The Georgia Senate Runoff Races Are Too Wild to Call

The Georgia Senate Runoff Races Are Too Wild to Call

The Georgia Senate Runoff Races Are Too Wild to Call

The Warnock and Ossoff campaigns have met most of their targets to date, but the most important contest in this runoff is to beat back GOP voter suppression.


As Donald Trump continues to lawlessly try to overturn Joe Biden’s valid Georgia victory, Democrats are having to run three campaigns for Georgia’s two US Senate seats this week. The Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are, of course, in post-November runoffs against GOP Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. But the third campaign has been run by hundreds, maybe thousands, of Democratic leaders and activists, and it could be the most important of all: to prevent the GOP from suppressing, disqualifying, and discouraging Democratic voters’ participation in the January 5 runoff.

These activists are playing Whac-A-Mole with hundreds of Republican antagonists, from the Texas-based voter suppression group True the Vote, which sought to invalidate more than 364,000 registered voters, to local election officials in at least 80 of the state’s 159 counties, who tried to limit voting opportunities or scrutinize voters to the point of harassment, to Trump and his legal gremlins, who are bringing baseless lawsuits and making false claims of widespread voter fraud that they allege handed the state to President-elect Biden.

Thanks to the work of Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight voting rights groups and indefatigable lawyers, most judges and county officials have been tossing out these challenges almost as fast as Republicans can file them. In one great irony, GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, trashed by Trump for certifying Biden’s win, ordered an unprecedented Georgia Bureau of Investigation audit of absentee ballot processing in formerly Republican, now-Democratic Cobb County. Examining whether absentee ballot signatures matched voter registration records, the GBI found no evidence of voter fraud in more than 15,000 ballots; there were 10 with problematic signatures, but agents found that the voters were all registered and eligible and made honest mistakes.

“That’s the type of stuff that makes me even angrier about fake messaging around fraud,” says Atlanta state Representative Bee Nguyen, “because what’s being lost is how many voters get disenfranchised by this process.”

Nevertheless, Georgia broke records for early vote and absentee turnout in this historic runoff. Every indicator points to a record Democratic turnout for a runoff: at least 114,000 new voters, mainly in blue counties, have turned out, though they didn’t in November; most are people of color, 40 percent are Black. The Black vote overall is ahead of where it was at the same time during the November general election early vote. Overall, Democratic counties and congressional districts are outpacing Republican ones, often by a lot.

In the end, Georgia logged more than 3 million votes ahead of Election Day (absentee ballots are still coming in, meaning the early vote total will be higher). The highest total runoff turnout was 2.1 million voters for a Senate runoff won by the GOP in 2008.

“It is a fantastic number,” said Stacey Abrams, the 2018 gubernatorial candidate who founded Fair Fight after a narrow loss to voter-suppressing Secretary of State Brian Kemp, now the governor.

The wild card, of course, is election day, when in recent years, including this past one, Republicans have swamped Democrats at the polls (they made up 60 percent of voters November 3, but Biden’s early vote and absentee cushion gave him a close win, while Ossoff trailed Perdue but still forced a runoff, because neither got 50 percent of the votes). Turnout is even more unpredictable because of the madness of Trump, who has been demanding the resignation of Kemp and other state officials for certifying Biden’s November win.

Trump will rally Monday night in Whitfield County in northwest Georgia, a GOP stronghold that has lagged in early voting but has had the highest coronavirus rate in the state over the past two weeks. If that’s not perverse enough, he will certainly muddle the messages of the candidates he’s ostensibly there to support, Loeffler and Perdue. He has backed efforts to postpone the runoff and called the election “illegal and invalid.” He has pitted the two senators against their erstwhile Republican allies in the state, dividing the party at a time when Democrats have never been more united. On Sunday, The Washington Post released a recorded phone call in which Trump told Raffensperger to “find” 11,870 votes and threatened that if he did not, “a lot of people aren’t going out to vote” on Tuesday.

Vice President–elect Kamala Harris came to Savannah on Sunday to drive turnout in heavily Black Chatham County. Former Savannah mayor Otis Johnson believes she did just that. “The rally was high energy and very well attended and there’s a lot of positive momentum going into Tuesday,” he told me, though he predicts “it will probably be Thursday or Friday before we know the outcome.” It’s also possible Democrats will get more help from an unhinged Trump in Whitfield County on Monday night. Or else he’ll rile up his lawless, racist, conspiracy-addicted base to swamp Democrats on Tuesday. This race is officially too wild to call.

Talking to Democrats after Biden won narrowly and Warnock and Ossoff made it into their runoffs in November, I heard several keys to a January Democratic victory. One, obviously, was ensuring that turnout didn’t crater as it normally does among Democrats in runoffs. Another was maintaining or even bumping up the share of black voters. Asian American Pacific Islander and Latino voter turnout had surged, by an amazing 91 percent for AAPI voters and 47 percent for Latinos; activists told me it was crucial to continue to invest in those communities, with paid organizers as well as in-language advertising, mail, and social media, to get them to vote in an unfamiliar runoff.

