Opinion: On a blue wave hobbled by good pandemic hygiene

10/27/2020 - Democratic Presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to a socially distant crowd during a rally at Mountain Top Inn &Resort in Warm Springs, Tuesday, October 27, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

10/27/2020 - Democratic Presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to a socially distant crowd during a rally at Mountain Top Inn &Resort in Warm Springs, Tuesday, October 27, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Science and good pandemic hygiene diminished the blue wave in Georgia on Tuesday.

“Trying to meet people electronically, it really fell flat. I know it fell flat for me. It’s disappointing — I’m not going to lie. It feels a little bit like a gut punch,” said state Sen. Jen Jordan of Atlanta, who won her own re-election bid — but saw many other down-ticket Democrats fall short.

“We knew it was going to hurt us, but it still hurts,” she said.

Yes, President-elect Joe Biden is flirting with history here — in a state that was ruby red only a few years ago. Cobb and Gwinnett counties are now under Democratic rule. Two Republican senators were pushed into a Jan. 5 runoff. And suburban Atlanta handed over another congressional district to a Democrat.

But beyond that, results were less than stellar. In particular, a most important push by House Democrats in the state Capitol fell flat. They needed to increase their numbers enough — 16 to control the lower chamber — to have a say when Georgia’s political boundaries are redrawn next year. They gained one seat. Possibly two, if the numbers hold.

It is something Democrats will have to ponder, especially now that both U.S. Senate races are extra-inning contests — and control of that chamber is at stake.

Disappointed Democrats can point to many factors. Biden’s coattails weren’t long enough to reach the bottom of the Democratic ticket. Georgia Republicans may have been surprised by Stacey Abrams in 2018, but they were well prepared this year — financially and strategically.

But as in other states, Republicans in Georgia had another advantage. They made a conscious decision to flout pandemic guidelines — issued but often ignored by our governor — and hold rally after rally, more unmasked than not.

They followed the example of President Donald Trump, who twice drew thousands of supporters to Georgia events in the final weeks of the campaign — music-blaring, outrage-filled affairs that pushed Republicans to the polls. Social distancing was something for the other side.

Democrats used Joe Biden as their model. They leaned on virtual campaigns — Zoom sessions, texting, and socially distanced events such as car rallies.

“You’ve got a Democratic candidate for president talking to people who are sitting inside Hula Hoops,” said Chip Lake, a GOP strategist in the employ of U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, whose U.S. Senate bid ended on Tuesday.

Lake concedes that, as measured by poll after poll, President Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was an anchor for Republicans. But he defended Trump’s decision to pretend the pandemic didn’t exist at his rallies.

“You want people to see and feel the energy that surrounds your campaign. I think Donald Trump closed very well, because he went back to what he knew worked for him. Look, there’s risk associated with that. But we take risks every day,” Lake said.

Indeed, epidemiologists assure us that Georgians may very well pay for tolerating such gatherings — with increased infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Nonetheless, many Republicans argue that the immediate gratification was worth the risk. Gov. Brian Kemp, who was self-quarantining on Election Day after coming in close contact with an infected congressman, is probably among them.

“I can tell you that sitting around with people in Hula Hoops did not work well to inspire the Democratic base,” Lake said. “Now we have an election that shows that it is like unilateral disarmament. Fighting with one hand tied behind your back is no way to fight.”

Bob Trammell is the House minority leader — and will be until January. He was defeated on Tuesday, upended by a $1 million campaign that Republicans aimed at him.

The Luthersville lawyer concedes that for Democrats, the logic of combatting a pandemic was in direct conflict with the emotional connections that drive political campaigns. Presidential, U.S. Senate and U.S. House candidates have the cash to spend on TV. At his level, door-knocking, handshakes and face-to-face conversations are what sell.

“COVID obviously made that prohibitive. Candidates were rightly worried about the public health implications of that type of canvassing,” Trammell said. “There’s certainly a case to be made that in the end, that may have magnified the power of Republican incumbents in trending Democratic districts.”

“This is now a line-of-scrimmage state. In these races, the team with the bigger line has an advantage,” Trammell said. “There is inertia that has to be overcome.”

But this is not a matter of crying over spilt milk. It is, or should be, of immediate concern to Democrats. We now have those two U.S. Senate runoffs on Jan. 5. Follow-up votes for federal offices require a nine-week window. As of this writing, we could also have two statewide runoffs for the Public Service Commission on Dec. 1.

And Republicans have won every single statewide runoff since 1992.

If they are to have a chance, Democrats will have to change their approach to pandemic campaigning, said DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond. “In a runoff, you’ve got to. It’s all about turning out your vote. You’re not going to convince anybody of anything in a runoff. The only imperative is to get your voters back to the polls,” he said.

Virtual campaigning leading up to Election Day, Thurmond said, excluded a sector of the Democratic vote that was desperately needed. “The blue wave didn’t happen because the low-propensity voters were never engaged. For high-propensity voters it was a net positive. For low-propensity voters, it really cost us around the country.”

Non-habitual voters require a human touch. “Historically, you engage them in a more personal way, with one-on-one contact, through rallies, through GOTV, in churches. All of those were cut off because of COVID-19,” Thurmond said. “I had a woman tell me, ‘You know, I haven’t seen a single commercial. I can’t afford cable TV.’”

Thurmond will concede that by emphasizing virtual campaigns, Democrats are trying to set a good example. As much as going unmasked is a Republican tell, so is masking-up a statement for many Democrats. Including Joe Biden.

But it is also true that the voters whom Democrats need to send their campaigns into overdrive are often in low-paying jobs that, like it or not, make a mockery of CDC guidelines. “These people have a different sense of what is the hierarchy of need — food, clothing and shelter,” Thurmond said.

“So they are by definition at greater risk. They’re already putting themselves out there, and potentially putting their friends and families at risk, because they have to come home,” Thurmond said. “Their anxiety and fear is much greater than somebody who’s been sheltering in place or working remotely for the last six months.”

There is a disconnect here that requires addressing.

Let us suppose that you are a low-wage worker who, through no fault of your own, is forced to live and work in a viral sea. If a candidate or campaign worker conducting a virtual operation can even find you, how do you respond to a person who considers you too dangerous to meet face-to-face?

It’s an issue that’s fraught with considerations both moral and political in nature. Yet Democrats in Georgia will have to find a better way to navigate through it — if they are to have a chance in January.

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