OPINION: Can Georgia Democrats’ turnout machine deliver again?

When Joe Biden won Georgia in 2020 and Democrats swept both Senate seats nine weeks later, a lion’s share of the credit went to the Democrats’ expansive ground game, the sophisticated, data-driven operation that was seeded for years by Stacey Abrams and her fellow progressives.

Now less than two years later, the turnout machine that Democrats built faces its biggest test yet, with Biden down in the polls, former President Donald Trump staying away from the state, and Abrams running at the top of the ticket for the party.

Some polls show Abrams down by as much as 10 points to Gov. Brian Kemp. But Democrats believe their plan to motivate and deliver Democrats to the polls, especially with abortion as an issue, will deliver victory again.

Key to the plan are people like Philip Friedman, a field organizer for the Democratic Party of Georgia who moved from Minnesota in June to help with the Georgia races. He’s one of the hundreds of staff and thousands of volunteers doing the old-fashioned work of knocking on Georgians’ front doors and calling them on the phone to persuade them to vote for the Democratic ticket.

I met up with Friedman on his 75th birthday this week as the retired sales and manufacturing supervisor canvassed a neighborhood in Clarkston.

Walking up a hill on Creekdale Road, he paused to check the canvassing app on his phone to pinpoint houses to visit.

Decked out in a “DeKalb Democrats” t-shirt and matching blue tennis shoes, Friedman asks a young woman who answers her door what issues she’s interested in.

“Are you interested in public education? How about women’s rights and choice?” he asks the woman, a 19-year-old whose home is festooned with Diwali flags. “I think if you take a look at Stacey Abrams and Reverend Warnock, you’ll like what you see.”

He tells her that she and her family can vote as soon as tomorrow and points out the website where she can find the address for her polling place. She thanks him and seems like a definite maybe. Not bad.

This isn’t Friedman’s first campaign, but it is his first time working for a campaign on the ground in Georgia. He’s been knocking on doors since he first volunteered for Democrats in the 1960s and estimates he made between 12,000 and 13,000 phone calls for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in 2021.

He said he watched the Georgia election returns from his home thinking everything looked good on the morning of Jan. 6, but “six hours later, we know what happened.”

Watching the Capitol riots unfold that day, Friedman said he decided he needed to do more. By February he was being trained to work for Democrats as a professional organizer. In June, he packed up his white Honda, kissed his wife goodbye, and drove 1,130 miles to Atlanta, where he’s been working for the Georgia Democratic Party ever since.

Supporting Friedman and other canvassers is a network of more than a dozen field offices from the coast to the north Georgia mountains. The party’s outreach efforts and county operations, which surged for the 2021 runoffs, never stopped. Now, Democrats say, they just are “scaling up” for a final 2022 push.

But unlike 2020 and 2021, Democrats don’t have the playing field to themselves.

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks frequently of realizing in 2020 that Republicans were outmanned on the ground in every way possible. Asked earlier this month if the Democrats’ ground game is still a worry for him , Kemp told reporters plainly, “You’re damn right it is.”

This time around Kemp’s campaign is plowing millions of dollars into a turnout operation to rival the Democrats.’ And the GOP is getting an assist from former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, whom Kemp appointed to the Senate seat in 2019, only to see her lose to Warnock in 2021.

Loeffler told me in July she studied the Democrats’ turnout operation then so that Republicans would not fall victim to it again in the future.

She launched Greater Georgia a month after she lost to mobilize conservative voters and Greater Georgia and Loeffler have been in the field ever since.

They began by reaching out to infrequent Republican voters or persuadable conservatives, but the group’s sole focus now is contacting the 339,000 Georgia Republicans who voted in November of 2020, but didn’t return to the polls in January of 2021.

While Democrats say they’re focused on possible voter suppression from the Georgia election law overhaul, Greater Georgia is touting the new law as a way to convince skeptical Republicans that voting in 2022 will be safe, secure, and worth the effort.

The Abrams campaign likes what it’s seeing in the Georgia early vote so far, which has smashed turnout records for midterms in the state.

Women account for 54.5% of early in-person votes, which is typical of previous elections, but they make up 59% of mail-in ballots. Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager, said they’re also seeing evidence of high engagement among Black men, a group they’ve assiduously targeted, and other minority voters .

“We built a budget and a plan to be able to talk to all of them the whole way through,” she said. “And so from door knocking to mail to digital to radio, we have been talking to these voters since the beginning of the year.”

She said the next two weeks mean “foot-on-the gas” to get to the other millions of voters still on their lists.

Back in Clarkston, Philip Friedman is working through his share of the list, one house at a time.

“This is hard work, it’s long, long hours. I’ll be ready to do nothing when it’s over,” he said. But in the meantime, he’s doing anything he can to help Georgia Democrats win in 2022.