He grew up off Old Savannah Road, graduated from Butler High School and owns a house on Goshen Road. Many of his close friends can be counted among the pantheon of south Augusta’s political heavy hitters, including former Mayor Larry Sconyers and sheriffs Charlie Webster and Ronnie Strength.
So, it seems appropriate that his quest to become the next Richmond County sheriff could be won or lost in the voting booths of Augusta’s south side.
“That’s the battleground area of Richmond County,” said Sanders, who is running as a Republican in a county still dominated by Democratic politics.
“The south side is more integrated than the west side or the east side,” he said, explaining that he can likely count on strong support in “more Republican, more conservative” west Augusta.
His opponent, Richmond County schools Public Safety Lt. Richard Roundtree, will have distinct advantages in east Augusta and the city’s urban center, he said.
Voting in Richmond County has a history of falling along racial lines. About 53 percent of registered voters are black and about 37 percent are white, according to Board of Elections statistics. Generally, the majority of blacks tend to support Democratic candidates.
Sanders said he understands that is the pattern, but not necessarily a rule.
“There are some black people who will only vote for a black candidate and there are some white people who will only vote for a white candidate, but those are the fringes,” he said. “Everyone else is in the middle.”
He thinks a large portion of that “middle” can be found in the neighborhoods south of Gordon Highway – primarily commission districts 5, 6 and 8 – where there is a more diverse mix of voters.
Sanders said in those neighborhoods he will have to work to move the numbers in his favor.
Voting statistics lend some support to that strategy. Though black voters dominate most south side precincts, the margins between white and black are slimmer than in east and west Augusta.
In the Democratic runoff Aug. 21, Roundtree defeated sheriff’s Capt. Scott Peebles by 455 votes. Most of that margin came from precincts in commission districts 5, 6 and 8.
Sanders thinks he can do better because he doubts Peebles received much support from the more than 2,500 voters who cast ballots in the primary for another son of the south side – sheriff’s Lt. Robbie Silas. About 68 percent of Silas’ votes came from those south side precincts.
“I think I can get those Silas voters,” Sanders said.
Courting those voters is the reason Sanders is opening a second campaign office on Peach Orchard Road. It will be a local base to recruit volunteers, have public meetings and organize his campaign to get voters to the polls Nov. 6, he said.
Sanders said he is counting on garnering votes from all backgrounds and ethnicities with his no-nonsense message of law and order and experience.
“We are trying to contact voters in all the neighborhoods,” he said. “I’m not going to give up on anybody.”
His chief campaign adviser, David Fields, said south Augusta has a lot of military transplants and middle-class voters who are less likely to follow racial lines in the voting booth.
“There are a lot more educated people in the Tobacco Road area who are going to vote for the candidate and not the color,” Fields said. “We feel like we can get 10 to 15 percent of the black vote. Some of the blacks won’t vote for Roundtree.”
Should Sanders be able to put together enough votes for a victory, his supporters know it will likely be hard won and very close.
“Well, I think it is doable, but I don’t think it is a cakewalk. We’ve got to work,” said former Commissioner Jimmy Smith, who is working with the campaign. “That’s why I’ve been asking people eyeball to eyeball if they will vote and if they will vote for Freddie.”