When Steve Phillips met Stacey Abrams in California in 2012, she wasn’t yet a household name. She was the House Minority Leader in Georgia, and she wowed Phillips “with a PowerPoint and a plan.”
“She’s one of the smartest, most strategic and data-driven people that I have met in national politics,” said Phillips, who was creating a political action committee at the time and is now the founder of the progressive organization Democracy in Color and host of a political podcast with the same name.
He still remembers Abrams’s multipage plan documenting the seats Democrats held in the state legislature, the number of potential additional votes they could pick up in various districts and the number of seats they could win every year over the next six years.
“It was a very methodical, step-by-step, year-by-year plan that had at its core expanding voting power in numbers of people of color in general and African-Americans in particular,” Phillips recalled. Impressed, he connected her with progressive activists and donors around the country.
Eight years later, Abrams’ work has paid off. Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia in nearly three decades. And with two run-off elections scheduled for Jan. 5, Georgia has a chance to send two Democrats to the U.S. Senate. The upcoming races are crucial because the balance of power in Congress’s upper chamber (and Biden’s best chances of pursuing his agenda over the next two years) rests in Georgia voters’ hands.
“It’s literally hard to overstate the significance of those races,” Phillips said. “Millions and millions of peoples’ lives will be better or worse depending on what happens in those races.” Everything from an economic relief package to the distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine to the prospect of a new Voting Rights Act (which Biden has promised to sign) is at stake.
To win the two elections and lock in a Senate majority — a tall order, as Republicans have traditionally fared better in runoffs in the state — Abrams and her coalition of leaders and activists will have to expand on the most successful parts of their 2020 playbook and implement new strategies to motivate voters who may not otherwise make the effort now that the presidential race has been decided. And they will have to continue to adapt their voter mobilization and registration efforts to maintain public safety as the U.S. plunges into another wave of Covid-19 cases this winter.
“Whichever side has the better turnout operation is going to be the one that wins,” said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University. “This is going to be all hands on deck.”
The key for Democrats, she says, is demography and organization. African-Americans are the Democratic Party’s most reliable voting block, and they make up around 30 percent of the electorate in the state. (In Georgia, only 7 percent of Black women voted for Trump, according to early exit polls.) Meanwhile, the state’s diverse urban areas are growing, and its white population is shrinking. That’s the trend Abrams focused on a decade ago with her PowerPoints, and the movement she capitalized on to turn Georgia blue on the 2020 electoral map.
“What she was doing was, she was changing the shape of the electorate by adding new voices to the table,” Gillespie said, noting the change in strategy Abrams spurred. While Democrats have long debated whether they should try to win back the working-class voters who fled for the Tea Party and Trumpism or to dig deeper into their base, Abrams has advocated for the latter: expanding the electorate within Democrats’ base and specifically among people of color, who tend to be less likely to vote.
The strategy played out with success this presidential cycle, thanks to the groundwork that Abrams, with her organization Fair Fight and others, laid in the years prior. Abrams pledged to redouble her efforts after she lost her own bid for governor in the state in 2018 by less than 55,000 votes — 1.4 percent of all the votes cast — after a massive purge of voter rolls by her opponent Brian Kemp the year prior, when he was Georgia’s Secretary of State and overseer of elections.
“She showed a model that you could actually find more latent Democratic voters than you could, in this particularly polarized moment, try to persuade people,” Gillespie said. “And in doing so, she ended up posting the highest vote total for any Democratic candidate in an election in Georgia.”
Like other relics of the Jim Crow South, Georgia is subject to policies and practices that have effectively suppressed the Black vote in both the past and present. In the modern era, voters of color have been disenfranchised at higher rates than white voters, whether by being forced to endure longer voting lines in the places where they live, or by exact-match rules on names and signatures, which have in the past disproportionally flagged people of color.
”Let’s just say that somebody has an unusually spelled name and they had handwritten their voter registration application out, and the clerk in the Board of Elections office inserted a typographical error,” Gillespie said. “You night make fewer mistakes typing in John and Mary. But somebody comes in and they have a different name, that raises the flag.”
Republicans have an advantage heading into January’s election because past runoffs have shown that Democrats are less likely to vote. Georgia’s unusual runoff system was even designed by white segregationists in the state legislature looking to keep Black voters from uniting behind a single candidate.
As such, voter mobilization efforts that yield high turnout are coming back to the Peach State in full force. Gillespie expects both parties to embrace mail-in and absentee voting, especially since the runoff comes after the busy holiday season. It’s a turnaround from the presidential election cycle, when President Trump and other national Republicans spurned the legitimacy of mail-in and absentee ballots.
Phone banking and text messaging were go-to tools for Democrats seeking to limit in-person contact amid the global pandemic. But despite the rising Covid-19 cases, Gillespie thinks the stakes are too high for any campaign to forgo in-person campaigning and get-out-the-vote efforts like canvassing. She says door-to-door outreach is likely to take the form of what she calls a “ring-and-run,” with volunteers leaving leaflets at a person’s door or mailbox, ringing the bell, and then backing up more than six feet to tell the resident about the information they left.
For now, Georgia voters can expect an onslaught of intensive campaigning during the two months ahead, whether they’re answering a doorbell or curled up in front of the television.
“The ad wars are going to build up,” Gillespie said. “As I’ve watched television in Atlanta now, I find myself kind of relishing the Christmas ads, because this will all be bought up by the candidates,” she said.