Can Democrats Really Win Georgia’s 2 Senate Seats?

Can Democrats Really Win Georgia’s 2 Senate Seats?

Can Democrats Really Win Georgia’s 2 Senate Seats?

It’ll be tough, but here are the keys.

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A vast multiracial coalition swept Joe Biden to victory in Georgia last month, with all racial groups turning out in record numbers, making Biden the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in almost 20 years. But a stunning 91 percent increase by Asian American/Pacific Islanders over 2016 exceeded expectations. Many were first-time voters; in Georgia’s Seventh Congressional District, including rapidly diversifying Gwinnett County, 41 percent of the AAPI residents who helped carry Democrat Carolyn Bordeaux to victory cast their first-ever ballots, researchers told The New York Times. Hispanic participation jumped an astonishing 72 percent.

These increasingly powerful members of what former state House minority leader Stacey Abrams identified as key partners in her “New Georgia Project”—which is both the name of the voter education and mobilization group she founded in 2014 and a description of her vision of what Georgia is becoming—present an important opportunity for Democrats as they try to propel investigative journalist Jon Ossoff and Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor Raphael Warnock to victory in the January 5 Senate runoff election. But mobilizing them means doing things a little differently from how Democrats have always operated.

Everyone I talked to in Georgia says there are two keys to winning those races in January. One is preventing that drop-off in votes cast in a runoff, and reassembling a version of the coalition that elected Biden, who got about 100,000 more votes than Ossoff. (Ossoff trailed Perdue by about 80,000.) It will be especially important to get 2020’s new voters—young voters, who increased their vote share in 2020, as well as Black, Asian, and Hispanic voters—to come out a second time, on a Tuesday just after the New Year holiday.

One obstacle, notes Atlanta state Representative Bee Nguyen: Some Asian languages, including Vietnamese, don’t have a word for “runoff.” Nor does Spanish. (Atlanta school board chair Jason Esteves told me the closest he could get was “elecciones de segunda vuelta,” or “second round of elections,” which surely lacks the zip of “runoff.”) So convincing those new voters they should turn out again, after electing Biden, to vote for two Senate candidates they don’t yet know well, presents a stark definitional challenge (why is there un eleccion de segunda vuelta anyway?), alongside the other logistical obstacles that have caused voter participation by Democrats to crater in past runoffs.

The other key is Donald Trump. He is openly feuding with Georgia’s two top Republicans, Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, because they certified Biden’s legitimate win (after completing a hand recount). Some of Trump’s supporters are insisting that Georgia Republicans should boycott the Senate runoffs to punish incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue for inadequately aiding Trump’s efforts to overturn Biden’s victory. Both candidates have called for Raffensperger’s resignation, with zero justification; it’s not clear what more they could be doing.

Trump is heading to Georgia, reportedly on Saturday, to rally for them, but we don’t know which Trump will turn up: the racist, demagogic, but fearless president who could rally voters behind the two embattled GOP incumbents? Or the petulant man-baby who passive-aggressively blames Georgia Republicans for his loss and is currently turning interviews and speeches into extended pity parties?

But Democrats can’t control what Trump does; they only control their own campaigns. “I actually think it’s a complete distraction,” Esteves told me. “Republicans still have an advantage in this state—don’t lose sight of that.”

Nobody thinks winning these races will be easy. Warnock and Ossoff have already been outspent by Republicans in the first month of the new campaign. Georgia Democrats have lost all eight runoffs staged since 1992, including a pair of US Senate contests. But progressive activists want to refute the notion that their dismal performance in past runoffs can predict the future. There’s never been a runoff with resources like this—many expect the two Democrats to be competitive financially down the stretch—or with voters who are so mobilized. “Demographics is the fire,” Nsé Ufot, the inspiring leader of the Abrams-founded New Georgia Project, told NBC News. “Organizing is the accelerant.”

The AAPI community represents a unique example. Representative Bee Nguyen cut her political teeth managing the 2016 campaign of Representative Sam Park, who beat a tough GOP incumbent that year to become Georgia’s first AAPI representative. “People were like, ‘That’s sweet y’all are trying, but you’re going to lose,’” she recalls. But Park, who had interned in the state House with Abrams, did unprecedented outreach in Asian languages—including Vietnamese, Korean, Hindi, Chinese—as well as Spanish. “Suddenly all of our moms who’ve never felt compelled to vote before were working on the campaign, phone banking for Sam in their own languages,” Nguyen recalls, chuckling. Park won; his own mother voted for the first time that year. (Interestingly, he merited an NBC News profile—for also being the state’s first out LGBTQ legislator.)

The next year, Nguyan ran in a special election for a state House seat, and became the first female AAPI legislator. Now the state’s AAPI legislative caucus includes five. It’s not enough, but it’s progress.

“It used to be that hiring and investing in AAPI outreach was like pulling teeth” with the Democratic Party, Nguyen recalls. “Nobody was talking to AAPI voters, and if they were, they weren’t doing it in their languages. It’s very different right now.”

