Georgia Democrats have been talking up their state as a battleground for years. Republicans have been scoffing at the idea for just as long. Now, both parties are racing to figure out exactly how it swung left in 2020 — and whether it can happen again in just nine weeks.
Biden is hanging on to a lead of more than 10,000 votes over President Donald Trump in Georgia with a recount pending, a major shift in a rapidly growing and diversifying state. Georgia went to Trump by 5 points in 2016 and hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992. But the results are a demonstration of the possible for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the two Democrats heading into Jan. 5 Senate runoffs that will decide whether their party controls Congress next year.
The tight presidential vote in Georgia also means Democrats face a challenge reassembling their coalition as the state shifts from a presidential election to an off-year runoff. Republicans have their own questions to answer after the startling presidential results. And when a state splits by fractions of a percentage point, any change is significant.
“Typically, in runoffs, you’re just trying to turn out your voters again … because it’ll be a smaller universe of voters going back to vote without a presidential race going on,” said DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, a Democrat. “And [Warnock and Ossoff] will have to build on the coalition Biden built.”
Biden carried a high share of white voters for a Democrat in Georgia, but Trump may not push white suburbanites away from the GOP as strongly during a lame-duck runoff election as he has for the past four years. State Republicans rely more than ever on rural whites now, but without Trump on the ballot, they may not be as motivated to show up.
And Biden benefited heavily from booming turnout among voters of color, especially Black voters, who have proven their power in Georgia. But Warnock and Ossoff will need to motivate turnout just as high, under very different circumstances, in order to swing the state again.
“Donald Trump changed the election landscape,” said Chip Lake, a Republican consultant who worked for GOP Rep. Doug Collins in the Senate special election, which saw appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Warnock advance to January. “What we don’t know is, what happens to the electorate when he is [on his way] out of office and not on the ballot?”
Biden’s narrow Georgia lead was built on the clear, if challenging, path Stacey Abrams laid out in 2018. Abrams, who narrowly lost a run for governor but won Democratic plaudits for her message and talk-to-everybody campaign strategy, energized young voters, registered and turned out record numbers of people of color and peeled away white, college-educated voters in suburban counties, like Cobb and Gwinnett, that turned hard from Republicans in the Trump era.
Abrams, along with the voting-rights group Fair Fight she founded in 2018, also helped expand the electorate since then. Georgia has added 1 million new voters since 2016, thanks to policies allowing voter registration at motor vehicle bureaus as well as efforts by groups like Abrams’. Georgia smashed its own voting record in 2020 with 67 percent of registered voters participating, surpassing the 2008 mark of 63 percent.
In 2019, Abrams wrote that other Democrats could take advantage of the same factors as her history-making campaign, which was “fueled by record-breaking support from white voters and presidential-level turnout and support from the diverse communities of color in our state.”
“All of that foundation [Abrams built] is now what has brought this state into toss-up status for presidential races and for two Senate runoffs,” said Steve Phillips, a Democratic donor and founder of Democracy in Color, a progressive group focused on voters of color. “The blueprint she wrote in 2019 should be a roadmap for the national donor community about how to move resources over the next two months,” who are already lining up on both sides to dump millions of dollars into the race.
According to early exit polls, Biden won 29 percent of white voters, a high-water mark for a Democrat in Georgia, up from 21 percent for Hillary Clinton in 2016. And an analysis of early voting data from Collective PAC, a group focused on growing Black political power, showed that nearly 370,000 Black voters who didn’t vote in 2016 or 2018 showed up in 2020, driving Black turnout higher. Collective PAC targeted that group with 2 million phone calls in the lead up to the election.
Quentin James, founder of Collective PAC, echoed that for Georgia Democrats to win, they need to drive up Black turnout and expand the electorate while seeking support from white voters. But the problem in traditional Democratic politics, James said, “is that significant resources are spent solely on peeling off white voters, and rarely invested in both strategies equally.”
What “Abrams has shown is you can both talk to rural white voters and engage Black men, and you can do it equally,” James added.
“It’s got to be ‘both-and’ — you have to both persuade and energize,” said former state Sen. Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter and the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee. “We are an evenly divided state, so every vote matters. If you turn someone out who wouldn’t otherwise vote, that’s one vote, and if you change’s someone’s mind, it’s two votes — all of those add up.”
But the gains for Democrats in Georgia were uneven, highlighting points of concern for the party as it prepares to take on Loeffler and GOP Sen. David Perdue in January.
Though Biden built a narrow lead heading into a recount and Democrats picked up a suburban House seat, they fell short in their drive to retake control of either state legislative chamber. Instead, Republicans took out state House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, one of the last rural Democrats, in an expensive fight that illustrated the overwhelming political power Republicans have built in rural counties.
“There was an underestimation for what Trump being on the ballot does to turnout,” Trammel said. “But does that continue in a runoff?”
Meanwhile, keeping hold of voters who disliked Trump may also prove more complicated for Democrats who benefited from overwhelming margins in the Atlanta suburbs, several Republicans said. The president will still be in office on Jan. 5, and it’s unclear what he might do during his lame-duck period, but one thing is clear: Trump won’t be on the ballot, voters will know Biden is taking over, and partisan control of the Senate is at stake.
“In 1996, congressional Republicans ran on being a check to President Clinton because it was clear [Bob] Dole was going to lose, but you couldn’t do that in 2020 because that would’ve been political suicide,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist who served as a spokesman for former GOP Gov. Nathan Deal. “Now, if Biden does win, Loeffler and Perdue can explicitly make that check-and-balance argument, and that’s really powerful.”
At the same time, Republicans are hopeful they can hold on to some of the small gains Trump made with voters of color, noting that a “rural maximization strategy” is not enough to win the state.
“The white voting electorate is now at 53 percent in Georgia, so you can’t get to 49 percent without some non-white votes being a part of your strategy,” Robinson said.
Indeed, Trump cut into Democratic margins with voters of color in the exit polls, and both parties are digging into precinct returns and the voter file to try to confirm that finding. Trump won 11 percent support from Georgia Black voters in the early exit poll results, similar to his 9 percent showing in 2016. His share of Latino voters jumped to 41 percent, up from 27 percent four years ago.
They are unsettling datapoints for Democrats — ones they said are isolated to the 2020 presidential race. “I don’t see that trend continuing down-ballot, nor do I think that will continue without Donald Trump on the ballot,” said Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster who frequently conducts surveys in the state.
That could be good news for both Ossoff and Warnock, who are looking to not only win voters of color but win them by large margins. Some groups are already lining up to support that effort.
ACRONYM, a progressive group, spent $3 million on mobilizing voters of color in Georgia through digital ads. ACRONYM founder Tara McGowan confirmed that they will extend their program through the runoffs, estimating at least a million-dollar investment to target young people of color.
The two Senate races already drew more than $200 million in spending throughout the fall, and they’re expected to match that total in two short months, as big-money groups are prepared to go all in on both races.
“I had donors reach out unsolicited, asking about what they can do to help with the runoffs,” McGowan said.
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