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Split-Ticket Voters On How They Were Making Decisions In Georgia Runoffs

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Two Democrats in Georgia won the state Senate runoffs this week - a stunning upset after nearly two decades of total Republican control. But even though both parties ran their candidates as one ticket, not all Georgians just voted for the Democrats or the Republicans. Emma Hurt from member station WABE in Atlanta spoke to some of these split-ticket voters.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Early Wednesday morning, just one of the Georgia Senate races was called for the Democrat.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Chris (ph), thanks. Time right now is 5:03, and we are following breaking news in Georgia. According to The Associated Press, Democrats have picked up their first victory in the race to control the Senate.

HURT: Raphael Warnock's margin over Senator Kelly Loeffler was wider than that of his fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff over Senator David Perdue, and it's persisted. For many party loyalists, the idea of split-ticket voting is incomprehensible, but there are nearly 20,000 Georgians who did so in these runoffs.

BERNARD FRAGA: In the runoff campaign in particular, both sets of candidates seem to run as kind of a pair - right? - unified.

HURT: Bernard Fraga teaches political science at Emory University.

FRAGA: It didn't seem like there was a lot of daylight in terms of policy, in terms of the stances on Trump, in terms of what they do for Georgia between David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. So the fact that a relatively small number of Republican voters were willing to vote for David Perdue but not Kelly Loeffler is an interesting phenomenon.

HURT: Nathan Muller is one of these Georgians who saw daylight where campaign strategists designed there to be none. He's a software engineer from Smyrna, who was raised Republican, believes in conservative principles but has voted split ticket.

NATHAN MULLER: I was not comfortable with Democrats having 100% control of the policymaking direction of this nation.

HURT: So he wanted to vote for one Republican. While he isn't a Trump fan, he went with Perdue because his Trumpism, Muller said, seemed more likely to fade after the election. Kelly Loeffler, on the other hand...

MULLER: Her messaging was just so, you know, bang, bang, bang the drum for Trump. More conservative than an Attila the Hun - like, are you nuts?

HURT: He's talking about a series of ads the Loeffler campaign released featuring an actor dressed up as the barbaric ruler from the 400s.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: More conservative than Attila the Hun. Kelly Loeffler - ranked the most conservative senator in America.

KELLY LOEFFLER: I'm Kelly Loeffler. I approve this message.

HURT: That ad is also where Loeffler lost Matthew Mutnik - another Perdue-Warnock voter, who works in finance in Atlanta. Mutnik says Warnock felt like a more relatable candidate, even though he'd originally planned to support Loeffler.

MATTHEW MUTNIK: And she just went so far to the right that it was unrecognizable to who she was maybe even a year ago.

HURT: Loeffler was forced to campaign like that, says Martha Zoller, a conservative talk show host from Gainesville. That's because of an early challenge from Republican Congressman Doug Collins.

MARTHA ZOLLER: She had to go much farther right than I think she probably would have gone had he not been in the race.

HURT: Zoller says these split-ticket voters are important for Republicans to keep in mind now that Georgia is a swing state.

ZOLLER: You got to get your base out - no doubt about it. But you've got to understand that it's basically 50-50.

HURT: Wil Stowers is a consultant who grew up in Kennesaw and normally splits his ticket. He said he knew he would be proud having Warnock represent him in the Senate. And he understood Warnock's vision but not Loeffler's without Trump.

WIL STOWERS: No indication in a post-President Trump world what kind of representative she would be. We had two years of Senator Perdue before President Trump. You know, I knew what that was. I knew what that looked like.

HURT: Koddi Lester Dunn works in marketing in Marietta. She ultimately supported both Democrats, but she did consider voting for Perdue because she wasn't excited about Jon Ossoff's candidacy. She understands why people would split their ticket.

KODDI LESTER DUNN: All politics are local. And when you go into that little booth and you are tapping those names, you just want decent people. You just want decent people that - in times that you need them to have the courage to stand up for what's right.

HURT: Georgia hasn't elected a Democratic senator since 2000. Now it will have two.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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