ATLANTA — Georgia on your mind? Georgia on everyone’s mind, but especially on Oprah’s. Recently she was “sitting at home,” as she tells it, and “having a nice life” — presumably at her palatial estate in Montecito, Calif. — when she realized she ought to go to Georgia. There’s a helluva governor’s race underfoot here, but it had been missing a certain something, and that something was Oprah. With the candidates polling within a point of each other, perhaps Oprah could make the difference.
On Thursday morning, Travis Nichols was cleaning up the kitchen at his home on a side street in Marietta, in the historically red Cobb County just northwest of Atlanta that had swung left for Hillary Clinton in 2016. His wife was reading to their two preschoolers. The doorbell rang. Oprah Winfrey was on the porch with a clipboard, canvassing for the first time in her life.
“She seemed to radiate a kind of goodwill,” said Nichols, a 39-year-old author and media director for Greenpeace. Oprah’s last-minute involvement in the race “makes you believe that something astounding is happening to our state, and not just on our porch.”
The cavalry has been called, as if the fate of the nation depends on Georgia. Oprah Thursday in Marietta and Decatur, Barack Obama Friday at Morehouse College in Atlanta. President Trump this Sunday farther south in Macon. At the same time Oprah was conducting town halls with Abrams, Vice President Pence was hitting rallies in Dalton, Grovetown and Savannah for her Republican opponent Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, who’s been dogged by charges of voter suppression.
“I heard Oprah’s in town today,” Pence said at the Dalton Convention Center in northern Georgia, a half-hour from Tennessee, around noon Thursday.
“Booooo!” the crowd said. (Booing Oprah? It can be done, and the MAGA crowd will show us how.)
“I heard Will Ferrell was going door to door the other day,” Pence continued. “Well, I’d like to remind Stacey and Oprah and Will Ferrell — ”
“LOSERS!” a man shrieked.
“ — I’m kind of a big deal, too,” Pence said. (Was our prim vice president borrowing a catchphrase from the raunchy Ferrell comedy “Anchorman”? An inquiry sent to Pence’s office remained unanswered at press time.)
Is the vice president a bigger deal than Oprah? Does it matter if he’s not? With her 2007 endorsement of Obama, Oprah delivered an “instrumental” 1 million votes to him during the 2008 primary season, according to a Northwestern University study. But, then again, a flamboyant reality TV star might not have reached the Oval Office without the insurance policy of a stolid Mike Pence, looking like he just stepped off the assembly line at the President Factory.
These celebrity events “earn free media for the campaigns [but] at this point, in such a polarized climate, these events are not persuasion events,” says Andra Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University’s department of political science. “Hence, I don’t think using Oprah’s role in the 2008 Democratic primaries is an analog here. Voters have made up their minds already. The task of the next five days is getting all of those voters out to vote.”
The people who showed up for Pence and Kemp on Thursday were as you’d expect: white, in red hats, convinced America is under siege by both socialism and a horde of illegal immigrants and somehow George Soros is behind both. There’s no red meat at a Mike Pence rally. Instead he serves up the equivalent of chicken nuggets.
“I got a message for all of Stacey Abrams’s liberal Hollywood friends,” Pence said in Dalton, the first of his three rallies for Kemp. “This ain’t Hollywood. This is Georgia.”
Such a line goes over well in a place like Dalton, the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This is carpet country. Some 85 percent of the country’s carpeting comes from manufacturers around Dalton, according to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), so remember Georgia the next time you take off your socks in the winter.
In the president’s absence, rallygoers were polite to journalists but full of testosterone nonetheless.
“Lock him up!” someone said of Soros.
“Lock her up!” someone said of Abrams. “Traitor!”
“We will build a red wall around this state to stop that so-called blue wave,” Kemp said before introducing Pence. Walls, walls, walls. Enclosed in them, the candidate’s message: The economy is booming, so let’s not empower the party of tax hikes and handouts.
