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How Democrats Found Thousands Of New Voters And Flipped Georgia's Senate Seats

People listen to the Rev. Raphael Warnock speak on Jan. 5 in Marietta, Ga. Warnock and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff won the Georgia Senate runoffs on the strength of superior Democratic organizing around the state.
Michael M. Santiago
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People listen to the Rev. Raphael Warnock speak on Jan. 5 in Marietta, Ga. Warnock and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff won the Georgia Senate runoffs on the strength of superior Democratic organizing around the state.

It's been about a month since Democrats flipped Georgia's two Senate seats in high-profile January runoffs, sending Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to Washington, D.C., and handing the party narrow control of the chamber.

One key to the stunning upsets were the roughly 225,000 new voters who didn't vote in November but turned out in January, a disproportionate number of whom were people of color.

"That's just the math," said Bernard Fraga, a political scientist at Emory University who has studied the turnout data.

"If it wasn't for the relatively high mobilization of African Americans and other nonwhite voters in Georgia, Ossoff would have lost. Warnock might have lost; it would have gone to a recount. But Republicans would control the Senate," he said.

The turnout numbers are the latest and highest-profile example of an organizing infrastructure Georgia Democrats have been building for years. And they beg the question: Can Democrats do it again? Democrats certainly think so. Republicans warn it's not a foregone conclusion.

"This wasn't by mistake," said Jeremy Halbert-Harris, coordinated campaign director for the Biden-Harris campaign in Georgia and a senior adviser to the runoff campaigns.

"Our organizing was sincere, and we will continue to organize in a very sincere and strategic manner," he said. "And this won't be the last you hear from Georgia."

"This isn't a strategy that succeeds in one or two election cycles," said Andra Gillespie, also a political scientist at Emory. "It's really important to note that Democrats have had their eye on catching up to and taking over and getting more votes than Republicans for the better part of a decade at this point. And it took a lot of planning."

Jonae Wartel, former director of the coordinated Democratic Senate runoff campaigns, said their organizing efforts were at the heart of the victories.

"We got to work, built on the foundation of the general election where we had turned the state blue for Joe Biden. We just continued to scale, and we built the largest organizing team in the state's history," she said. "We were able to make more than 25 million voter contact attempts just in the runoff election alone, including 1 million door knocks in the final four days of the election."

A blue state?

The strategy of Georgia Democrats has been grounded in the thesis that Georgia is a blue state; its voter rolls just didn't properly reflect the population.

It's one that Tharon Johnson, Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to the Biden-Harris campaign, has subscribed to: "If everyone who lived in the state and were registered at that time and now, and they all voted, I believed that Democrats will be victorious. What we've been working very hard on for the last few years is making sure that we expand that electorate."

Stacey Abrams, a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has become something of a national spokeswoman for the strategy.

Johnson said executing it has been a "collaborative" effort between different groups over the years, including the New Georgia Project, which was founded by Abrams in 2014, and later, Abrams' own campaign.

The New Georgia Project's stated goal has been to register and engage low-propensity young voters and voters of color, and it worked furiously during the runoffs as well.

"If you want to win, these are the folks that you need to talk to," said Nse Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project. "These are the folks you need to inspire. And these are the folks who need to be a part of developing a governing agenda."

But during the runoffs, when unprecedented attention and money flowed into the state, the strategy got a turbocharge.

The New Georgia Project, for example, was able to capitalize on the attention and host dozens of virtual Zoom birthday parties for 18-year-olds, Ufot said. The group invited celebrities native to Georgia to those parties to "join in a conversation with young people about the importance of their voice and the importance of their vote in this moment."

That was on top of its large-scale voter engagement of 2 million door knocks, more than 7 million phone calls and more than 4 million texts.

Another group, Battleground Georgia, looked to grow the electorate by specifically targeting 250,000 registered Black voters who didn't vote in November.

And it paid off, according to Johnson, who worked with the group during the runoffs. He said more than 100,000 of them turned out.

"We can't miss this moment. We were able to increase African American turnout in this state by 4 percentage points," he said. "We went from 27% in 2018, to 31% in the runoff in 2021. That just didn't happen overnight. This was an effort that has been going on for many, many years. And we didn't even see this type of turnout when former President Barack Obama was on the ticket in Georgia in 2008 or 2012."

"Still more Republicans"

But Republicans in Georgia have read the 2020 election results differently, many of them blaming the situation on former President Donald Trump's false election fraud claims.

"Republicans who firmly believed that the election was stolen and that if they went to vote, their vote wouldn't matter, stayed home," said Jason Shepherd, chair of the Cobb County Republican Party. "[That] cost us the election."

He highlighted that the one runoff Republican candidate distanced from the chaos in the White House actually won his race in January: Public Service Commissioner Bubba McDonald.

"The Democrats definitely expanded part of their base, but there are still more Republicans in the state. They just didn't show up," said Erick Erickson, a conservative radio show host and blogger based in Georgia.

He points toanalysis that some Republican voters stayed home during the runoffs.

"[Democrats] deserve some credit for building up a base of Democratic voters and identifying new voters who would vote Democrat. It's what the Republicans used to do in Georgia," Erickson said. "Once they got the majority, they kind of abandoned that strategy."

But Gov. Brian Kemp, who is up for reelection next year, hopes to return to it.

He "definitely" thinks Republicans can learn from Democratic successes. "You know, one of the hardest things that I had to get across to people [during my election] in 2018 is that the race was going to be very close because a lot of people in certain parts of the state didn't believe that," he said.

In 2022, he said he's focused on two things, which echo what has become the Democratic playbook: "We've got to get more likeminded people registered and participating in the process and getting the vote out, making sure we're not leaving anybody at home," he said.

"But we also need to keep reaching out to a lot of the minority communities that are likeminded. They're small business owners like myself, they have strong family values, they want safe communities, and make sure that we are hearing their voices."

Gillespie at Emory argues Georgia will likely remain competitive, with no one in firm control.

"What that means is not that Democrats are going to sweep every office," she said. "Republicans are likely going to win some statewide offices, but we're still going to be looking at really narrow margins."

"Georgia isn't blue yet. Georgia is purple," she said. "Georgia is competitive, and we're likely going to see very close competitive elections going forward, until proven otherwise."

Copyright 2021 WABE 90.1

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