Maybe toughest of all, Democrats had to continue to inspire youth turnout. The 18-to-29-year-old share of the electorate rose from 14 percent in 2016 to 16 percent in 2020, but college students might go home for the holidays, away from where they were registered. Finally, Democrats had to get back “on the doors,” with an aggressive canvassing operation that Covid mostly shut down in the summer and fall, while beating back the voter harassment, suppression, and interference that was certain to follow Biden’s historic win.

By most accounts, they’ve done pretty much all of that.

It’s remarkable to think that the anti-Trump electoral resistance began in the spring of 2017 with newcomer Jon Ossoff’s race to fill an empty House seat in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, and it’s ending with Ossoff and Warnock’s Senate runoff. The contest for that suburban Atlanta seat four years ago was in many ways the template for organizing and turning out the “new Georgia” Abrams and others had identified years before. Ossoff’s run inspired an uprising by suburban white women, mostly Democrats but some former Republicans, appalled by Trump, alongside the region’s traditional Democratic stalwarts, Black voters (Ossoff’s early endorsement by the late Representative John Lewis gave him civil rights bona fides from the start). That June, Ossoff lost narrowly to anti-choice extremist Karen Handel.

The 2017 Ossoff campaign got some criticism for being over-funded by big donors and under-inspired by progressive ideals, a lot of which was unfair. It created a local organizing infrastructure and small-donor base that persists today, and helped elect Lucy McBath to the sixth district seat, twice. But one fair critique I heard afterward was the campaign’s inability to get traction with the district’s growing Latino and Asian American Pacific Islander communities. Stacey Abrams’s 2018 run for governor changed that, investing in Latino and AAPI organizers as well as advertising and outreach in at least seven languages.

Biden reaped what Abrams sowed, with AAPI and Latino turnout surging. Meanwhile, the two Senate campaigns, as well as the state Democratic Party, have their own AAPI and Latino outreach organizers and communications staffers. One measure of the change since 2017: The Ossoff campaign hired longtime local AAPI organizer Cam Ashling as its outreach director.

Still, AAPI and Latino early vote turnout lagged somewhat behind where it was in November. Atlanta school board member Jason Esteves isn’t worried. “There’s evidence that Latinos like to vote on Election Day,” he says. Esteves believes both campaigns have made good on their promise to hire community organizers—not just recruit them as volunteers—and language-proficient staff. Republicans, meanwhile, have invested heavily in advertising to Georgia Latinos, but not as much in a ground game. Bee Nguyen, elected to fill Abrams’s Atlanta House seat in 2017, is a little more concerned about slightly lagging AAPI turnout. “It’s the holidays combined with the pandemic,” she says. “And some voter fatigue.”

On the other hand, the youth early vote is almost keeping pace with November’s—it’s at about 15 percent, says Abrams. Some Democrats focused on the youngest of those voters, Nse Ufot of the Abrams-founded New Georgia Project tells me: those who turned 18 between Election Day and January 5.

“We did assemblies—you know how when we were in school, they might bring the seniors together for half a morning to have awkward conversations about sex? This year we talked to them—in virtual assemblies—about voting. We had virtual birthday parties with all of the people turning 18 in a school, with the hottest rappers we could get to say yes to us. It’s been fantastic.” Some 23,000 Georgians turned 18 after November 3; the New Georgia Project registered 7,000 of them. No one’s sure yet how many will vote, but overall, the numbers are encouraging. Meanwhile, the Ossoff campaign has hired 2,000 part-time “community mobilizers,” most of them young Black voters, to do outreach to friends and family.

“The fact that in a runoff election in early January, younger voters are very close to matching those turnout numbers [from November] is a little bit crazy,” Tom Bonier of TargetSmart told The Washington Post. “I’m running out of superlatives…. Those are voters who traditionally wouldn’t vote in an election like this.”

And Democrats are back on the doors in huge numbers—from the Warnock and Ossoff campaigns to the state Democratic Party to an uncountable number of progressive groups. Ufot says the NGP only knocked 400,000 doors between Labor Day and November 3 because of Covid; since then, the group has knocked 1.6 million. The Latino organizing group Mijente says its 200 paid canvassers will knock 300,000 doors by election day.

While Democrats have, by all accounts, done a good job so far of turning out their voters, party leaders agree they’ve gotten a couple of major assists from Trump. One is the sore loser’s assault on stolid conservative GOP leaders like Kemp and Raffensperger. This weekend, The Washington Post obtained a phone call recording of Trump berating Raffensperger “to find 11,780 votes” and overturn Biden’s victory, citing a raft of cases of voter “fraud,” for which there is no evidence. “Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong,” Raffensperger replied.

“You have a big election coming up,” Trump retorted, “and because of what you’ve done to the president, a lot of people aren’t going out to vote, and a lot of Republicans are going to vote negative, because they hate what you did to the president.” He threatened to relitigate his claims at his Monday night rally, which could be deadly to Loeffler and Perdue.

The Georgia Republican infighting has many state leaders worried about turnout. “The president’s continued broadside against Senate Republicans while the majority hangs in the balance is one the most unhelpful things he has done during his presidency,” a GOP strategist told Politico.

