Can Raphael Warnock Win an Even Tougher Runoff Election?

Can Raphael Warnock Win an Even Tougher Runoff Election?

Can Raphael Warnock Win an Even Tougher Runoff Election?

The Georgia Senate race is again in a runoff election. But this time around, it’s a lot harder for voters to participate.

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The 2022 midterms are over, and Democrats did better than they had a right to expect. The president’s party almost always loses Congress two years into his first term; this time, it held the Senate and lost the House by, at press time, only six seats (with five races still to be called). Democrats won thrilling victories from Pennsylvania to Michigan to Arizona. Politically, though, they couldn’t defy their own mistakes. In New York, establishment political malpractice led to the loss of four House seats. And Georgia, the star of the 2020 cycle, came up short of the promise we saw back then. The Peach State won the White House for Joe Biden, and in 2021 it elected two Democratic senators, giving the party its crucial majority (with the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris). This time, Stacey Abrams, one of the architects of Georgia’s Democratic successes in the last cycle, lost her second race against Governor Brian Kemp, by almost 250,000 more votes than she did in 2018. And while Senator Raphael Warnock beat the former football star Herschel Walker, he fell a half-point short of the 50 percent he needed to win outright and was forced into a December runoff.

Will the incumbent senator, the pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, ultimately win his race? The result will come down to whether Warnock was able to reassemble the progressive multiracial coalition that prevailed in the last cycle. This November, that coalition did not fully materialize. And many of the people behind the waves that turned out in Georgia in 2018, 2020, and 2021 say it’s because of disinvestment in the grassroots voter mobilization infrastructure that created such success.

Voter turnout in Georgia was way down from the 5 million who voted in 2020, and almost two points lower than in 2018 in terms of the registered voters who showed up. Many states saw turnout fall from that midterm’s anti–Donald Trump high, but few predicted it would happen in Georgia, where turnout has risen steadily since 2014. Local organizers blame, at least in part, a lack of donor support for their neighbor-to-neighbor ground game this time around. “You need the outside groups just as well funded as the campaigns,” Hillary Holley, executive director of Georgia’s Care in Action, told me. “And that didn’t happen.” While the Warnock and Abrams campaigns took in record-breaking hauls, many groups on the ground got less than in recent cycles. “There was just a refusal to acknowledge what it takes to pull out voters in this climate,” said longtime organizer Nsé Ufot, a former CEO of the New Georgia Project. As of September, Ufot said, the New Georgia Project had raised roughly half of what it did two years ago.

The “climate” that Ufot mentioned was the result of the obstacles to voting imposed by SB 202, which was signed by Kemp in 2021. Its effects were masked at first by a record number of early votes. But absentee-ballot voting cratered: In 2020, Georgia voters cast more than 1.3 million absentee ballots; in 2022, the number was just over 200,000. SB 202 curtailed the time allotted for absentee voting, and it also drastically limited the number of drop boxes where voters could return their ballots if they didn’t want to use the mail.

A robust ground game could have helped voters deal with those obstacles, but as an activist in one of Atlanta’s most densely Democratic precincts told me, “Nobody ever knocked on my door!” In 2020 she sometimes saw two or three organizers a day.

That new voter suppression law kicks in again for the runoff. It cuts the campaign time from the last cycle’s nine weeks to four, abolishes new voter registration before the runoff, and leaves only a few days for early voting. Up against those barriers, Holley said, “it’s our job to make sure voters know what to do.” She believes they will. “People who were crying on Tuesday night were back in the field on Thursday,” she told me. Funders stepped up too, hearing the clamor for grassroots resources. And Warnock announced 300 new campaign staffers and opened new field offices targeting key areas where Democrats underperformed in November.

“I’m feeling good,” Holley said. “I’m optimistic.” Soon enough, you’ll know whether she was right to be.

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