Georgia Republicans aim to beat Democrats at their own ‘ground game’

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The two Republican door-knockers had scarcely started canvassing homes in a well-appointed east Cobb County neighborhood when they began to suspect something was up.

At two front doors in a row, friendly homeowners told the Republican volunteers they were visited days before by other GOP hands urging them to vote for Gov. Brian Kemp, U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker and the rest of the party’s ticket.

“We aren’t alone out here,” Garrison Douglas of the Republican National Committee said with a smile. For Georgia Republicans, the overlap is a good problem to have.

Four years ago, Stacey Abrams and other Democrats caught many Republicans by surprise with an epic ground game focused on mobilizing voters who don’t often cast ballots in midterm elections. In 2020, Republicans poured more resources than ever into closing the gap.

Now, Republicans hope they’ve erased the Democratic grassroots advantage ahead of another election that could yet again determine control of the U.S. Senate — and decide every statewide and legislative office.

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“We’ve got to outwork them. And I’ll be honest with you: They’ve been outworking us the last four or five cycles,” Kemp said at a recent campaign stop in Calhoun, warning of another resurgence in Democratic enthusiasm. “We can’t let them do that this year. We have got to have your help.”

Democrats acknowledge the pressure is ratcheting up as polls tighten. Even as GOP volunteers were scouring Cobb County for votes, Democratic canvassers and their allies were fanned out across the state to promote Abrams, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and other contenders.

Keron Blair of the New Georgia Project said roughly 150 canvassers are knocking on 10,000 doors a day — with hopes of reaching an additional 800,000 households through Election Day.

“It’s go time,” he said.

‘We know it works’

More than $270 million has been spent or reserved for TV and radio ads ahead of the November election, smashing state records for political spending during a midterm.

But the quieter, painstaking work of building vast get-out-the-vote operations could wind up being just as significant.

The groups are putting increased emphasis on the push to turn out voters for the November election because they know that even a small change in voter patterns could determine the outcome in a state where fewer than 12,000 votes decided the 2020 presidential race.

Fred Hicks, a Democratic strategist, said the party’s ground game will “play a larger role in Democrats’ success this year than anything else — including TV ads and mail.”

“Historically, a well-executed ground game increases a candidate’s performance by 3 to 4 points,” he said. “That’s enough to not just secure Sen. Warnock’s election and flip the governor’s race, but also allow for another statewide pickup and gains in the state Legislature.”

The Republican effort is far-flung. The GOP’s Georgia Victory program now has 13 offices around the state with more than 85 employees on the ground. So far, the group’s staffers and volunteers have knocked on more than 2 million doors this election cycle.

What sets the GOP efforts apart this cycle is a more intense focus on reaching voters of color. The RNC and other GOP organizations have launched outreach centers to mobilize Black, Hispanic, Asian American and other minority voter blocs.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition expects to reach more than 1.5 million voters by November, including knocking on at least 100,000 doors in mostly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Ralph Reed, the group’s founder, said it’s the largest such effort targeting minority voters by a conservative-leaning organization in Georgia’s history. If those voters turn out at higher rates, he said, it could shift the turnout model to decisively favor Kemp, Walker and other GOP candidates.

“We know it works because our after-action analysis in 2021 in Virginia showed we achieved 86% turnout from faith-based voters,” Reed said of Republican Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory in that state’s race for governor.

‘Red wall’

No race has emphasized on-the-ground interaction quite like the rematch between Kemp and Abrams.

In 2018, Abrams and her allies spent more money and resources earlier on connecting with voters in person to generate enthusiasm for her campaign. It helped send turnout numbers soaring and served as a blueprint for President Joe Biden’s capture of the state in 2020.

Kemp countered with the help of a stealthy canvassing initiative aimed at supporters of then-President Donald Trump dubbed “Operation Red Wall” that helped him narrowly defeat Abrams.

The program mobilized Trump voters in deep-red rural counties who typically skip midterm elections, and it ultimately knocked on more than 120,000 doors to help Republicans balance Abrams’ drive for new left-leaning voters.

But populations have been declining for years in many of those rural counties, meaning Republicans need to step up their efforts elsewhere to make up the difference.

This election, Kemp’s campaign plans to knock on at least 1 million doors. And Citizens for a Greater Georgia, an organization founded by former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler to counter pro-Abrams political groups, has dispatched three dozen full-time canvassers to Atlanta’s northern suburbs and exurbs.

So far, they’ve knocked on more than 80,000 doors and made nearly 300,000 phone calls.

“A conservative comeback is only possible with a dedicated ground game,” Loeffler said, “which is why Citizens is building a historic mobilization effort to engage voters through a sustained presence at doorsteps and through digital outreach.”

This election cycle, Abrams’ campaign has built out several operations with a goal of reaching 3.9 million likely voters. One branch is focused on reaching diverse voters, another is working with the state party’s coordinated campaign.

A third operation is working to cultivate neighborhood organizations by paying “community captains” in targeted precincts to reach out to friends and neighbors. And a fourth is recruiting supporters to tap their personal contacts and others through their smartphones.

”We’ve seen this movie before. We’ve seen how small decreases in Democratic turnout can lead to an electoral catastrophe on our side,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager.

“We’re always running scared, so we’re very aware how important the ground game is to our campaign, which is why we’re building something bigger, more robust and hyperlocalized across the state.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The Abrams campaign is particularly working to encourage voters to cast in-person early votes starting Oct. 17. She told voters at a stop in Athens on Saturday the campaign also recently sent out 500,000 absentee ballot request forms to likely supporters -- a costly initiative that Abrams hopes will pay dividends.

“We are focusing on a very intentional strategy of driving early voters,” she said.

‘Nothing’ like it

The neighborhood canvassers don’t simply wander door to door ringing every doorbell they can find. They use sophisticated apps that rely on troves of public and proprietary data to ground their efforts. Most important, however, might be a positive disposition.

Philip Friedman’s first involvement in politics took place in 1968 when he knocked on doors for Democratic candidates in California, Iowa and South Dakota. He left his home in Minnesota in June and drove more than 1,100 miles to Atlanta to work as a field organizer.

“Maybe I’m a little old-fashioned but I’m hearing from a lot of my young colleagues still talking about how important it is to look people in the eye, at their doorsteps, to find out what’s important in their lives,” said Friedman, who is 74. “There’s just nothing like face-to-face interaction.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Sometimes, the volunteers face slammed doors — or threats to call 911. But they often find voters who are willing to discuss their perspectives.

Outside his home in east Cobb, Vince Jantz told the Republican volunteers bluntly he’d be voting for every GOP candidate on the ballot — except for Walker.

“I just can’t do it. Everything that’s been reported about him concerns me,” Jantz said of the former football star’s campaign. “I don’t think he’s fit for office.”

The two volunteers faced a better reception a few minutes later when they reached Mary Ettel, who kindly told them that other GOP supporters recently reached her house with a similar set of questions. She didn’t mind the extra effort, though.

“It makes me feel better to see all this attention on the ground,” she said. “We are in such a mess and someone’s got to do something about it.”