December 22, 2020

As Goes Georgia: What is at Stake in the Runoff Elections

James P. Hare

Introduction – Freedom Park, November 7, 2020

On November 7, 2020, supporters of the New Georgia Project, and a laundry list of allied organizations, gathered in Freedom Park to demand every vote cast in the general election be counted. With President Trump and his supporters calling to suspend the vote count in closely fought states, including Georgia, this protest was meant to be a call to protect the most basic element of democracy—the vote.

Freedom Park’s location at the end of John Lewis Freedom Parkway lent deep symbolism to the gathering. As one of the most ardent defenders of the right to vote, John Lewis had provided a living link between the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and contemporary struggles against voter suppression, including this ongoing, blatant attempt at retroactive disenfranchisement.

Shortly before the demonstration began, however, national news outlets called the election for Joe Biden, turning what might have been somber gathering into the core of a city-wide street party. Throughout Atlanta—and in cities across the country—people poured into the streets to celebrate, dancing, honking car horns, and crying tears of joy. Normally stone-faced television anchors said it looked more like the fall of a dictatorship than the outcome of a routine election. And indeed, it is difficult to see these spontaneous celebrations as support for Biden’s moderate agenda so much as relief that the current regime’s slash-and-burn policies and cult of personality were finally coming to an end.

For much of the country, the long election season seemed finally to be coming to an end. In Georgia however, this was not the case. With Georgia law requiring a majority to win, three statewide offices headed to runoffs: both U.S. Senate seats and a position on the Public Service Commission. Control of the Senate—and with it Biden’s chances of being able to advance any kind of legislative agenda—will be decided in Georgia on January 5.

Yard sign reading “Georgia turned blue, Senate should, too,” Decatur, GA (Flickr photo by Thomas Cizauskas, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This article provides an overview of these runoff elections and the terrain on which they are being fought. While Georgia is receiving unprecedented attention—and political spending—due to the national stakes, this election is also one more chapter in ongoing efforts—electoral and non-electoral—to build liberal and progressive power in what has been until very recently a deeply conservative state. Changing demographics, especially in the Atlanta suburbs, have benefited the Democratic Party, but as the 2020 elections have shown elsewhere, demographics aren’t destiny. In Georgia, long-term organizing and intense mobilization have converted these demographic shifts into Democratic victories.

The 2020 Election in Georgia

The headline election news from Georgia was Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ upset win. No Democratic presidential candidate had won Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992, when the state’s political coalitions had very different shapes than today. As they had since Reconstruction, Democrats still dominated state politics then, albeit in what in today’s terms seems to be an implausible coalition that still included many conservative white voters not yet won over by the national Republicans’ Nixonian Southern strategy.

The kind of hard right politics advanced by the likes of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who hailed from Atlanta’s northern suburbs, eventually broke open the contradictions of this Georgia Democratic coalition. Republicans came to dominate Georgia politics. The Democratic Party of Georgia was reduced to a shadow of its former self, unable to present a serious challenge to Republican dominance.

This realignment left the Democratic Party smaller but more ideologically coherent, no longer a party reliant on including segregationists and neo-confederates. Still, the party’s initial attempt at revival initially depended on a strong dose of nostalgia for the good old days when moderate white Democrats governed the state. In 2014, the party ran Jason Carter—Jimmy Carter’s grandson—for governor and Michelle Nunn—Sam Nunn’s daughter—for Senate. Their bids fell short by about 200,000 votes (out of 2.5 million cast). Similarly, in the wake of Tom Price’s resignation from his House seat to become Secretary of Health and Human Services (a position from which he would soon resign in disgrace), the first special election of the Trump era, Jon Ossoff ran against Republican Karen Handel. Both candidates received enormous support from national donor networks, and first-time candidate Ossoff became a favorite of the newly emerging “Resistance” despite standing for little more than not being a Republican. Ossoff fell short of winning, but many viewed the close margin as a symbolic victory in what had been until recently regarded as a safe Republican seat that had once been held by Newt Gingrich.

While these white, centrist Democrats were losing well-funded, high profile bids for high office, Stacey Abrams was spearheading the development of a new infrastructure for a different approach. Since its founding in 2013, the New Georgia Project has registered voters, engaged with these new voters, and advocated in defense of voting rights and against voter suppression. While these efforts benefited previous Democratic candidates, they really set the stage for Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial bid. Facing enormous voter suppression, coordinated by her opponent then Secretary of State Brian Kemp, Abrams nonetheless came within 55,000 votes of winning the race (out of nearly 4 million votes cast), demonstrating a path by which Democrats could become competitive in statewide races. In the Sixth District, gun-control activist Lucy McBath, a Black woman, defeated incumbent Karen Handel with much less national attention and support than Jon Ossoff had received.

