How Georgia became an election battleground in 2020 - and 2021

Fulton elections head Richard Barron (center) looks over operations as Fulton County election workers were hard at it Nov. 5, 2020 counting ballots at State Farm Arena. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Fulton elections head Richard Barron (center) looks over operations as Fulton County election workers were hard at it Nov. 5, 2020 counting ballots at State Farm Arena. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Stacey Abrams has a favorite line about the state she’s worked to flip for the last decade: Georgia, she tells crowds, is a “blue state – we’re just a little confused.” This election has only deepened that identity crisis.

No state is home to a tighter presidential contest than Georgia, where a tiny fraction of the vote divided President Donald Trump and Joe Biden after an intense late push that brought both candidates to the state in the final week of the campaign.

No longer can Republicans scoff at Georgia’s newly-minted battleground status, not after Democrats flipped another suburban congressional seat and forced U.S. Sen. David Perdue into a runoff.

Senator David Perdue holds a rally at Peachtree DeKalb Airport with SC Senator Tim Scott, not pictured, on Monday, Nov 2, 2020.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Senator David Perdue holds a rally at Peachtree DeKalb Airport with SC Senator Tim Scott, not pictured, on Monday, Nov 2, 2020. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

And though Republicans held court in some down-ballot races, staving off attempts to flip control of the Georgia House, Democrats are on the verge of a singular achievement: capturing the state’s 16 electoral votes in a White House race for the first time since 1992.

ExploreOssoff, Perdue headed for Senate runoff in Georgia

Like it or not, voters won’t have to wait long for the next test of Georgia’s swing state status. Democrats and Republicans are racing to prepare for a grueling nine-week campaign for control of the U.S. Senate that features Georgia’s twin runoffs.

And with Biden’s victory over Trump, called by The Associated Press and TV networks Saturday after he captured Pennsylvania, the dual Senate contests in Georgia are more important than ever.

Both parties failed to win a majority in the Senate, but Democrats could gain control of the Senate under Biden’s presidency if they capture both Republican-held seats. That’s no easy feat: Republicans have won every statewide runoff in Georgia history, dating to Paul Coverdell’s upset Senate victory in 1992.

Already, the campaigns and their allies are making opening maneuvers. The conservative Heritage Action plans to spend $1 million to mobilize Republicans to back Perdue and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, while an anti-abortion group pledged to chip in another $4 million.

Raphael Warnock, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, makes remarks at his headquarters in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn District,  Nov. 3, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Raphael Warnock, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, makes remarks at his headquarters in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn District, Nov. 3, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

And Democrat Raphael Warnock, Loeffler’s challenger, got off to a head start Thursday by airing the first ad of the runoff campaign, a peppery 30-second parody that mockingly accused Warnock of hating puppies and daring to eat pizza with a fork.

The early spending will seem like chump change when the final tally of the race arrives. More than $200 million was spent on TV ads in both Senate races through November. Overall spending on the two races over the next nine weeks could dwarf that sum.

Republicans will be motivated to serve as a potential check on a Biden presidency. But Democrats showed a path to victory in November with a mix of high turnout in suburban Atlanta and success in undercutting GOP margins in conservative exurban counties like Cherokee, Forsyth and Paulding.

‘Very competitive’

It wasn’t some sudden flip of an electoral switch that transformed Georgia from a forgotten political backwater in national races to the center of the political universe through January 2021.

Democrats have steadily cut into Republican gains throughout the decade, focusing intensely on grassroots organization and registering new voters. The influx of 1 million new voters since 2016 has made Georgia’s voting population younger and more racially diverse.

Jon Ossoff, Georgia Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, gives remarks during a Biden-Harris rally in Atlanta’s Summerhill community on Nov. 2, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Jon Ossoff, Georgia Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, gives remarks during a Biden-Harris rally in Atlanta’s Summerhill community on Nov. 2, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Fair Fight chief executive Lauren Groh-Wargo traces the start of the comeback to 2012, when Abrams and other Democrats prevented Republicans from reaching a two-thirds super-majority in the Georgia Legislature that would have allowed the GOP to push through changes to the state constitution.

“We’re going to be very, very competitive for a long time,” said Groh-Wargo. “We’ve been fighting and we’ve been building. And Republicans haven’t been able to build their own diverse coalition – they’ve not able to make any forward momentum.”

ExploreGeorgia voters get used to new reality: Battleground status

Jason Carter, the party’s 2014 gubernatorial nominee, remembers a state Democratic convention in the 2000s when leaders couldn’t provide a list of county chairs. Earlier this decade, the party’s finances were in shambles and its chairman forced to resign as he faced mounting legal problems. Now, the party is a well-financed and sprawling organization.

Trump’s divisive candidacy in 2016 helped fuel the change. Even as he tallied record margins in rural and exurban counties, the once-reliably Republican suburbs flipped blue for the first time since Jimmy Carter’s administration during his first run for office. Jason Carter likes to point out a Brookhaven-based Georgia House seat as a prime example.

ExploreMore Georgia election coverage

Once, it was one of the most competitive territories in Georgia, swinging back and forth from Republican to Democrat to Republican. Now it’s so solidly Democratic that state Rep. Matthew Wilson defeated a GOP challenger this week by nearly 20 percentage points.

“That was the state’s hotly contested swing district. Those suburbs went from swing to solid Democrats like that,” Carter said, snapping his figure for effect.

Holding the line

Democrats may be resurgent in Georgia, but Republicans maintain control of every statewide post, both chambers of the Legislature and key local offices. The GOP even scored a symbolic victory by defeating House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, the last rural white Democrat in the Legislature.

Brian Robinson, a long time Republican strategist, said he’s seen Democratic gains coming for a decade in Georgia, if for no other reason than the state’s changing demographics.

“The white percentage of the electorate is now 53%. In the Sonny Perdue years, it was 70 plus percent,” he said of the two-term governor, who served in the 2000s. "I mean, that’s that is mind boggling demographic change in a very short period of time.”

He took solace in down-ticket successes, such as state legislative victories, which he said was a product of Republicans modifying their message to adapt to the changes happening in their districts.

State Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, who beat back a tough Democratic challenge, offered a slightly different take: “In a way, there was the president’s race, and there was every other race.”

State Rep. Chuck Efstration is an example of that survival act. The Dacula Republican faced a tough opponent in his fast-changing Gwinnett County district. But he also showed a knack for bipartisan compromise, including sponsoring a landmark hate-crimes law.

Efstration said a focus on those consensus-based measures would help Republicans appeal to a diverse electorate. But the vast Democratic grassroots apparatus, he said, has helped his rivals compete in territory once considered safely Republican.

“They were working to be much more organized and have a much better ground game really focused on better contact. There was certainly a much greater focus on turnout," he said. “And we certainly see that in the numbers.”

It’s not clear which party benefits from Georgia’s new political dynamic, but Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie said Democrats and Republicans better get used to a new reality of perennially hyper-competitive contests.

“We’re probably looking forward to the next decade of really close elections," she said, “and alternating victories for Democrats and Republicans."

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