Georgia is about to send the South’s first Black Democratic senator, and the state’s first Jewish senator, to Washington, D.C. And it’s about to make the odious Mitch McConnell the Senate minority leader. How in God’s name did this happen?
The state’s Democrats did everything right in the run-up to Tuesday’s US Senate runoff, in which the Rev. Raphael Warnock, against all odds, defeated GOP Senator Kelly Loeffler. Investigative journalist Jon Ossoff looks to have done the same against Senator David Perdue, though his race hasn’t been called. The state’s Republicans did most things wrong. And Donald Trump, on his way down history’s drain, did everyone dirty.
First, let’s give credit to the nitty-gritty work of the ground game. The Democratic campaigns, the state party, and an uncountable number of outside groups knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors and made millions of calls and texts just since the last Election Day, November 3. After forgoing door-to-door canvassing for most of the fall election, they returned to the doors with a cadre of highly trained, mostly paid, Covid-safe canvassers. They delivered on their goals of elevating the Black vote and maintaining a higher-than-average young, Asian American Pacific Islander, and Latino vote.
They turned out the vote in Metro Atlanta, and its suburban counties that became a center of the resistance when Ossoff ran for Congress in 2017. And thanks to organizing by Black groups, and the candidacy of Raphael Warnock, who presides over the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic Ebenezer Baptist Church, they turned out an unexpected number of Black voters—urban, suburban and rural. In some smaller counties, black turnout was higher than in November.
In short, they manifested the vision of Stacey Abrams, who founded the New Georgia Project in 2013, arguing to many doubters that the state was turning purple, if not yet blue, thanks to demographic change—more voters of color plus more college-educated voters of every race, along with more liberal transplants from around the country. I won’t say Georgia is now blue—but it’s more blue than Iowa or Ohio, states where Democrats traditionally invest lots of money only to see them turn redder by the year. Georgia will get bluer still.
“I think the main factors were, this was a fight for the United States—this was a fight for the world,” says Essence Johnson, a Cobb County Democratic activist. She volunteered for Ossoff’s 2017 congressional campaign, which in many ways launched the national resistance to Trump, energizing women in the Metro Atlanta suburbs who had either been apolitical or afraid to show their Democratic affiliation, and attracting national money, volunteers and media attention. Since then, Cobb County has elected an all-female board of commissioners, a Black sheriff and a Black district attorney. “White suburban women are accepting Black leadership,” Johnson adds.
“This is what happens when you build a multiracial coalition, empower them with how to exercise their right to vote and give them something to vote for,” says Atlanta school board member Jason Esteves. “Health, jobs, and justice—that was our focus. Meanwhile, Republicans spent most of their message on fear and despair.”
Still, we must give credit where it’s due—to Trump, who came to Dalton on Monday night, allegedly to campaign for Loeffler and Perdue. Instead, he mainly blathered against the Georgia Republicans who certified President-elect Joe Biden’s win, including Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Loeffler and Perdue actually lagged behind Trump’s vote in the mainly Republican counties in northern Georgia, where Trump appeared.
“Without a doubt, the win in Georgia is credited to coalition building and organizers on the ground—with a leader we can believe in. The person who gave us the vision of a New South is Stacey Abrams,” says state Representative Bee Nguyen, who won Abrams’s House seat when the House minority leader resigned to run for governor in 2017. “In spite of voter suppression, we planned, strategized, and believed in Georgia.”
I started my post-Trump political recovery covering the feminist resistance behind the Ossoff campaign in 2017. I couldn’t cover the campaign itself; my daughter worked for it. But I’ve stayed in touch with the women I got to know back then, including Johnson and her friends. I honestly believe what they accomplished changed the country. There is a generation of women who became political activists in those dark days (not just in Georgia; see Lara Putnam).
The pandemic has separated them, but it has not divided them. I reached out to Louise Palmer, a cofounder of the Sixth Congressional District Indivisible group that buoyed Ossoff in 2017, and she e-mailed me this: “I feel sad that I’m not in a room filled with the hundreds of new friends I’ve made on this journey. I’m really sad I’m not with Essence today. We started our volunteering in GA6 together. Where Essence goes I follow! The Black women of this state have powered our work and wins.”
Then she added: “It’s a nice full-circle that Jon won, but it’s really more powerful that the South is sending a Black pastor from MLK Jr’s church and John Lewis’s Congressional district to DC during this moment of necessary change for social justice.”
I’m an Ossoff admirer, but I couldn’t agree more.