While Stacey Abrams accepted that Brian Kemp would become the next governor of Georgia, she never conceded the race. Instead she founded Fair Fight to work against voter suppression in Georgia and around the country. Leading into the 2020 elections, the political landscape in Georgia had been transformed, with groups like the New Georgia Project and a revitalized Democratic Party conducting outreach and engagement to turn out every possible voter. Going into the election, Georgia Democrats hoped—against the odds—to win the state for Biden, to pick up a House seat, take control of the State House, and to defeat Republican incumbents in both Senate seats. Where they succeeded and where they came up short is illustrative of how Democrats can win on hostile terrain and where they will continue to face major challenges.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ statewide victory in Georgia seems to reflect a seismic shift in Georgia. Transplants to the economic magnet of metro Atlanta and increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the suburbs, once Republican bastions, have shifted the political calculus in the state. Similar claims could be made about other sunbelt states like Texas and Florida, but in these states Democrats failed to reap any benefit from demographic changes that were widely assumed to be in their favor. In Georgia, however, a sophisticated and intensive political ground game led by Black women managed to make claims about the “new American majority” more than wishful thinking.

In Georgia’s Congressional elections, Democrats held one swing district and flipped another. In the 6th district, Karen Handel unsuccessfully challenged Lucy McBath in a replay of their 2018 race. In the 7th District, Carolyn Bourdeaux, a liberal college professor, narrowly defeated Republican Rich McCormick. In the context of a projected blue wave that failed to materialize, this win is remarkable as one of only three Republican-held seats flipped by Democrats nationwide. Due to gerrymandering, other House seats were not competitive in the general election. In the 14th District, voters sent the ultimately unopposed Republican and QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene to Washington. In the 5th District, previously represented by the late John Lewis, Nikema Williams handily defeated Angela Stanton-King, a reality TV personality and recipient of a presidential pardon from Donald Trump. State party leadership, facing an extraordinarily small window after John Lewis’s passing, selected Williams to fill Lewis’s place on the ballot. In addition to serving in the state legislature and as Stacey Abrams’ successor as state party chair, Williams was deputy director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and ran on a progressive platform that included support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

In the Georgia State House, Democrats hoped to take control of the legislature or at least narrow the gap. Here, they came up short, leaving the legislature in exactly the same shape as previously. As arguably the most gerrymandered legislature in the country, Democrats faced a formidable challenge. Yet, with this victory, Republicans will have a free hand to draw new district boundaries for the State Senate and House of Representatives, giving them a structurally gerrymandered advantage for at least another decade. If Democrats manage to win statewide offices in 2022 they may find themselves in the same situation as their counterparts in North Carolina, possessing a popular mandate but stymied by a heavily gerrymandered legislature.

Due to the resignation of Senator Johnny Isakson at the end of 2019, Georgia has not one but two Senate elections in 2020. Brian Kemp appointed Kelly Loeffler as Isakson’s replacement over the explicit objections of Donald Trump. In a multi-party “jungle primary,” Reverend Raphael Warnock consolidated Democratic support to easily finish in first. The only drama was whether Loeffler would fend off a challenge from Republican challenger and Trump-favorite Doug Collins, which she did. Since no candidate plausibly expected to receive 50% of the vote in the crowded field, the race was always expected to be decided in a runoff between Warnock and the top Republican. In the other Senate race, Jon Ossoff, with the help of a Libertarian, narrowly prevented incumbent David Perdue from reaching 50% of the vote, sending this race to a runoff as well.

What’s at Stake?

The stakes of the two Senate runoffs couldn’t be higher. Democrats had entered the 2020 election with high hopes not only of defeating an incumbent president but of expanding their majority in the House of Representatives and gaining a majority in the Senate. While Biden handily won the White House, Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives, holding a narrow majority. In the Senate, the count currently stands at 50 Republican and 48 Democratic votes. Since Vice President-Elect Harris, in her role as President of the Senate, will cast tie-breaking votes, victories in both Georgia runoffs would give Democrats narrow control of the chamber. A Democratic Senate could be expected to approve Biden’s appointees and give Biden a chance to advance legislation. If Mitch McConnell remains in his post as majority leader, we can expect the same strategy of disruption that he used so effectively against the Obama administration.

