Runoffs draw surge of new volunteers, attention to Georgia

With the nation’s eyes trained on Georgia, thousands of campaign volunteers, hundreds of journalists and scores of celebrity surrogates have begun to pour into the state ahead of the Jan. 5 runoffs.

The influx is evidence of Georgia’s newfound status as the epicenter of the political universe. The state’s dual U.S. Senate contests will determine which party controls the Senate – and the extent to which President-elect Joe Biden can pursue his agenda on Capitol Hill.

The premium both parties are putting on the races came into focus this past week, when the Senate GOP’s campaign arm announced a ten-fold increase in the number of field staffers it was deploying to Georgia.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee said it was building a “presidential-level voter-contact operation” in conjunction with the Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue campaigns, fanning 1,000 staffers across the state. Republicans believe it’s the largest field program in Georgia history.

“We take nothing for granted,” said Brian Barrett, regional political director for the Republican National Committee, which is sending more than 600 of its own staff for the effort and has committed to spend at least $20 million on the races. “We’ve always understood Georgia to be a tough state. We’ve seen the population trends, and that’s why we’ve invested in it.”

Democrats have been vaguer about their plans, though the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said it’ll build a “multimillion-dollar field effort” to register and turn out voters.

“The program will include on-the-ground organizers, direct mail, phones and text messaging as well as digital mobilization efforts,” the DSCC wrote in a campaign memo last Monday.

About $45 million has been spent to finance political ads in the runoffs so far, and millions more in airtime has been reserved. That’s in addition to the more than $200 million spent ahead of Nov. 3.

That trumps the $75 million spent on the entire campaign for U.S. Senate in 2014 for the open seat won by Perdue.

Sprinting out the gate

The Senate candidates and allied groups have scrambled to take advantage of the surge of new national attention and support.

The NRSC, Loeffler and Perdue campaigns said late last week that they collectively raised a staggering $32 million in six days.

And Stacey Abrams' voting rights group Fair Fight said last week that it raised just shy of $10 million in four days for its work and the campaigns of Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

The campaigns are dramatically scaling up staff to handle the January cliffhangers. Several have hired new press secretaries to corral the increasingly large number of reporters suddenly tuned into these races.

Warnock said more than 10,000 well-wishers have signed up to volunteer with the campaign since the general election, doubling the size of his database in a week. Ossoff’s campaign manager Ellen Foster said their campaign has “engaged with tens of thousands of volunteers in the last few days who are making tens of thousands of calls a day to support” Ossoff and Warnock.

“Runoffs favor strong, well-organized campaigns and Jon Ossoff’s is coming out of the gate in a sprint,” said Foster, who said the campaign has scheduled 60,000 hours of volunteer shifts over the next two weeks between nearly 22,000 volunteers.

Loeffler and Perdue drew hundreds of supporters to a pair of packed rallies recently in suburban Atlanta that featured Florida U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.

“I’m doing a whole bunch of fundraisers for both the campaigns and for the NRSC,” said Scott, the latter’s incoming chairman. “And I’m sure there’s going to be super PACs. I got to tell you, I think it’s going to be a lot of money — from what I’ve heard of the numbers of Super PACs are raising.”

Vice President Mike Pence is expected to stump for Perdue and Loeffler later this week, and officials are hoping President Donald Trump will visit the state once more to help rally his base ahead of the runoffs.

Meanwhile, Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, said Sunday that the president-elect will likely campaign for Warnock and Ossoff in Georgia “as we get closer to election day.”

“We’re going to put people, money, resources down there to help our two good candidates win,” Klain said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

New voters coming?

The flood of publicity has also drawn a degree of unwanted attention to the campaigns, especially after former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang said he and his wife were moving to Georgia to campaign for Ossoff and Warnock and urged his supporters to follow suit.

Republicans pounced after some liberal activists openly mulled on social media whether to declare residency in the state to cast ballots in the runoff.

The voter registration deadline is Dec. 7. It’s a felony for people to move to the state to vote and then move away, but the law can be tough to enforce.

Some Republicans have urged Gov. Brian Kemp to call for a special legislative session to tighten residency requirements and for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to crack down on such efforts.

06/26/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, right, watches as Gov. Brian Kemp makes remarks to members of the Georgia Senate in the Senate Chambers on Sine Die, day 40, of the legislative session in Atlanta, Friday, June 26, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Kemp declined to reconvene the Legislature, saying any effort to change the law would lead to “endless litigation,” but the offices of the attorney general and secretary of state in recent days issued terse warnings to people eyeing quick moves to Georgia.

“Let me be clear, those who come to Georgia with the intention of voter fraud will be prosecuted,” Raffensperger said in a written statement Friday.

Yang later clarified he did not intend to vote in Georgia, but the damage had been done. Several prominent Democrats, including Abrams, issued statements this past week urging supporters to help the campaigns from afar, in part because of the pandemic.

“We are thrilled to have so much volunteer interest in helping our efforts in Battleground Georgia, and look forward to continuing our strong volunteer program into this runoff,” said Maggie Chambers, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Georgia. “Our team encourages out of state folks to put public health and safety first, and take advantage of one of our many opportunities to volunteer remotely and safely from home.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.