Politics

Can Democrats Win Georgia Without Trump on the Ticket?

The Georgia Senate runoff will test whether the state is really turning blue.

Warnock and Ossoff wave from the back of a pickup truck with campaign signs in front of them.
Democratic Senate candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff campaign together in Marietta, Georgia, on Nov. 15. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

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Over the weekend, the big news in the Georgia runoff race was whether or not Sen. Kelly Loeffler, one of two Republican incumbents trying to hold on to their seats, had COVID-19. She tested positive, but then another test was inconclusive, and then she tested negative. In any case, she went into self-isolation, which might put a damper on her ability to campaign ahead of the Jan. 5 runoff election. It also could have further implications, because she had been hitting the campaign trail with her Senate colleague David Perdue, the other GOP incumbent hoping to be sent back to Washington.

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The real drama in Georgia, however, has to do with the voters. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Greg Bluestein, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the race, Georgia’s voters, and what this contest means for the future of the two parties in the state. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Can you explain why Georgia is having not one but two runoffs this year?

Greg Bluestein: We have a decades-old law in Georgia that says you have to have a majority of the vote in order to win these offices—over 50 percent—which makes it harder when you have multiple candidates. In the case of one of the Senate races, Perdue versus Jon Ossoff, there was a libertarian candidate. And then the other Senate race was a special election with 20 candidates on the ballot.

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We have two Republican incumbents, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, and they’re in runoffs, in Loeffler’s case, with Raphael Warnock. He is the pastor at Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church in Atlanta. And then with David Perdue, he’s running against Jon Ossoff, who’s a young guy who’s been a bit of a perennial candidate in Georgia. 

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Ossoff is 33, and he really made his name three years ago when he emerged out of nowhere. No one in even Democratic circles had really heard of him. But he ran for the Republican-held congressional seat that was vacated by Tom Price when President Trump picked Price to be his health secretary. And I broke the story that he got in the race. I had never heard of him. I remember he called and I’m sitting in my car, and he goes, Yeah, I’m getting in this race. And I’m a former congressional aide to Hank Johnson. And I’ve got support from both Hank Johnson and John Lewis. So that’s saying something. And he goes, And I’ve raised $250,000 off the bat. I said, OK, you’re for real. It turned out by the end of that campaign, he had raised $30 million and the whole race cost $60 million, which at the time shattered all sorts of U.S. House records for money raised.

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Ossoff lost that election, but the race was closer than Republicans would have liked in an affluent, historically conservative district. And one year later, another Democrat came along, and she won the congressional seat. This district was telling a larger story about Georgia’s gradual slide toward the Democrats, right?

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Georgia’s turn to a swing state was not some overnight development. You’ve seen it in the margins here in Georgia over the last decade. If you look at 2012, Mitt Romney wins the state by 8 points. In 2014, David Perdue wins the state by 8 points. In 2016, Trump wins it by 5 points. In 2018, Gov. Brian Kemp wins it by 1.5 points. So the margins show how close the state can be. But that also ignores some of the other trends: The electorate is getting younger and more diverse. The African American voting proportion is ticking upward as the white share of the electorate is going down to new depths. And of course, Stacey Abrams, not only has she energized a lot of Democrats who usually skipped these types of votes, but also she showed a pathway to run, not as a Republican lite, not as a moderate, but as a candidate who embraces Democratic values, progressive values. She showed that you don’t have to skirt national figures like Democrats have been doing for years in order to have success in Georgia.

I read that one of the reasons Georgia has these runoff rules, it has to do with race, that in a contest with a lot of different people on the ballot, it was clearly an opening for a Black politician to win. And so these rules about having to get more than 50 percent of the vote were put in place to prevent that. Is that your understanding, too?

Yup, you’re exactly right. And by the way, put in place by Democrats back when Democrats ruled the state and the Democratic Party was very, very different than it is now. Some of these races, you’d have five, six, seven, more than a dozen candidates, and it was meant to make it so that you’re favoring white candidates over African American candidates in these split fields. And it worked. And what we’ve seen is that Republicans now have won every statewide runoff in Georgia history.

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Every statewide runoff! Why?

The runoff electorate tends to be older and less diverse, which tends to favor Republicans in Georgia. Also, it’s been a real challenge for Democrats to invigorate their African American base for these runoff votes. When you have to go vote again in a month, or in this case it’s nine weeks in later, it’s been hard for Democrats to keep their base in line. It’s been a lot easier for Republicans to get out that vote.

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I want to talk a little bit about how each of the candidates did in the general election. If we just take the Kelly Loeffler–Raphael Warnock race first, Warnock is a Black man. And it’s funny to me that exactly what this runoff rule was put in place to stave off, which is Raphael Warnock walking away with it because there are so many people on the ballot. If there wasn’t this runoff rule, that’s what he would have done. He won by a healthy margin, right?

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He got about a third of the overall vote. He was the clear establishment pick. He had the backing of not only Stacey Abrams, but national Senate Democrats, and his Democratic opponents had really no organization. They didn’t have any money behind them. And the Republicans were so busy attacking each other because they knew he wouldn’t get to over 50. They knew there was really no shot of him getting to the majority. So they said, We’ll hold our fire for the runoff.

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Then you look at the Jon Ossoff–David Perdue race. It was much tighter, and Perdue did come out ahead. He just didn’t get past 50 percent. There was a spoiler candidate, this libertarian candidate, who peeled off enough of the votes that it’s now in this runoff position.