Of the Democratic candidates, Jon Ossoff hews most closely to what establishment Democrats seem to think of as a “safe” candidate. His policy positions closely resemble those of the Democratic Party mainstream. He does not support Medicare for All, but he does support expanding Medicaid and adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act. He does not support the Green New Deal, but he does support “a historic infrastructure plan that includes massive investments in clean energy, energy efficiency, and environmental protection.” He does not seek to defund the police, but he does support “comprehensive criminal justice reform.” His platform does include some progressive planks, such as support for a $15 minimum wage. Of course, none of these centrist positions prevent his opponent from labeling him as a pawn of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Senator Bernie Sanders, and other “socialists” like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer seeking to ban hamburgers and impose Chinese-style communism on Georgia.

If Jon Ossoff is a relatively uninspiring candidate, David Perdue has been a disastrous senator. A close ally of the president, he campaigns as a regular Joe, belying his status as a multi-millionaire. He is a climate change denier, funded by the fossil fuel industry. He seeks to repeal the Affordable Care Act, curtail legal immigration, criminalize boycotting Israel and its settlements, and permit anti-LGBTQ discrimination, among other far-right positions. His campaign released an anti-Semitic attack ad against Ossoff, and he has mockingly mispronounced his Senate colleague Kamala Harris’ name. Uninterested in his constituents’ views, he has not held a single public town hall during his time in office.

Following his pathetic performance in a general election debate, Perdue has refused to debate Ossoff prior to the runoff. He has used his time in office for personal enrichment. Throughout his term, he has traded stock in a manner that makes it hard not to conclude that he is using his insider knowledge and influence for his own profit. Following a private senate briefing in January on the COVID-19 outbreak, Perdue, along with Loeffler and multiple Republican and Democratic senators, bought and sold stocks in companies that seemed likely to be affected by the pandemic. For example, Perdue bought shares in companies that manufacture pharmaceuticals and personal protective equipment and sold shares of the casino company Caesars Entertainment. The Senate Ethics Committee would eventually conclude that Perdue’s behavior did not violate federal law or Senate rules.

The most inspiring candidate in either senate race is Raphael Warnock. Warnock is the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr., once preached. He studied at Union Theological Seminary, where he was a student of the Black liberation theologian James Cone. His platform doesn’t vary significantly from Ossoff’s or the Democratic Party mainstream, and like Ossoff, he has never before held elected office. Where Warnock distinguishes himself is in his record of using his pulpit as a base for advocacy. He has been a leader in the struggle to expand Medicaid in Georgia as well as in the campaign to prevent the 2011 execution of Troy Davis. His church has used its resources to advance reproductive justice and climate action. His opponent has used his record as a preacher in the Black church tradition as the basis for attack ads, linking him to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright (whose sermons caused so much controversy for Barack Obama) and presenting him as an anti-American extremist. These attacks have been so immoderate as to earn Loeffler a collective rebuke from a group of Georgia pastors.

The contrast between Warnock and his opponent could not be greater. Kelly Loeffler is by some accounts the wealthiest member of the Senate. She is married to Jeffrey Sprecher, the chair of the New York Stock Exchange. A co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA team, the Dream, she has been outspoken in her opposition to athletes’ support of Black Lives Matter. In response, the WNBA’s players have taken the unprecedented step of collectively campaigning for Warnock’s election. Despite Donald Trump’s open opposition to her appointment, she has described herself as his staunch ally and has reliably positioned herself on the far-right of U.S. politics. During her tenure, she has sided with the president in 100% of her votes. Like Perdue, she is an unwavering right-wing voice in the Senate, especially in her opposition to abortion, support for gun rights, and anti-LGBTQ advocacy. She has introduced legislation to bar transgender people from participating in sports on the basis of their true gender, permitting athletic participation based only on gender assigned at birth.

There is a third statewide runoff that has, understandably, received less attention, both nationally and in Georgia. While the Public Service Commission remains obscure to many, this body has an important role to play in advancing the transition to a renewable energy future, in supporting access to broadband internet, and other critical but often overlooked policies. This commission regulates electric, natural gas, and telecommunications utilities and rates throughout Georgia.

