With only a day left to vote in Georgia’s two U.S. Senate runoffs, the two Democratic challengers hold slim leads over the Republican incumbents.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of recent polls, Jon Ossoff leads Senator David Purdue (who won his seat in 2014 by 8%) by 1.4%, while Reverend Raphael Warnock leads Kelly Loeffler (who was appointed to her role last year) by 2%. While both these figures are well within the margin of error, it is startling that the available body of public opinion research shows these races being this tight given that Georgia has been considered a solidly Republican state for decades.
How did the Democrats come so far in the Peach State?
Undoubtedly, the candidates in this election are part of the equation.
Republican members of the U.S. Senate have come under fire – from Democrats and a number of right-wing figures, including Donald Trump – for stalling repeated efforts to get financial aid to millions of Americans.
This is a particularly bad look for Georgia’s two U.S. Senators, both multi-millionaires who have spent more time using their positions to enrich themselves (possibly illegally) than trying to help their constituents survive the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are fielding two excellent candidates.
Loeffler is faced by Raphael Warnock, the pastor of a historic Black church in Atlanta who has been able to buck old stereotypes about African American men (despite his opponent’s best efforts) and run a campaign focused on policy issues – and puppies! David Perdue is being challenged by Jon Ossoff, the thirty-three-year-old journalist and former candidate for Georgia’s 6th U.S. House District.
Ossoff has hammered Perdue over his lack of commitment to helping ordinary Georgians during the pandemic, while galvanizing the Democratic base with his commitment to civil rights.
However, 2020 was hardly the first year that Democrats have fielded talented candidates for statewide positions – and certainly not the first year that the Republicans have fielded corrupt, racist politicians.
The real story behind the closeness of this race has been unfolding over many years, and includes two major factors: shifting demographics, and herculean efforts on the part of on-the-ground organizers.
Demographics is destiny?
Georgia has undergone radical change in recent years; the population has become younger, more racially diverse, and more urban. The main engine of this change has been the capital city of Atlanta, where the booming tech and entertainment industries have turned the city into an economic and cultural center – and made it one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the entire country. Young professionals (especially African-Americans) have spent recent years flocking to the city, not only from Georgia’s rapidly depopulating rural areas, but from across the nation.
However, Georgia is not the only state undergoing demographic change and population movement, and it hasn’t always spelled good news for the Democratic Party. In Texas similar demographic trends encouraged progressive hopes in 2020 – only for Trump to win by 5.5% and Senator John Cornyn to trounce his Democratic challenger by 10%. Demographic changes in other states, such as Alabama and North Carolina, have not translated into Democratic surges.
So what makes Georgia’s Democrats so special?
Sowing and reaping
The biggest factor in the Democrats’ progress in Georgia has been a network of activists and organizers who have spent years registering and empowering new voters – despite heavy resistance from the state’s Republican establishment.
Without a doubt, the most famous of these organizers is Stacey Abrams.
Abrams is a political phenomenon in her own right; a ten-year veteran of the State House, she came within a hair’s breadth of becoming Georgia’s governor in 2018 and was recently considered as a running mate for Joe Biden.
Abrams blamed her 2018 defeat on the blatant use of voter suppression by her opponent, then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, and has spent the past two years challenging the state’s disenfranchisement of its Black, poor, and urban population through a variety of organizations under the umbrella of Fair Fight Action.
Abrams has a genius for the work: State Senator Jen Jordan credited her with seeing the advantages of demographic changes before anyone else, while former gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter has argued that she “built the infrastructure” that allowed Joe Biden to eke out victory in the state’s presidential election.
However, Abrams is not the only person moving the needle, as she would be the first to admit. Besides the organizations that Abrams leads, there are a plethora of groups mobilizing voters, with different areas of expertise.
The New Georgia Project – which was originally founded by Abrams and is now run by her protégée Nse Ufot – began as an effort to help poor Georgians take advantage of the Affordable Care Act but quickly transformed into an effort to enfranchise these voters. The success of the NGP can be measured in how fiercely the Georgia establishment have opposed them; two Republican secretaries of state have leveled spurious investigations and lawsuits against the group (which failed to find any wrongdoing).
Another voter registration group, Black Voters Matter, is determined to empower Georgia’s most disenfranchised population – African Americans.
Led by their energetic founder LaTosha Brown, the group encourages Black voters to grasp “the power that they have and deserve”.
Together, these groups have knocked on millions of doors, called millions of phones, and spent millions of dollars in advertising to help expand the voting population. Perhaps more importantly though, Georgia’s organizers have developed innovative techniques for finding and engaging new voters.
The New Georgia Project’s volunteers have knocked on over five million doors, but have complemented their work with social welfare efforts like toy and food drives in poor areas. Meanwhile, organizer Stacy Efrat discovered an “untapped gold mine” of Democratic voters by focusing on the suburban apartment complexes where many newcomers to the state live (they offer better rent prices than one-family homes in the same areas).
All of this effort by organizers seems to have paid off. Georgia has seen record-breaking early voting for a runoff election, with over three million votes already cast. 114,000 of these early votes have been cast by voters who didn’t vote in the general election. As huge as the numbers already are, activists’ ambitions are even larger. “It’s unheard of to turn out more people in a runoff than the general election,” says veteran organizer Felicia Davis, “but we are going to do it.”