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What the Georgia runoff election means for the South, and America

The party competitiveness in the Georgia runoff election is in itself a marvel.
Photo illustration of peaches with stickers that read," Reverend Raphael Warnock, U.S. Senate" and "Jon Ossoff, U.S. Senate"
Polls conducted in Georgia show a close race, which is in itself a sign of remarkable progress.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Georgia’s runoff election is scheduled for Tuesday and, as we’ve been reminded constantly since the twin sprints to the U.S. Senate were first announced nine weeks ago, the stakes are high. The Senate majority hinges on whether the Democratic challengers can sweep both races.

They’re not the most trusted barometers these days, but polls conducted in Georgia show a close race, which is in itself a sign of remarkable progress.

Beyond that, though, the competitiveness of Georgia is in itself a marvel, both a starting point and a final stretch. For years, the state was written off by Democrats along with much of the South as purely Republican territory, based on the strength of the region’s whites as a united voting bloc.

Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff now have a chance to finish what activists and organizers have worked toward for years. No matter the outcome, Georgia is the first major battle in what could be a transformative campaign to reclaim the region from the “Southern strategy,” over 140 years after the hopes that Reconstruction would build a more equitable United States for everyone were bargained away and left to die.

They’re not the most trusted barometers these days, but polls conducted in Georgia show a close race. That’s why the mass early turnout has Republicans scared — a large number of the 2.5 million votes already locked in reportedly come from Democratic bases like Atlanta’s Fulton and DeKalb counties.

As a result, both parties are going hard in their respective pockets of strength in the state, trying to wring every ounce of support possible. President Donald Trump is campaigning Monday in the exurb Dalton, part of the district that elected a QAnon supporter to Congress. Meanwhile, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are splitting up, holding rallies in Atlanta and Savannah, respectively.

Georgia going blue would detonate a chokepoint that threatens Biden’s legislative agenda. It would also be historic in Warnock’s case — he’d be the first Black senator to ever represent Georgia. He’d join South Carolina Republican Tim Scott as the only Black senators from the South since Reconstruction ended. (Ossoff, for his part, could become the first millennial in the Senate.)

The efforts Abrams and others have put into reshaping the electorate show how short-sighted writing off Southerners as a conservative bloc has been.

Sweeping Georgia would also be a potential turning point for Democratic prospects in the region. Stacey Abrams bet that turning out and energizing minority populations in Georgia could sway a state-wide election. She narrowly lost her own race for governor to then-Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp in 2018. Her tactics have become a model for the state, helping propel Biden’s victory in the state on Nov. 3.

The efforts Abrams and others before and since have put into this goal of reshaping the electorate show how short-sighted writing off Southerners as a conservative bloc has been for national Democrats. Mississippi is 38 percent Black, the highest percentage of any state in the country, a statistic that’s often forgotten when talking about how deep red the state is.

As Biden and Trump slugged it out at the top of the ballot last year, Mike Espy campaigned to become first Black man to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Senate since 1881. Unlike other Southern Democratic candidates running statewide, Espy didn’t bother trying to sever himself from the politics of the broader party to appeal to his state’s voters, welcoming support from Abrams and former President Barack Obama. Despite that, he only garnered support and attention from the national Democratic Party late in the game.

Mississippi is 38 percent Black, the highest percentage in the country, a statistic that’s often forgotten when talking about how deep red the state is.

The state’s Democrats were left grappling with him losing badly to incumbent Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith. But there’s still hope even in the loss: Teresa Jones, chair of the Mississippi Democrat’s Young Democrats committee, pointed out to NBC News that in “three ballot initiatives approved this year — selecting a design for a new state flag, approving medical marijuana and eliminating a Jim Crow-era rule aimed to keep Black citizens from the state’s top elected positions — Mississippi voters backed positions long embraced by Democrats.”

Future victories won’t come easily. The demographic shift that’s changed Virginia since the early 2000s from red to purple to blue and has Georgia in the spotlight isn’t taking place in states like Mississippi. Race and racism hang heavy over every political decision. And Democrats remain unsure of what message to push in more rural regions, afraid of scaring conservative voters further into Republican’s arms.

That bias against the South has extended out into the grassroots, which has a habit of erasing the large Black and Hispanic communities who’ve been held back by the white majority and the white liberals who hate seeing what their state leaders do in their name. It’s a stereotype reflected too often in the national media, which by and large has spent the last four years conflating “Southern rural” with “white Trump supporter” to the detriment of the people actually living there.

Reshaping how the South is viewed is going to be a long project, and Georgia may or may not provide the spark needed to galvanize organizers in future races; the state of play there is wild enough to make any firm predictions hard.

Sen. David Perdue, running against Ossoff, has been in quarantine these last few days after being exposed to someone with Covid-19. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the businesswoman-cum-political-neophyte that Warnock has in his sights, seemed to float a QAnon-ready theory about Warnock being linked to child abuse during a rally on Saturday. And then there’s Trump, who’s sprinkled his own brand of havoc into the proceedings, still claiming that the election in November was fraudulent, spending Jan. 2 begging the GOP secretary of state to “find” votes for him and overturn the election.

For now, though, all eyes are on the state, waiting to see what the next four years will look like in Washington. I’m not going to pretend that Democrats falling one seat short of blocking a Republican Senate blitz against Biden’s agenda would be anything short of a disappointment. But if Warnock or Ossoff is seated once the election is certified, the ripple effect across the South could be immense.

CORRECTION (Jan. 4, 2021, 9:35 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of one of the Republican senators in the Georgia runoff on Tuesday. He is Sen. David Perdue, not Purdue.