The Democratic challenger in this race is Daniel Blackman. He served as the Georgia political director for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign and has refused to accept donations from the fossil fuels industry. He supports moving away from coal, oil, and fossil gas, providing more utility assistance to low-income Georgians, protecting utility workers, and equitably expanding broadband in every part of the state.

Lauren “Bubba” McDonald is the Republican incumbent. He is ostensibly in favor of free markets, supporting increased use of solar power when (and only when) it is profitable, but he has also voted to continue funding Plant Vogtle, the only nuclear power plant under construction in the United States, passing along its excessive cost overruns to Georgia Power’s ratepayers.

Together these three elections will decide the fate of both Georgia and the nation on January 5.

Republicans Doing Their Jobs and Republicans Doing the Usual

The office of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has received much praise for standing up to blunt calls from the president and his allies to subvert the election. Following his disastrous administration of the primary election in June, November’s general election was carried out relatively well. Certainly there were long lines at some early voting locations but nothing like the debacle he had presided over earlier in the year. While voter suppression continues to shape the electorate in Georgia, the election itself was carried out without significant irregularities and not one but two recounts confirmed the results.

Neither these facts nor the reality that both Raffensperger and Governor Brian Kemp are conservative Republican Trump supporters has prevented the president and his allies from alleging that Georgia’s election results were stolen. Both Perdue and Loeffler have called for Raffensperger’s resignation, and the president has all but endorsed Doug Collins as a primary challenger to Kemp in two years. In brief remarks that went viral, top election official Gabriel Sterling described threats of violence against Raffensperger and his family, election workers, and state officials, explicitly calling out Trump and other elected officials who have tacitly endorsed such behavior through their silence.

While Raffensperger and his staff have resisted these blunt attempts to steal the election—and they deserve credit for doing their jobs under very difficult conditions—they continue to advance subtler efforts to suppress likely Democratic voters. Raffensperger has continued to advance narratives of widespread voter fraud by touting his office’s investigations even as an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report found him to be exaggerating both the number of investigations and the severity of the allegations in question.

In suburban Cobb County, Republican officials tried and failed to purge 19,642 voters. The Republican government of this increasingly Democratic county also decided to close half its early voting sites—predominantly in minority neighborhoods—before partially reversing course under intense pressure. Additionally, the Secretary of State’s office has announced investigations of voter registration groups and its intention to aggressively enforce laws intended to prevent out-of-state voters from registering. Despite these potentially chilling actions, almost 76,000 new voters have registered since the November election deadline, and turnout during the first few days of early voting rivals the record turnout during the presidential election.

The repeated recounts and baseless questioning of the election results have provided an opening for far-right extremists to mobilize. Alex Jones, Proud Boys, and other white nationalists have rallied at the state capitol, calling for a boycott of the “rigged” election. State Senator Elena Parent has faced death threats after standing up to—and facing potential COVID-19 exposure from—presidential lawyer Rudy Giuliani. From the perspective of Republicans who actually want to win elections, such behavior is bizarre, but for the extremist fringe of Trump’s base, such demands for fealty serve to discipline Republicans who might wish to deviate in any way from the Trumpian path.

Mobilizing Voters and Building Power

With all eyes on Georgia and donor dollars pouring in, both parties have been working hard to mobilize their supporters. In a sharply polarized context, Democrats and Republicans both understand that the election’s results will hinge on turnout, not on persuading mythical undecided voters. Over the past several decades, Democrats have proven unable to win runoffs, but this election is unlike any that have come before. Reduced turnout in runoffs, particularly among Black voters, has historically benefited Republican candidates, but there has never been a Black candidate in a high profile runoff before nor has a runoff ever received this much attention.

With so much on the line, local and national groups allied with Democrats are pulling out all the stops. Broadcast and digital advertising in support of both sides has inundated the state. County-level party organizations are organizing door knocking, phone banking, and text banking operations as are state and national organizations like Our Revolution and Heritage Action for America. Individuals are encouraging their contacts to vote, either independently or as part of coordinated relational organizing. National political leaders including Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Mike Pence have all visited Georgia to stump for their party. Strangers from all over the country are writing postcards to Georgians reminding us about how important our participation in this election is.

Georgians are used to being ignored by the national Democratic Party. Prior to Stacey Abrams’ groundbreaking 2018 run, Georgia had been written off for a generation as a deep red wasteland not worthy of attention or resources. No one here has any illusions that our current moment in the political spotlight will continue once control of the Senate has been decided. Once the national attention wanes, Georgians will still be working to end Republican control of the state and to build progressive political power in Georgia. It is no coincidence that the leaders of this movement are predominately Black women.