The other is Trump’s demand for $2,000, not $600, in direct Covid aid. After opposing all direct Covid aid for months, both Perdue and Loeffler flip-flopped and came out for Trump’s $2,000 proposal, which was also supported by most Democrats. But Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell blocked it.

“We should have passed relief months ago. This is what happens when the politics becomes about the politicians,” Warnock said at a rally Thursday. “This is a lot of maneuvering between politicians. And they live a kind of privilege that allows them to do that.”

The message is resonating, activists say. “We are now shifting all of our scripts—for phone calls, for texts, for the doors, for our ads—to this issue of relief,” Ufot says. “Loeffler and Perdue’s flip-flop isn’t fooling anyone. They blocked aid all year. Mitch [McConnell] will be Senate majority leader if they win, which means we won’t get any aid. We had to pivot: This is the animating issue of this moment.”

Ossoff and Warnock are also running more progressive campaigns than Ossoff did in 2017, supporting a $15-an-hour minimum wage, criminal justice reform, climate-change infrastructure investment, and marijuana legalization. Warnock is calmly knocking back Loeffler’s baseless, racist claims about his pastoral advocacy over the years, with Ossoff’s help; Ossoff has labeled Perdue a “crook” and has gone to the mats to fight the GOP’s racist campaign against Warnock. He blasted a Fox News reporter for asking if he thought running with Warnock hurt his chances, insisting that Loeffler “has been campaigning with a Klansman.” (A CNN fact-check pushed back on Ossoff’s viral claim; Loeffler only took photos with a Klansman and neo-Nazi who was convicted of assaulting a Black man in the 1990s. Oops.)

The two men have campaigned as running mates, and Ufot sees them lifting each other. “Their audiences will bleed over to one another,” Ufot told The New Yorker. “White suburban moms of Atlanta, who ride for Jon Ossoff, will get introduced to Warnock, this Black pastor from the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. And Warnock lends credibility to Ossoff in the Black pockets around the state that he couldn’t buy.” Aggregate polling by Fivethirtyeight suggests that Warnock now leads by 2 percent, Ossoff by 1.4.

I spent a lot of time in Georgia in 2017 and 2018, covering the Ossoff, McBath, and Abrams campaigns. It saddens me not to be there for this historic runoff, but even if Trump is willing to sicken supporters in Whitfield County, I’m listening to public health experts and writing from home. I can’t see what’s happening on the ground, but from a distance I’m inspired, not just by the voter turnout campaigns but also the myriad and innovative efforts to beat back voter suppression.

Just one vivid example: After ballots and applications were thrown out in 2018 under Kemp, because of junk signature-matching practices that disproportionately impacted voters of color, the legislature passed a bill requiring that such voters be notified of the problem and given an opportunity to “cure” their ballot. The cure process, however, is cumbersome, and not everyone—maybe not most voters—can manage it. One of the most inspiring innovations this year is a campaign to help voters—most of them elderly, many of color—cure their ballots.

Atlanta state Representative Bee Nguyen first had to prove that voters accused of casting fraudulent absentee ballots in the November general election voted legally. (You can see her evidence here.) Now, she and a team of neighbors are working to “cure” the votes of runoff voters who made some mistake with their absentee ballots—not signing them, or signing them in the wrong place, or with a signature that officials say isn’t a match.

“It’s mainly senior citizens,” she told me, and most don’t have laptops or cell phones, or the tech know-how, that would let them complete the process themselves. Recently she visited a 70-year-old African American neighbor, Lorenzo, who hadn’t signed his ballot. “I’m thinking, this man had to trust some stranger to come into his house, take pictures of his photo ID, get him to sign a piece of paper,” she says. “It is such a disgrace. Imagine being an older black voter in the South and having to go through things like this—all of them restrictive and punitive towards voters.”

But these neighborhood ballot curing efforts are a vivid example of the kind of relational organizing progressive Georgia has gotten good at over the last four years—“friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor,” says Nse Ufot.

Another sign of GOP alarm—and an innovative if cruel attempt at voter suppression: For the runoff, Raffensperger has criminalized “line-warming,” the increasingly common practice of supporting voters in long lines by bringing them food, drinks, or warm clothes, threatening to charge anyone who does so with a felony. Ufot is unintimidated. “I’ve got tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of pizza and scarves and hot chocolate and water,” she tells me. “We are going to get those things to Georgians—we’re preparing for a showdown.”

This remains an uphill battle for Democrats. They’ve done everything right, but Georgia is still not a blue state; it’s barely purple. The presumed Democratic early-vote advantage could be swamped by a tsunami of angry Trump supporters on election day if the defeated president calibrates his message of grievance just right on Monday night.

Still, it’s impossible to overstate the progress Democrats and progressives have made in the last four years. “The most beautiful thing I’ve seen in this runoff election and on the ground is organizations working so well in tandem with each other,” says Jason Esteves. Fair Fight Action’s Lauren Groh-Wargo adds, “If I’m a Republican operative in Georgia, I’d be very concerned right now. I would not want to be them.”

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