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National political fights shape state elections including Georgia's Gwinnett County

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A new election season has arrived. Some big state primaries this month are deciding candidates for the fall elections. The voting determines control of Congress and of many states. It affects how much President Biden can get done and signals how much influence Donald Trump still has. So let's hear voters in two counties - one red, one blue - both in the growing suburbs of Atlanta. Everyone we're about to hear has the power of the vote, and either county is populous enough to decide winners in a big state. So we start today in Democratic-leaning Gwinnett County, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLING)

INSKEEP: Gwinnett County includes Norcross, an old 19th century town along the railroad. Freight trains still rumble through, but the station is now an upscale steakhouse. And a farmer's market operates in the park.

What's in the package?

JOAN VAN LAEKE: Tamales.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's great.

VAN LAEKE: I've heard that they're really good, but I haven't tried them before.

INSKEEP: I guess I'll have to come over to your house and find out.

VAN LAEKE: (Laughter) You might have.

INSKEEP: Joan Van Laeke (ph) is one of three dozen Georgians we met in our two counties. Like most people we encountered in this growing region, she's from somewhere else - Dallas, in her case - and loves it here.

VAN LAEKE: It's like a small town.

INSKEEP: We invited people to say what concerns they have about their communities, and Joan Van Laeke likes it enough that she couldn't come up with anything local.

VAN LAEKE: My issues are more national, honestly.

INSKEEP: Go there. What concerns do you have about the direction of the country?

VAN LAEKE: The big lie and what just came out from the Supreme Court and what the implications of that could be.

INSKEEP: Her answer is an example of how a Supreme Court ruling might energize voters in many states this fall. A ruling on abortion could throw it to the state governments, and Georgia's Republican legislature already passed a law that would ban abortion after a few weeks.

VAN LAEKE: I think it's wrong. I think they should pay for all - if they're going to force her to carry the baby, they should pay for all of her prenatal care and all the care for the child. And they're not going to do that, so...

INSKEEP: Is there anything you can do about that?

VAN LAEKE: Vote.

INSKEEP: It matters how Gwinnett County votes. Just 10 years ago, it favored a Republican for president. But new arrivals changed the balance, and in 2020, this county helped Joe Biden win Georgia. Without his victory margin in Gwinnett's growing population, Biden would have lost Georgia. This year, Gwinnett may influence a race for governor and control of the U.S. Senate, and early voting is underway for the primaries.

(CROSSTALK)

INSKEEP: People are casting early ballots at a community center just down the hall from this basketball court. We met two Gwinnett political figures here, each of whom personifies how this county is changing.

BRENDA LOPEZ ROMERO: My name is Brenda Lopez Romero. I am a resident of Gwinnett County now for about 20 years.

INSKEEP: Like many Gwinnett residents, she was born in Mexico. This county is nearly one-quarter Latino. She's the county Democratic chair and pushing for this suburban zone to get public transit.

LOPEZ ROMERO: We're at about a million - little bit under million population. Our expectation is, by 2040, for us to double in size. We can't do that without public transportation.

INSKEEP: One million to 2 million in 20 years.

LOPEZ ROMERO: In 20 years, yes. That's the expected growth in Gwinnett County alone.

INSKEEP: Good jobs and cheap housing have drawn people from across America, Latin America and beyond. In 2018, she ran for the state Legislature, and the voting power of immigrants in the hilly neighborhoods near here made her the first Latina ever in Georgia's Legislature. Her party was still in the minority in that Legislature, though.

LOPEZ ROMERO: Those were difficult times. I was actually still in the state Legislature when HB 481 - that was the abortion restriction bill - that passed. After the vote was taken, one of the Republican legislators, kind of when we were passing each other, kind of tapped me on the shoulder and said, you know, it's not personal. And it's those moments where you do - where it is personal. My freedoms, my liberties, my constitutional rights are personal.

INSKEEP: She wants to elect Democrat Stacey Abrams governor to veto any other moves against abortion. Abrams lost her last race for governor, but Lopez Romero hopes to gain more votes for her as this county grows.

LOPEZ ROMERO: This election cycle is going to be won by the Latino vote. And not enough has been done to ensure that we continue to reach out to Latino voters - and I would say including here in my county. And that's the work that we still have to do.

INSKEEP: Are Republicans fighting for a slice of that Latino vote?

LOPEZ ROMERO: They absolutely are.

INSKEEP: She believes Republicans are better than Democrats at targeting messages to Latinos, and this reflects a potential national trend. Some Democratic strategists worry about losing a significant share of Latino voters. Latinos have a variety of views about immigration and a lot of concerns besides immigration.

LOPEZ ROMERO: Georgia is growing so much, and it will continue to grow and prosper. We just have to ensure that that prosperity is shared and that it's available for everyone, particularly those that are in working-class families that are trying to be able to put their children through school, and eventually through college, so that they, too, can prosper.

INSKEEP: National Republicans pay close attention to the diverse Atlanta suburbs. They've opened community centers in immigrant neighborhoods. Republican candidates in the Senate primary include Herschel Walker, who is Black. And if nominated, he would not be the only person of color on the Republican ballot. Another is Soo Hong, who met us just outside the early voting spot in Gwinnett County.

SOO HONG: There wasn't a line or anything, so...

INSKEEP: Did you vote for yourself?

HONG: Of course (laughter).

INSKEEP: We sat on the bench near the banner that said, Vote Here, in both English and Korean. This area has one of the largest Korean communities in the United States.

