This story was updated Dec. 26, 2018, at 12:43 p.m.
About District 5 Special Election
Early Voting: Open through Jan. 4
Election Day: Jan. 8
Matt Barton, 46
Steve Cochran, 63
Larry Massey Jr., 52
Brian Rosser, 29
Scott Tidwell, 46
Jesse Vaughn, 45
CHATSWORTH, Ga. — Tony Fox and Gary Ridley grabbed seats in the back of the Charles "Judy" Poag Murray County Senior Center on Thursday night, behind a Christmas tree, poinsettia bouquets and a cardboard cut-out gingerbread man.
In a room of 42 people, they were a commodity: undecided voters in the Georgia State House District 5 race. The five people seated in front of the room? Those were the candidates. And the rest seated around them? Family and friends, mostly.
Kevin Jones, chair of the Murray County Republican party, hosted Thursday's event, a meet and greet for the five conservative candidates in the race. (There is a Democrat, but he was not present.) Like a rare disease, Jones figured, people need to raise awareness of the Jan. 8 special election. The candidates all worry most voters will skip the election to replace State Rep. John Meadows, who died last month.
Not Fox and Ridley, though.
"If I'm alive," said Ridley, 71, "I'll vote."
Both men listened to speeches from the five candidates Thursday night, looking for someone they felt they could trust. More than anything, they wanted somebody who seems like he looks out for the little guy. That, and someone who opposes abortion.
Though they wouldn't tip their hands, Fox and Ridley both said they narrowed their choices Thursday night. They were also frustrated by the light attendance.
"If people don't want to take the responsibility to do what they should do, if they don't vote, they shouldn't open their mouths," Ridley said. "Just be quiet."
"You talk about technology today," said Fox, 58. "What amazes me is these people — technology all around — but you ask them about a local thing? They don't know. That's what amazes me."
District 5 consists of most of Gordon County and the Southwest precinct in Murray County. While 1,400 voters from the Southwest precinct turned out to the polls in the November general election, only eight people have voted early here this week.
Unlike the general election, which featured a heated governor's race that gained national attention for months, there are no high-profile contests on the ballot to pull people to the polls. Adding to the candidates' challenge, the heart of the campaign falls during the holiday season. Voters are focused on gifts, travel plans and big family dinners.
Look just south to Bartow and Floyd counties, which held a special election for a Georgia State House District 14 seat Tuesday. There, 3,173 people — or 9 percent of registered voters — turned out.
On top of the low voter turnout, the special election here boasts six candidates. The crowded field makes the race more fractured and, as a result, more unpredictable. The race likely will go to a runoff in February, but the fight to get into the top two could be tight.
The candidates don't have an antidote for the impending apathy. They plan to take the usual path — work family connections, knock on doors, plant signs, call friends, ask those friends to call their own friends, post on Facebook and pray the right people remember to show up to the polls.
"Larry Massey Jr., a former Marine Corps. major, said he attended an Optimist Club meeting recently. He also plans to meet with the local chapter of the American Legion. A group of older men in the area invited him to an upcoming breakfast, where he can make his political pitch. He's just happy they're listening."
"I've had several people who have asked, 'There's another election? Again? I thought we just had that,'" Massey said. "Then we have to explain. They say, 'Oh, OK. I didn't know.'"
Said Matt Barton, the owner of a courier business and former Calhoun city councilman: "I met one guy in the Dollar General in Murray County. I told him that our representative, John Meadows, passed away a few weeks ago and we're having a special election. He was like, 'Really? I'm usually on top of that stuff.'"
Jesse Vaughn, an attorney, has met similarly confused voters on the campaign trail. But he is also pleased by people's responses. Like many candidates, he participated in a local Christmas parade, hawking signs. He said people visit his downtown Calhoun office and ask where they can get provisional ballots. He points up the street a couple of blocks, to the board of elections office. They can vote in person there, without much of a line. (As of 1:30 p.m. Thursday, 444 people had voted in Gordon County this week.)
"I don't think it changes the calculus that much," Vaughn said of the low turnout. "It's still a relatively small district and a relatively small town and area. A lot of it is talking to people and letting the word of mouth spread."
Scott Tidwell, a pastor and life insurance salesman, hopes his participation in local Republican politics give him an edge. His name recognition received a boost in May, when he ran a tight but unsuccessful race against incumbent State Sen. Chuck Payne in the Republican Primary. Tidwell recently spoke to the local Rotary Club and expects to meet with other civic groups, but he declined to share his schedule.
"This is kind of a hometown race," he said. "You don't want people tearing pages from your playbook."
Steve Cochran, a retired mover, takes a more unusual approach to campaigning. He walks up and down the aisles of Walmart and Home Depot, introducing himself to shoppers. He rotates his breakfast locations, meeting potential voters at the tables of Big John's Treat Shoppe and Bojangles'. A self-described "dinosaur," Cochran doesn't have a social media presence. But on Wednesday night, his wife posted on her Facebook page, urging people to turn out for him.
"There's a lot of people who just won't really care," he said. "It all depends on each individual person, who he gets to come out. I'm approaching people on a one-on-one basis and asking, 'Please go vote.' Every vote will be crucial."
Brian Rosser a musician and the only Democrat in the race, may be in good position if he can hold on to his base. Rosser ran against Meadows in the Nov. 6 election. He only earned 18 percent – but that was good for 2,900 votes.
But Rosser, who did not return a call seeking comment Thursday, won't have supporters of Democractic candidate Stacey Abrams showing up to the polls this time.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.
This story was updated to clarify that Larry Massey Jr. is a former — not retired — Marine Corps. major.