MILLEDGEVILLE — Baldwin County has mirrored the national outcome of presidential elections for more than three decades. But the margin of votes between Democrats and Republicans has grown increasingly narrow.
Home to the state’s capitol in Milledgeville from 1804-68 and the roundtable for state government during the Civil War, Baldwin County has strong historical ties to both Georgia and national politics.
Aside from backing Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, Baldwin County voters went for George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
But the batch of votes separating Democrat and Republican candidates in local, state and national races have become increasingly narrow, which longtime Baldwin lawmakers say will be evident this year, regardless of whether President Donald Trump or Democrat Joe Biden wins the county in November.
Despite the extreme rhetoric at the top of ticket, local party officials and candidates on both sides said the way to win independent and undecided voters is to meet them in the middle — not by pushing further to the right or left.
But voters in the county that has a population of a little more than 44,000 — at least 26,000 registered to vote — say the partisanship is still “palpable.”
‘As close to politically divided as you can get’
“Baldwin County is as close to divided politically probably as you can get,” said Janice Westmoreland, chair of the Baldwin County Republicans.
Although nearly divided down the middle, the county has been held by Democrats in presidential election votes since 2008. Hillary Clinton won the county over Donald Trump 49.5% to 47.8%.
“Some people say there goes the South there goes the nation,” said Quentin T. Howell, Baldwin County Democrats chair and Statehouse District 145 candidate. “Sometimes that’s true, sometimes it’s not.”
Both the Trump reelection campaign and Biden have the tall task in the final weeks before Nov. 3 to win over independent, swing and even moderate voters.
But as state and national candidates continue to push further on the ends of the political spectrum, it’s widely speculated that amid the divisive moment for the country, voters have already made up their minds — whether they side red or blue.
“Most people’s ideas, ideologies, wants and desires crisscross the political line. Only the people at the far ends — on the left and the right — say things have to be one way or another,” Howell said. “Most Americans aren’t at the far ends, we’re at the middle and that’s what makes America great. No pun intended.”
To the knowledge of House District 145 incumbent Rick Williams, he was the first Republican to hold the seat in the district and won it with 54% of the vote. Before him, independent Rusty Kidd represented all of Baldwin and the southern part of Putnam County.
“If you look back at my election four years ago, you could tell that I actually got some crossover Democrat votes,” he said. “Even though Baldwin County is pretty much 50-50.”
Williams attributes his support from swing voters to his history as the county’s chief registrar for 16 years when he worked with members of both parties. But despite living 51 years in the county, it’s hard to tell which presidential candidate it will side with next, Williams said, and surface level indications may not be all that telling.
“It’s kind of hard to judge. I see a lot more Trump signs than I do anyone else,” he said. “Then second, I see ‘boiled peanuts for sale.’”
Voices of Independents
Baldwin County’s independent voters fall into the hotly sought-after demographic in Georgia needed by the presidential candidates and incumbent U.S. Sen. David Perdue and his Democratic opponent Jon Ossoff.
John Cotten, a 72-year-old semi-retired Baptist music minister from Milledgeville, is one of those voters. Cotten said he considers himself “very much an independent” and can find flaws in both major parties.
“I will probably vote more conservatively this time. There’s some things about Joe Biden I am just not convinced I can vote for,” he said. “Particularly Kamala Harris, she’s even further on the side that I would not be comfortable with. That does not mean that I am a Trump fan in the sense that I think he could do no wrong.”
In a time when the country is gripped by a pandemic, outcries for racial justice and in the middle of selecting a new Supreme Court judge, he said, there is no issue in this election that is unimportant to voters.
An absentee ballot sits on Cotten’s kitchen table, received after he and his wife were diagnosed with COVID-19. But after their successful battle against the virus, they don’t plan on using them.
“We almost never miss even a local election,” he said. “Especially not a national presidential election.”
Division along racial lines
Like its politics, Baldwin’s racial demographics are split nearly directly in half 52% of residents are white, while nearly 47% are Black, Hispanic and other minorities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
A divide that has grown as the country has grown apart, locals said.
John Geist, former Air Force and retired business executive, said the partisan divide in Baldwin has been historically “almost palatable to taste.”
“It’s certainly divided politics in Baldwin. And I think it’s unfortunately, true that there are significant racial divisions,” he said. “I think that underlies an awful lot of the political haves and have nots. It’s been aggravated, I believe, most recently, by state and certainly national politics. This hasn’t been a good time, in terms of trying to bridge gaps and heal wounds.”
Floyd Griffin Jr., a former state senator and first Black mayor of Milledgeville, said he’s seen the “pendulum swing both ways” in Baldwin, from Democratic-leaning to Republican and back but one thing is for certain — the last four years have widened the political and racial divide.
The Army veteran was the first Black state senator to be elected to represent a rural county that was majority white in modern times. After his second term, he narrowly lost a race for lieutenant governor. He then was elected the first Black mayor of Milledgeville.
Like his first statehouse bid, Griffin had support of Black and white voters in the mayoral election, but saw hints of a growing divide after barely beating out his opponent by 21 votes, he said.
“We definitely have a racial divide in this country … from the courthouse to the White House,” Griffin said. “I hope this country will start moving in a more positive and respectful way by electing those individuals who are going into help with some of the challenges we have from race relations.”
Georgia is seeing unprecedented turnout through the use of absentee ballots and during early in-person voting, indicating voters have taken stock in the last four years and are making their opinions heard at the polls. So far, after the first two weeks of early voting, more than 2.3 million Peach State voters have cast their ballots.
“There’s a lot of energy in this election nationally and here locally,” Griffin said. “It’s going to be a close election.”
Republicans, too, noted increased enthusiasm.
“Trump has really ignited the people, the Republicans in Baldwin County,” Westmoreland said.
With enthusiasm on display for both Democrats and Republicans in rural Georgia, it’s impossible to say whether the bellwether county will hold Democrat or go Republican. But locals say the outcome will either push residents closer together or farther apart.
“We’ve got one city and one county,” Geist said. “And these folks are 1,000 feet apart, physically, and about 40 miles apart philosophically.”
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