business and six years in the Senate.
“I’m excited that Biden will bring us a little closer together, but I would like to have some balance,” she said.
Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.