Many will continue to focus mainly on the electoral sphere. The Democratic Party of Georgia and its county committees have been rebuilt and re-energized under the leadership of Stacey Abrams and Nikema Williams. The New Georgia Project, currently directed by Nsé Ufot, does the year-round work of registering and engaging with new voters. Fair Fight, founded by Stacey Abrams in the wake of the 2018 election, combats voter suppression. The Georgia Working Families Party has been campaigning for progressive candidates since 2018, and Our Revolution Georgia has been doing the same—with a somewhat different emphasis—since 2016.

Volunteers with the Georgia Working Families Party (photo by the Georgia Working Families Party).

As the “cradle of the Civil Rights Movement,” Georgia has a long history of building progressive power outside electoral politics. With a weak labor movement, community organizing has oftentimes taken on outsize importance. Many national groups, including the Movement for Black Lives, Showing Up for Racial Justice, and the Democratic Socialists of America—to name just a few—have active local branches. The South has its own particular place in U.S. politics, and regional organizations are active in Atlanta and throughout the state. For example, Project South works at the community and regional level to build movement power throughout the South, and Southerners on New Ground is a multi-issue movement building organization that centers the experience and leadership of women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and immigrants. Local and statewide organizations building progressive power are too numerous to count. In my own small city of Decatur, the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights has taken the lead in working for racial equality in education and housing while demanding the removal of the white supremacist symbols that litter our local landscape. This summer, a Confederate monument was finally removed from downtown Decatur, and they are currently working with local high school students to demand the removal of a cannon that is displayed as a relic of the 1836 “Indian War,” in other words the forced removal of the Muscogee people from their land, an event more commonly remembered as the Trail of Tears.

Conclusion

On January 5, 2021, Georgia will elect two senators, deciding the balance of power in the Senate and bringing the long 2020 election cycle to an end. On January 20, the new president will take office facing either a hostile or—by the slimmest of margins—friendly Senate. Either way, he will face urgent crises of representative democracy and public health. With the outgoing president apparently unwilling to concede at any point and the majority of Republicans believing baseless claims of massive electoral fraud, Biden will face unprecedented levels of opposition despite his centrist politics and long history of cooperation and compromise with Republicans.

On the day he takes office, U.S. COVID-19 deaths may exceed 400,000. Unemployment, hunger, and housing insecurity will continue as acute crises. Longer term problems in American society aren’t going away either. The racism and police brutality which inspired this summer’s uprising continue. Prisons remain overflowing. Massive inequality shows no signs of subsiding. Inequality between men and women seems to be getting worse as the pandemic has pushed women disproportionately out of the workforce. Right wing courts can be expected to roll back recent gains in LGBTQ rights even as trans people, especially Black transfeminine people, are murdered more than ever before. Globally, climate change remains an existential threat to human civilization while the United States continues to pour resources into an imperial war machine even as an utterly botched pandemic response and an erratic, incompetent president have stripped away any remaining veneer of moral leadership.

It’s hard to imagine any incoming president being able to address all these short- and long-term crises even with unambiguous congressional support. Not to mention that Joe Biden’s willingness to tackle these problems is uneven. While yes, a more competent federal pandemic response seems likely, shifting resources away from the national security state and prison industrial complex does not. On other issues, whether climate change or court reform, Biden’s latitude for action will be limited to what he can get through the Senate or accomplish through executive actions.

When Democrats combine commitment to using the instruments of government to help people with tireless organizing in local communities, they can win even on hostile terrain. Statewide and swing district candidates in Georgia did not win or force runoffs by pandering to some imagined disgruntled conservatives. Rather, they benefited from the efforts of organizers who have been working for years to engage with and turn out non-voters and infrequent voters who have long been ignored by both parties. Georgia is one of the only places in the country where Democrats managed to gain House seats. Centrist Democrats who lost swing seats elsewhere would do well to stop pointing fingers at the Left and to learn from Georgia.

We don’t know how these runoff elections will turn out, but we do know that whatever the outcome, it will determine the national political terrain at the beginning of the next presidential administration. In Georgia, win or lose, these elections are one more step in challenging Republican dominance and building real progressive power.

James Hare is a researcher and writer based in Decatur, Georgia. 


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