“I like that [Pence] is a Christian and is not ashamed to speak up and say that [and] I think Mr. Kemp is a morally righteous man,” said Brenda Farris, a retired teacher from nearby Chatsworth, standing near buttons for sale that said “Trump 2020: F--- Your Feelings.”
Georgia, like the country as a whole, is big enough to be many things, to many people — vinyl and tile, Home Depot and Coca-Cola, soy and cotton, Jimmy Carter and Newt Gingrich and Tyler Perry — but it does need to be governed by one person. The two people running for the job have nothing in common, if you believe their surrogates and their fans, and they are battling for our very soul.
Jobs not mobs, the Republicans say.
Angry moms not angry mobs, the Democrats say.
Turn the dial on the drive from Dalton to Decatur and you’ll hear it all.
A caller on “The Mike Brooks Show” on 106.7 FM: “All these celebrities coming through here who haven’t got no skin in the game . . .”
Bruce Dixon on Black Agenda Radio: Is the “black-girl magic” around Abrams just another version of the classist cocoon that kept Obama from helping poorer African Americans?
Robin Young of “Here & Now,” beaming in to Georgia Public Radio from Boston: “Democrats need somebody to match, you know, the flamethrowing of Donald Trump. Does the party not have that person that’s needed?”
The party has Oprah, at least. On Thursday, CNN’s eyes turned lustfully to her, as she again looked like a candidate for president — even though she’s swatted away the notion ever since her electrifying speech at the Golden Globes in January revved up the speculation machine. At a performing arts center in Decatur, people waited in line for hours in a steady rain to breathe her air. The people who showed up were as you’d expect: mostly black and mostly female, activists and retired teachers and grad-student campaign volunteers, ready to be in her majesty’s thrall. There was a feeling that something’s going on — maybe not in the South as a whole, but certainly in the Southeast, and certainly in the ever-bluer suburbs of Atlanta. These Georgians had phonebanked for Senate candidate Doug Jones last year, even though he was in Alabama. These Georgians had mobilized for congressional candidate Jon Ossoff, the Democrat who lost a special election but left behind an organizational infrastructure and a sense of momentum.
“I have this to say to you, black people with ancestors who never had the chance,” Oprah said when she took the stage, her voice rising in force. “When you sit at home, and your friends sit at home and don’t go out to vote, you DISRESPECT YOUR ELDERS.”
One of those elders, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), was sitting in the front row, tears in his eyes, 53 years after getting his skull cracked in Selma.
“Oprah, my dear,” he said at one point. “This means everything to me. Everything. You make me cry. To see a talented, charming, smart, young black woman running for governor in the state of Georgia — ”
“Georgia!” Oprah said, echoing his astonishment.
“Georgia!” Lewis repeated.
Georgia. What’s the good of clawing your way out of poverty in Mississippi — and becoming a beloved billionaire — if you don’t try to nudge a fellow black woman into a governorship for the first time in U.S. history? Oprah, to her credit, ceded the spotlight when she called Abrams onto the stage, which had been furnished with a mini version of a talk-show set. Two armchairs, a coffee table with a flourish of white flora, and Oprah at her most pensive and profound, chin resting between her thumb and index finger, asking a very Oprah question:
“If you had to surrender the dream you have for Georgia to the higher power that we call God, what is the dream for Georgia that you wish to surrender?”
“I believe poverty is immoral,” Abrams replied to sustained applause. “It is a squandering of human capital. . . . I want poverty to be eradicated in Georgia. Because if we can solve it in Georgia, we can solve it in America.”
Over on the coast, in Savannah, Pence was closing out a full day of politicking for the state, in a wholly different state of mind.
“Georgia, I bring greetings from the 45th president of the United States of America,” he said from the podium, beginning to smile and shake his head at what he was about to say. “Isn’t he something?”
The crowd laughed knowingly, because the president certainly is something.
“I’ll tell ya,” Pence said, chuckling at an ongoing joke that doesn’t have a punchline. “I’ll tell ya.”