She credits Abrams with the change. “She was the first statewide candidate who truly recognized the power of AAPI voters and was able to pull them to her side” in her 2018 governor’s race. She lost narrowly but won 78 percent of the AAPI vote. “We haven’t always seen that investment with other campaigns,” Nguyen notes.

Atlanta school board chair Jason Esteves says essentially the same thing. “Stacey Abrams was spending money on all of our communities from the beginning of her campaign. It wasn’t always a lot, but it was never an afterthought.” He adds, “We were always part of the fabric of her campaign.”

Nguyen and Esteves know it will be a tough race for Warnock and Ossoff. They both know about the 100,000-vote drop-off from Biden to Ossoff (since Warnock ran in a special election to fill the seat of a GOP incumbent who unexpectedly retired, the dynamics there aren’t comparable). On the other hand, Nguyen says, she outperformed both Biden and Ossoff in her state house district, where voter turnout was an astonishing 70 percent. (It should be noted that her district is mostly black and white, not AAPI.) “We knocked 37,000 doors in 2017. We canvassed every weekend for Stacey Abrams in 2018. My constituents know me,” she added.

They don’t have much time to get to know Warnock and Ossoff. But it can happen.

Stacey Abrams likes to talk about the “muscle memory” of Georgia voters who are getting used to exercising their sacred right. Voting in the state isn’t always easy; early voting, absentee voting, voting by mail (even if you’re not absentee, which traditionally meant out of town for Election Day), in-person voting—they’re governed by different deadlines and require different approaches. But “for some Georgia voters, the runoff will be their third or fourth election in just over seven months,” says Seth Bringman of Abrams’s newest voter access group, Fair Fight Action. Some Democrats voted in the June primary, which was a nightmare, with long lines in urban counties and confusion about the rules. Then they cast their November ballots—an election that was administered much more cleanly and fairly, at least partly due to Fair Fight Action’s activism—and saw Biden win the state. (Some Georgia voters faced a special election to fill the late John Lewis’s congressional seat; that’s the fourth election in Bringman’s assessment.)

“We have a very emboldened Democratic base that knows it can be done—they just elected Joe Biden,” Bringman told me, adding that “yes, there is now muscle memory, especially among Georgians voting by mail. It matters.” Almost a million Georgia voters have already requested mail-in ballots for the primary.

Still, Democrats worry about drop-off among first-time AAPI and Hispanic voters, among rural black voters, and among young voters of all races. Voters aged 18–29 increased their share of the Georgia vote from 14 to 16 percent. But young voters disproportionately cast their ballots on Election Day, rather than taking advantage of new options to vote early or by mail. That could be problematic in January, with many college students still home on break.

But Democrats say the Senate campaigns will be supercharged now that they’re gradually returning to (very) careful canvassing and door-knocking. Democrats essentially abandoned the doors during the summer and fall, in Georgia and nationwide, because of Covid, but Republicans did not. It’s possible to do it safely, Georgia Democrats now agree, especially with paid, experienced canvassers, rather than volunteers—which might be especially important in non–English speaking communities.

Esteves and Nguyen think it’s past time Democrats began to pay for that expertise. “Pay them what they’re worth,” Esteves says of Spanish-speaking canvassers. “We certainly pay for traditional consultants,” most of them white. Nguyen agrees. “They deserve that skill set to be recognized,” she says of the many Asian-language-proficient “volunteers” who would love to work on a campaign.

Both Nguyen and Esteves know there’s potential for Latinos and AAPI voters to be pitted against the party’s African American base, whose loyalty has been the through line of Democrats’ progress in Georgia and nationwide. “Obviously, Black voters are incredibly important and have saved all of us in so many ways,” Nguyen told me. She doesn’t see the current organizing ferment as any kind of a zero-sum game, where one group must lose for another to gain. Nor does Esteves. “What’s really happening is our groups are finally working together—from Stacey Abrams’s work, and all the way down. Instead of groups competing they’re finding ways to work together.”

As Democrats continue to sort through the data from November 3 to find promising new Peach State turnout targets—Ossoff saw particular drop-off from Biden’s numbers among white suburbanites in the northern Atlanta metro area; he did better with the multiracial voters who live to the south of the capital—it’s hard not to stare at the car crash on the GOP side of the highway. Trump’s railing against Kemp is not only hurting the governor (who will almost certainly face Abrams in a rematch in 2022) but also Loeffler and Perdue. Poor Republican National Committee chair Ronna Romney McDaniel got shouted down at a campaign stop in suburban Cobb County (where in some precincts Biden outperformed Ossoff, and Perdue outperformed Trump) on Saturday. “Why should we vote in this election when we know it’s already decided?” someone yelled, according to CNN. “Kemp is a crook!” another shouted.

But Esteves warns again: Don’t get distracted. “I still consider this a Republican state,” he warns me, while acknowledging that it’s gradually changing. “The grassroots organizers who’ve been in this work for years must keep their heads.”

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