With Ossoff victory, Democrats cement Georgia as swing state

With their wins in the U.S. Senate runoffs, Jon Ossoff, right, and Raphael Warnock became the first Democrats to win statewide election in Georgia since 2006. (JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

With their wins in the U.S. Senate runoffs, Jon Ossoff, right, and Raphael Warnock became the first Democrats to win statewide election in Georgia since 2006. (JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Even after Joe Biden narrowly captured Georgia, there were whispers that it was a one-off win, a stroke of luck driven more by displeasure with President Donald Trump than a sudden embrace of Democratic politicians.

There’s no doubt about it anymore. Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock swept the state’s U.S. Senate runoffs, a pair of stunning victories that flip control of the chamber and pave the way for Biden to pursue his legislative agenda in Congress.

The defeats of U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue cemented the transformation of Georgia from a Republican bastion into a full-fledged swing state.

Not only did Ossoff and Warnock edge out the incumbents, they did it in convincing fashion.

They outdid Biden’s margins across most of the state, consolidating Democratic gains not just in crucial metro Atlanta but also the rural “black belt” so named initially for the rich soil of the region, then later for those who tilled that fertile farmland.

And the incumbents struggled to peel away suburban moderates with the promise of divided government. Cobb and Gwinnett counties, former Republican strongholds that are now cornerstones of the Democratic coalition, only turned a deeper shade of blue.

It marked a striking metamorphosis. Until November, Georgia hadn’t voted Democratic in a presidential race since 1992 and hadn’t elected a Democratic statewide candidate since 2006. Over a nine-week stretch, Democrats broke both those losing streaks.

Neither Republican has conceded the race, pointing to thousands of military overseas ballots that are still outstanding. But tens of thousands of other votes remained outstanding in heavily Democratic parts of metro Atlanta and Savannah.

Perdue’s campaign said it would “mobilize every available resource and exhaust every legal recourse.” And Loeffler told a cheering crowd early Wednesday that she still had a “path to victory.”

‘It irritates me’

One key to the Democratic victory was a massive grassroots operation, backed by the campaigns and outside groups, that dispatched thousands of canvassers to doorsteps of likely voters and bombarded them with calls, texts, flyers and other means of contact.

Jonae Wartel, who as the state Democratic runoff director marshaled the combined might of the campaigns, said that 40,000 staffers and volunteers made 25 million attempts to contact voters — including through texting, calling and knocking on doors — and logged more than 1 million conversations.

That amounts to 10 different contacts for each of Biden’s 2.5 million voters, with a particular focus on Hispanic, Asian American and Black voters who don’t regularly vote in overtime contests.

“We built the largest ground organization the state has ever seen and made sure voters heard the message,” she said. “We didn’t just go after the likely voters, we were specific in our targeting to make sure folks who may not have voted in the general election participated in the runoff.”

There were at least 120,000 voters who fit that category.

A progressive coalition funded largely by Fair Fight, the voting rights group founded by Stacey Abrams, knocked on roughly 10 million doors throughout the nine-week campaign, said Lauren Groh-Wargo, the group’s chief executive.

“The party that does better outreach to voters in all 159 counties, and understands that suburban equals diverse and rural doesn’t equal white, is the party that gets it,” she said. “And for Republicans, when Trump’s not on the ballot, they have a turnout problem.”

Indeed, lethargic voter participation across deeply conservative rural territory in Atlanta’s exurbs and North Georgia, where Trump campaigned this week, helped doom the incumbents.

Gabriel Sterling, a Republican and a top election official in Georgia, laid at least some of the blame on President Donald Trump for the party's losses in the U.S. Senate runoffs. He said Trump focused more on attacking Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger than he did Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. “It irritates me,” Sterling said. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

icon to expand image

Credit: Steve Schaefer

And the Democrats were able to tap into voter frustration over Republican policies with a promise to enact sweeping new voting rights legislation, expand affordable health care and boost public health funding to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Republicans quickly engaged in finger-pointing. Much focused on Trump, who falsely claimed that the runoffs were “rigged” and warred with Gov. Brian Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and other Republicans who refused his demands to overturn the election outcome.

A recording leaked over the weekend that showed the president pressured Raffensperger without success to “find” votes to reverse his defeat also may have alienated moderate voters and helped galvanize Georgians who typically skip runoffs.

“The president of the United States spent more time attacking Gov. Kemp and Secretary Raffensperger than he did Raphael Warnock and Senator-to-be Ossoff,” said Gabriel Sterling, a Republican who is one of Georgia’s top elections officials. “It irritates me.”

But other Republicans also criticized the state GOP for not more aggressively preparing for the runoffs. John Porter, the top aide to Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, said the party largely ignored absentee ballot and early-voting initiatives. And former Republican U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston marveled at the Democratic infrastructure.

“The good news is we don’t have to invent the wheel, we just need to copy the Democrats’ design,” said Kingston, a Savannah Republican who marveled at the extensive get-out-the-vote efforts from across the aisle.

“It’s an expensive and extensive hand-holding operation which includes paid volunteers, rides to the polls and lots of coaching,” he said “However, it’s very effective and you can’t beat it by flooding mailboxes with brochures the week before the election.”

He added: “Also, what a surprise — it turns out having a unified party and message works.”