Midnight trains to Georgia
The Peach State prepares for a political frenzy as a pair of January runoffs determine the balance of the Senate—and the shape of the presidency
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In early December, a singing Santa Claus is set to descend on the Vinings Jubilee outdoor mall in northern Atlanta to perform holiday tunes at a safe distance from masked shoppers.
Santa won’t be the only celebrity in town.
Also sleighing in from the North: entrepreneur Andrew Yang. The 45-year-old ran against former Vice President Joe Biden in this year’s Democratic presidential primaries, where he grabbed attention for his proposal to send monthly checks to every American adult.
Now Yang is leaving his New York home for a two-month stay in Georgia to help Democrats hoping to bag one of the biggest prizes on their political wish list: control of the U.S. Senate.
After an already-grueling election season, the drama continues in at least one state until Jan. 5, when two runoff contests in Georgia will decide whether Republicans keep the Senate—or whether Democrats eke out an advantage to control the Senate, the House, and the presidency.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called the belated battle “the showdown of all showdowns” and told a packed room of Georgia Republicans: “This is Georgia’s decision to make. But it’s America that will live with the consequences.”
After the Associated Press projected Biden had won the presidency, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told a crowd of cheering New Yorkers, “Now we take Georgia, and then we change America!”
But that might not play well down South.
Democrats in Georgia may need to walk a tightrope between accepting outside support for a critical ground game against well-organized Republicans and downplaying messages that sound like outsiders are pulling all the strings. (Republicans are pulling plenty of strings too and quickly turned Schumer’s comments about Georgia into a campaign commercial: “Georgia, don’t let these radicals change America.”) A slew of close races in November showed a nation divided down the middle, not the blue wave of Democratic dominance some predicted. It appeared Democrats narrowly won the presidency but lost much of their edge in the House, and they’re aiming at best for a tie in the Senate. Republicans, meanwhile, have to figure out the best way to rally their voters in the state.
Despite the tensions, activists like Yang say they’re still chugging South: “Everyone who campaigned for Joe should get ready to head to Georgia.”
“This is Georgia’s decision to make. But it’s America that will live with the consequences.” —Marco Rubio
THE UNEXPECTED TWIST in this year’s Senate battle flows from an unusual quirk in Georgia law: In a Senate or House race, a candidate must grab more than 50 percent of the votes to win. If no candidate reaches the mark, the top two vote-getters head to a runoff.
In the November election, all of the Senate candidates in Georgia fell short of an outright majority, so the state’s two Republican senators will face two Democratic opponents in January. Republican Sen. David Perdue faces investigative journalist Jon Ossoff, and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler faces Atlanta minister Raphael Warnock.
Going into the Georgia races, Republicans hold 50 seats in the U.S. Senate. Democrats hold 48. That means Democrats need to pick up both seats in Georgia to bring the balance to a 50-50 tie. In that scenario and with a Biden win, a Vice President Kamala Harris would break the tie, giving Democrats a slim majority.
Even a slim majority is a significant advantage: It would give Biden the ability to secure Cabinet officials and judicial appointments—including nominations to the Supreme Court.
But it would also slow him down: A single Democratic dissenter could torpedo the party’s majority on some votes. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has already said he won’t vote to end the Senate filibuster or pack the Supreme Court.
And Democrats wouldn’t have the 60-vote threshold needed to pass some of their most ambitious legislation. That means they’d likely face pressure to negotiate with Republicans on at least some measures.
Cue the outsiders.
When a CNN reporter asked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., whether she would negotiate with moderate Republicans, she said she would focus on helping Democrats win in Georgia “so we don’t have to negotiate in that manner.”
Not all Democrats are pushing that strategy. Shortly after the party nearly lost its House majority in November, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., reportedly warned colleagues about going too far left: “No one should say ‘defund the police’ ever again. Nobody should be talking about socialism.”
That might be worthwhile advice for the Democratic candidates in Georgia, but they face scrutiny for the campaigns they ran before they knew how narrow the House and presidential races would be.