HONG: Whereas when I came here in 1991, I was the only Asian person in my elementary school.

INSKEEP: Growing up in Korea, the biggest thing she knew of America was Mickey Mouse. She had one reaction when she learned her family was moving.

HONG: Oh, my God, and we get to go to Disney World. So, yeah.

INSKEEP: Have you been? Did you go then when you...

HONG: I did.

INSKEEP: OK.

HONG: Yeah, and it was amazing.

INSKEEP: Today, she's a lawyer and a candidate for the state Legislature. She ran once before and lost. But for this year, the Legislature redrew district boundaries, making a red district in this blue county. That's one of the advantages Republicans gain from controlling many state governments.

Do you see yourself as joining a Republican effort to push back the other way and say that a diverse county can also be a Republican county at some point?

HONG: Definitely. I don't think diversity means Democrats.

INSKEEP: What makes you Republican?

HONG: I've always had conservative values. I've grown up at - in church. But also economically, I think Republican policies work. I believe in hard work. I don't think that just giving out money by the government is the way to go.

INSKEEP: Soo Hong is not among Republicans repeating lies about a stolen election. She's a lawyer and says she sees no proof. She didn't engage when we asked about right-wing figures who demonize foreigners. Tucker Carlson of Fox News promotes replacement theory, an idea that immigrants somehow dilute the votes of people already here.

HONG: You know, I'm not going to interpret what they're saying. But for me, as a Republican, I believe in legal immigration. And I think having a diverse country is what makes America great.

INSKEEP: You don't have a lot of sympathy for someone who comes here outside the rules.

HONG: I wouldn't say sympathy, but - no, I mean, I think - me, as an immigrant, we came legally. A lot of people wait a long time. For example, my aunt - she waited over 10 years to come here legally.

INSKEEP: Soo Hong expects this election to turn less on immigration than inflation.

HONG: I have my mom, who's not very political, realizing, hey, I went to the grocery store today, and it's a lot more expensive than before.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Some immigrants are open to Republican themes, and we met some at Plaza Las Americas. It's a former big-box store. This giant space is now a Latin American central square, complete with fountain, indoors. The shops include an insurance store run by Elena and Mariela Zambrano (ph).

Where are you from originally?

ZAMBRANO #1: Venezuela.

INSKEEP: And how about you?

ZAMBRANO #2: Venezuela.

INSKEEP: Oh, Venezuela's so beautiful.

They're cousins. In 2020, one voted for Biden and one for Trump.

What did you like about Trump?

ZAMBRANO #2: I think that he was a very interesting person running the economy. I don't like the way he act as a person.

INSKEEP: And what did you like about Joe Biden?

ZAMBRANO #1: Well, I was against Donald Trump. That's it.

INSKEEP: What was wrong with Trump?

ZAMBRANO #1: Well, same thing. I didn't like the way that he treated immigrants. I didn't like the way that he...

INSKEEP: She said Trump reminded her of the late populist strongman of Venezuela.

ZAMBRANO #1: It was looking, for me, more like a dictator. That's my personal - what I felt.

INSKEEP: He reminded you of Hugo Chavez?

ZAMBRANO #1: Exactly. Yes. A hundred percent. A hundred percent. Well, 99.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Thank you for the small correction there.

ZAMBRANO #1: So - yes.

INSKEEP: Today, she has mixed views of Biden. She was hoping for more and says she worries about how he communicates. The president's performance can affect elections even when he's not on the ballot. But neither cousin has focused yet on this fall's election, which is common here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY WHIRRING)

INSKEEP: We went door to door in a Gwinnett County neighborhood and talked with people cutting a fence for a garden, people getting in cars, people who came to the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL RINGING)

INSKEEP: We met non-citizens who can't vote, citizens who don't vote and Bradley Kaufman (ph), who did. He helped to vote Trump out of office in 2020 and gives Biden credit for the strong job market.

Do you think you're likely to vote this year?

BRADLEY KAUFMAN: Yes. I mean, this year? Probably not, no. But, like, come the next election, I will vote, yeah.

INSKEEP: So this fall, when there's election for Congress and Senate, there's not a lot that interests you.

KAUFMAN: Probably not, no. I don't have the knowledge to vote correctly.

INSKEEP: Like many voters, he doesn't know local candidates as well as presidents.

A little uphill, Brian Eason (ph) was standing on his porch and agreed to talk into the microphone held by our producer, Nina Kravinsky.

BRIAN EASON: I promise I will not say any dirty words during this...

INSKEEP: That's OK. If you want to say them, express yourself. We can bleep them out later.

He works in IT and voted for Biden.

How do you feel about the way he's doing as president?

EASON: Better than I thought. I like the way he handled COVID. I like that - how he's handling Ukraine. I'd like to see him get the student loan debt off of my younger friends.

INSKEEP: He's ready to vote for Democrat Stacey Abrams and for U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock. We mentioned his neighbor who has no plans to vote at all.

EASON: That's the big fear. This is...

INSKEEP: Say it out loud. What is the big fear?

EASON: Oh, the big fear is that the storm passes, right? You don't have Trump anymore, and then you get apathetic.

INSKEEP: It's a reality about elections nationwide. Who shows up will decide the outcome this fall.

EASON: Steve, I appreciate y'all stopping. This is the first time anybody's ever asked my damn opinion about anything.

INSKEEP: We're talking with voters in two fast-changing Georgia counties. Today was Gwinnett, a blue county. And we hear from a red county, Forsyth, tomorrow.

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

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