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The libertarian candidate is the source of much frustration for Republicans. And Jon Ossoff ended up underperforming Joe Biden by about 100,000 votes, so that clearly shows that he still has a lot of work to do.

When I think about the difference between the results for Warnock and Ossoff, I wonder what it says to you about the work they have to do now, looking ahead toward the runoff.

These runoffs are just all about the base. I’m not saying breaking news here, but they’re not spending any time trying to persuade undecided voters. It’s not worth their energy, resources, or money at this point. All they want to do is get the same base that turned out in November. If they can get that, it would be an easy victory for them. That’s a lot easier said than done at this point. And so they’re playing to their base, but they have very different strategies doing so because you’re right, Ossoff came tens of thousands of votes shy of David Perdue. So the first thing he’s done since that November election was he planned a seven- or eight-city, four-day tour of Georgia because he’s got to consolidate. He’s got to reenergize voters, and he’s got to get those voters who might have skipped him on the ballot or who might not be that enthused by him. He’s going to get them motivated. So he was the most aggressive of any of these four candidates out the gate.

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The Rev. Warnock has a whole different strategy. And that’s because he went largely unscathed during the first round of this vote and now he’s getting pummeled. So he’s got to go out there and defend himself against attacks from Republicans, who are resurfacing past sermons he’s delivered, past stances, a 2002 arrest back when he was a pastor in Baltimore. All these issues that really didn’t come up at all in the past year are now coming up in a major way. And so he’s kind of on the defensive.

When all you are doing is rallying the base, does that make the contest uglier in some way?

You’re hearing Republicans not just emphasize the same messages they emphasized before November but ramping them up. They’re saying that Raphael Warnock is a radical’s radical. That that under a Democratic Senate, it would be a road to socialism. They’re comparing Warnock to a Marxist because he worked at a church in New York back in ’95 that featured Fidel Castro, as a speaker. This was all known. This wasn’t a surprise to any of Warnock’s supporters. It just took this long for the Republicans to start using this against him. The hard part for him is that all this could have come out in April or August or whatever, and he would have had months to rebut it. But it’s all coming up now with just six or seven weeks left, so it gives him a shorter time frame to answer all these issues.

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Loeffler and Perdue, they both seem to be making this argument that they are the D.C. firewall. Like, if you elect these two Republicans, we’re going to be able to raise our hands and prevent Joe Biden from doing anything too crazy. But to make that argument, you have to accept that Joe Biden is the president-elect, which neither of them are doing.

It’s a weird line they’re trying to navigate. Pence, when he was down here the other day, said, you know, “just in case”—basically, We need these seats just in case things don’t go the way we want to doing recounts. So that’s how they’re trying to phrase it right now.

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You’ve talked about Georgia as this proving ground for Republican folks right now. They see this state as very important. But the Republican Party in Georgia is taking so much fire nationally. You’ve written about what’s happening with the GOP in Georgia as a kind of civil war. Can you talk a little bit about how the GOP sees itself? Because we see you have the Republican secretary of state and the governor certifying the election and then just getting tons of criticism for it.

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President Trump has been scathing on Twitter, attacking both Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state, and Gov. Kemp. And, by the way, both Republicans who he endorsed in 2018. And there’s been almost near daily protests at the Georgia Capitol from Trump supporters who are claiming that Joe Biden stole the election. I know there’s a lot of talk nationally about Republicans not acknowledging Biden’s victory and the damage that’s doing long term on the party. But here in Georgia, it’s a short-term game, and this is a fear I keep hearing over and over again from state Republicans. The longer that core loyal Trump supporters in Georgia hear that the vote was rigged, that the outcome is preordained, that the system is corrupt, the less likely it is they’re going to come back out and vote on Jan. 5.

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You saw your secretary of state make that argument really explicitly. He looked at the numbers. He said tens of thousands of Republicans voted in the primary and then didn’t turn up in the general. And we think it’s because they’ve been scared off by all of the miscommunication about mail-in ballots.

All this doubt that was sowed in for years. It’s been years where President Trump has criticized mail-in ballots. Even after his 2016 victory, he was talking about millions of fraudulent mail-in ballots. We’ll never know how much of a toll that’s taken, but even Secretary Raffensperger said, Look, there are 20,000-plus voters who voted in the June primary—Republicans—who didn’t vote in November. That would have been the margin. Joe Biden won the state by about 12,000 votes. It’s impossible to draw a direct line, but Raffensperger has tried to and he’s said Trump orchestrated his own defeat in Georgia by casting so much doubt. And that’s another fear for Republicans going to Jan. 5, because Democrats have this built-in advantage right now of mail-in ballots.

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It sounds like you’re framing what’s about to happen on Jan. 5 as a kind of experiment for both the Democrats and the Republicans, where with the Republicans, the experiment is how much mistrust can we sow in the system but still get people to use it. And with the Democrats, how good can we get this turnout machine to work?

Republicans still believe this state is fundamentally conservative, fundamentally Republican. And they believe that it was basically just President Trump that is the reason why Joe Biden carried the state so narrowly. It was backlash, especially in the suburbs, against President Trump.

Democrats are trying to recapture the magic that helped them narrowly win the state. But now they’ll have to do it without President Trump on the ballot. They’ll have to convince their loyal supporters to come out when they’re not coming out to vote against Trump.

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