In June, Democrat Jon Ossoff, 33, didn’t directly answer a question from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about whether he supported the “Defund the Police” movement. He did say he supported legalizing marijuana, guaranteeing health insurance for all Americans, and expanding programs for tuition-free college. (He later said he supported police reform, not defunding the police.)
Ossoff also said he wanted to get rid of President Donald Trump and his Republican allies, calling them “a wannabe tyrant and his cowardly enablers.”
After the general election showed significant support for many Republicans, Ossoff showed a noticeable shift in the first campaign commercial for his January runoff against Perdue: Ossoff didn’t mention Trump, Biden, or the Democratic Party. He didn’t even mention his opponent. Ossoff said he would work to help the state recover from COVID-19 and invest in infrastructure: “We need leaders who bring us together to get this done.”
Raphael Warnock, the Atlanta minister running against Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, also downplayed outside influence heading into the runoffs, even as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wrote a letter urging support for Warnock’s campaign. Republicans pounced on the plug from Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist.
Warnock hasn’t shied away from preaching progressive politics from the pulpit of Atlanta’s well-known Ebenezer Baptist Church—the congregation once led by Martin Luther King Jr.
Not long before the November election, The New York Times reported he castigated Republicans during a campaign speech and said: “I’ve read the Gospels a few times, and Jesus spent a lot of time healing the sick. Even those with pre-existing conditions.”
He’s defended Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of the church President Barack Obama once attended. (Wright’s inflammatory sermons drew attention during Obama’s 2008 presidential run, including a sermon with Wright repeating the refrain that God should “damn” America.)
More recently, Warnock wrote an editorial in The Advocate, a popular gay publication, decrying what he called “so-called religious freedom bills.” Warnock called for the passage of the Equality Act—legislation supported by Biden and Harris that some conservative scholars say poses a direct threat to religious liberties.
Meanwhile, Alveda King, a longtime conservative and the niece of Martin Luther King Jr., lives in Atlanta and has called out Warnock for supporting legalized abortion: “Please don’t confuse the Warnock abortion agenda with the King family legacy!”
Abortion has played a sizable role in Georgia politics over the last year, with the state’s Legislature passing a bill banning most abortions after a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat. (A judge blocked the law.) That looks to stay the same in the January contests.
The pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List plans to spend at least $4 million in the races. Planned Parenthood officials have endorsed both Warnock and Ossoff in their runoffs and pledged to pour money into their campaigns. In 2018, the abortion giant donated some $800,000 to Ossoff’s first congressional run, but Ossoff narrowly lost—showing that campaigns don’t live by donations alone.
They also live by a ground game. On that front, some Democrats urged their party not to grow complacent over what appeared in mid-November to be a White House win—including what looked to be a close victory in Georgia—as they head to the runoffs.
“We’re going to have to sit down and take a serious look at how to run these senatorial campaigns in Georgia,” Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., told USA Today. “We’re not going to win them if we run those the way we ran the Biden campaign.”
RUNNING A GROUND GAME isn’t easy during a pandemic.
Many Democratic candidates not only limited attendance at campaign events, they limited the in-person contact their volunteers and staffers had with voters.
It was a way to be careful during a serious health crisis, but some Democrats now say the campaigns should have adapted to visit more voters face to face. During the warm summer months, Republicans said they knocked on millions of doors, often following a simple protocol: Back away and leave plenty of distance from whoever answers the door.
After Democrats suffered bruising House defeats in November, former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke wrote a memo outlining why he thought some Democrats performed poorly in his home state of Texas: “Nothing beats meeting your voters, eyeball to eyeball.”
Democrats have said they’ll find ways to meet more eyeballs in Georgia, but the timeline for both parties is short: They have a little more than six weeks to hoof it through Georgia during Thanksgiving and Christmas, asking politics-weary voters to go back to the polls one more time.
