“The Cult Leader Isn’t on the Ballot This Time”: Can Georgia Democrats Take Advantage of the GOP Civil War?
The names on the ballots are Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, versus Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. But the January 5 runoffs in Georgia, the ones that will determine majority control of the Senate for at least the next two years, are in many ways the closest we will ever come to a showdown between Donald Trump and Stacey Abrams.
The president goes down to Georgia on Saturday for a rally ostensibly in support of Loeffler and Perdue. But Trump, being Trump, is already making the crucial runoffs all about Trump. He has been strafing Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, and its secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, for not throwing out November’s presidential election results and declaring him the winner over Joe Biden. He has been complaining so much and so angrily that the state’s Republican manager of voting system implementation, Gabriel Sterling, issued an extraordinary, impassioned public plea for Trump to stop inciting death threats against his staffers. Trump will no doubt use most of his appearance in Georgia to repeat his lies about the state, and the entire election, being stolen from him.
None of which will discourage Loeffler and Perdue from hugging the president as tightly as possible. Like Trump, they are both wealthy businesspeople with dubious ethical records, making millions in stock trades this year that appear conveniently timed to receiving inside information about the looming pandemic. (They have both denied all wrongdoing.) Their campaigns have borrowed straight from Trump’s playbook, attempting to demonize Warnock and Ossoff as radical socialists who will defund the police and employing the same racist dog whistles about Black and brown Democrats stealing elections. It’s all a rather desperate bid to turn out MAGA die-hards—some of whom have been heckling the senators for not doing enough to back up Trump’s claims of fraud, while Trump-friendly lawyers Sidney Powell and Lin Wood have been telling Georgia Republicans to withhold their votes from Loeffler and Perdue until they’ve been earned. “I think Democrats are holding on to the enthusiasm we had in November, while the Republicans are having their own little civil war,” a veteran Georgia operative says. “Plus the cult leader isn’t on the ballot this time.”
That the intra-Republican feuding is good for Warnock and Ossoff has quickly become the conventional media and Democratic wisdom. Lauren Groh-Wargo, the organizing genius who has worked with Stacey Abrams for the past eight years, isn’t buying it completely. “Republicans fighting with each other—I’m all for that,” she says. “But most real humans aren’t on Twitter following this stuff. We’re going to see historic turnout for a runoff, and the Republicans find a way to get their folks ginned up. But they’re sort of caught in this propaganda disinformation loop—the Republicans have amplified this whole farcical notion of widespread voter fraud at the same time their two Senate candidates are trying to appeal to the Trump base and telling them their votes matter.”
Warnock and Ossoff have been sticking largely to Biden’s formula, hammering Republicans for bungling the coronavirus response as case numbers rise again in Georgia, and generally trying to come off as calm, rational adults. That approach is aimed especially at the groups that delivered a 12,000-vote margin for Biden in November: Black voters in Atlanta; white and Asian-American voters in the surrounding counties. “Democrats will be pushing very hard to get people of color to vote and reminding white suburban women that they don’t want Mitch McConnell or these other yahoos controlling the world,” says Kendra-Sue Derby, a top Georgia strategist. There are some nuanced variations. Ossoff, for instance, underperformed with Black voters in his June Democratic primary; this week he began running a TV ad featuring a voice-over by former president Barack Obama. Warnock has been starring in a witty TV spot where he walks an adorable puppy—see, white voters, the reverend isn’t scary at all.
There are a multitude of players on the Democratic side—from Biden, Kamala Harris, and Obama, who are all expected to make campaign appearances in Georgia down the stretch, to the network of AME churches implementing a program focused on mail-in ballots. Abrams and Groh-Wargo have key roles, though, from helping to raise millions of dollars to fighting to increase the number of ballot drop boxes. So just as the runoffs will be the year’s final referendum on Trumpism, they will also be a test of Abrams’s organizational skills, star power, and personal choices. Her run for governor of Georgia in 2018, and her determined grassroots work after a narrow loss, helped boost Democratic registration in the state by 800,000 new voters. National Democratic power brokers leaned on Abrams, hard, to run for the Senate in 2020, but she declined—something that apparently still nags at New York senator Chuck Schumer, who in a recent call with donors voiced his regret at failing to recruit Abrams. “When we went to her, she said, ‘I’m not running, but I’ll tell you who can win,’ and she gave us Reverend Warnock’s name,” Illinois senator Dick Durbin says. “She really believes in him, and we do too. If you had asked me a year ago would Georgia be in play—this is nothing short of amazing, and I give special credit to Stacey.” If Loeffler and Perdue survive the Trump chaos and return to Washington, however, some Democrats will grouse that one of the runoffs would have been unnecessary, and the party would already have another Senate seat in hand, if only Abrams had been on the ballot. But if Ossoff and Warnock triumph in January, Abrams will be in position to complete a blue trifecta by beating Kemp, in 2022, in a Georgia gubernatorial rematch.
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