Many are looking to Democrat Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia state House representative who narrowly lost a bid for governor against Republican Brian Kemp in 2018. Abrams has worked with grassroots organizations that have reported helping register nearly 1 million voters since 2016. (Warnock was once chairman of New Georgia Project, an organization Abrams founded in 2013.)
For Democrats, at least two types of voters are key in the January runoffs: black voters who usually overwhelmingly voted for Democratic candidates and the swaths of suburban voters who backed Biden. For Republicans, voters in areas outside of urban centers are key.
While advocacy groups gear up to help, so do the groups campaigning on abortion. Officials at Planned Parenthood said their organization doesn’t plan to knock on doors in Georgia, but leaders at the Susan B. Anthony List say their group does.
Spokeswoman Mallory Quigley says the organization is working with other pro-life groups to build a field team to make phone calls and knock on doors across the state. That’ll be a steep hill to climb in a short time: “So we’re going to have to be really creative to get this done before Jan. 5.”
While voter registration is important, Charles Bullock, a professor of politics at the University of Georgia, says voter turnout is the bottom line for both campaigns: “It’s much more about contacting the people who you think voted for you last time, and less about prospecting for new voters. … And if you weren’t especially inspired to vote in this presidential election, are you really going to get excited about these Senate runs?”
REPUBLICANS ARE TRYING TO KEEP their voters excited. Loeffler and Perdue paired up to raise funds and share resources in their races against their Democratic opponents right after the November elections.
Pundits favor Republicans to win their contests, and Loeffler has a particular advantage: Though she finished behind Warnock on Nov. 3, she was also competing against another Republican running in the special election for her Senate seat.
“It’s much more about contacting the people who you think voted for you last time, and less about prospecting for new voters.” —Charles Bullock
So she’ll likely pick up a substantial number of voters who pulled the lever for Republican Doug Collins, and she’ll shift more focus to her Democratic opponent than to the Republican she was trying to ward off in the general election.
Warnock will also focus on Loeffler: As Loeffler tells voters that Warnock is a left-wing radical, Warnock tells voters Loeffler profited from the coronavirus pandemic by trading stocks based on early Senate briefings about COVID-19.
Warnock denies charges of socialism, and Loeffler denies accusations of insider pandemic trading. (A Senate ethics committee reported it didn’t find evidence Loeffler broke any laws.) But the attacks are bound to grow more personal, even over an already-difficult holiday season.
Another tightrope for the Republican candidates: They’ve supported Trump’s calls for challenging election results, and they called for the resignation of Georgia’s secretary of state, alleging he wasn’t handling the initial electoral process properly. It’s awkward, given that Brad Raffensperger is a Republican. Raffensperger ordered a hand recount of Georgia’s presidential votes but said he didn’t think it would affect the outcome. Biden was leading by about 14,000 votes at that point. The intra-party GOP fight added another layer to a complicated election.
Perdue has a tightrope to walk as well: The Republican senator won more votes in Georgia than Trump. Bullock, the Georgia politics professor, says that dynamic reinforces what many suspected: “There is a share of Republican voters who will not vote for Donald Trump.”
Erick Erickson, a conservative radio host in Georgia, says he thinks some of the suburban Republican voters who didn’t vote for Trump probably didn’t drift left: “They just drifted away from Trump.”
That raises a big campaign question: Will Republicans ask the president to come to Georgia before January? A few days ahead of the certification of Georgia’s vote, Trump was still contesting the results of the presidential election. Vice President Mike Pence was planning a trip to Atlanta, but it wasn’t clear how Trump would spend the next few weeks after a volatile election season.
Meanwhile, Georgia Democrats were savoring what looked like a Democratic win in the presidential election in a traditionally red state. While the prospect of Georgia turning blue is historic, it isn’t unprecedented: Democratic President Bill Clinton won the state in 1992, and Democrats have been steadily winning races in the state over the last few years.
The politics are changing, Bullock says: “It wasn’t so much a matter of if, as when.”
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