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ATLANTA — Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the two Democrats running for the Senate in Georgia’s January runoff races, are looking to build off President-elect Joe Biden’s narrow victory in the state.
“Georgia voters recognize that our capacity to enact legislation ... depends upon winning these two Senate races,” Ossoff told Yahoo News on Tuesday, while hosting a drive-through yard-sign giveaway in downtown Atlanta.
As it stands, Republicans have 50 seats in the Senate, while Democrats control 48. If Warnock and Ossoff both win, Democrats will take control of the chamber in January because Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be able to cast any tie-breaking votes.
But if either candidate loses, Republicans will retain their Senate majority — and their ability to block progressive legislation from becoming law.
Ossoff and Warnock face steep odds despite the fact that the state turned blue in the November election. For one thing, the party that wins the presidency tends to lose in hotly contested subsequent elections. Republican Chris Christie, for example, was elected governor of deep-blue New Jersey just months after President Barack Obama was inaugurated — a preview of the big Republican gains that occurred during the 2010 midterm elections.
But Democrats say they’ve figured out how to win in Georgia, a state that had voted Republican in six straight presidential elections between 1996 and 2016 and hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate in 20 years. And Republicans have won all but one of the statewide general election runoffs in Georgia since 1988.
“What we are focusing on when we go and talk to voters in these communities, something that we learned from Stacey Abrams, is we go and ask them what they need, and when they answer … we let them know Rev. Warnock is on the ballot,” Terrance Clark, the Warnock campaign’s communications director, told Yahoo News. “Let them know the first step to getting those things done is voting.”
Democrats are hoping that if they can keep their voters enthusiastic and mobilized after Biden’s win while at the same time registering new voters, they can get Warnock and Ossoff to Washington.
Ossoff held a socially distant event on Tuesday, which was one of the many moves by the campaign to keep Democratic voters engaged ahead of the runoff. In addition to concert-style drive-in rallies, the campaign plans an aggressive voter registration effort, including targeting more than 23,000 young Georgians who were not 18 at the time of the Nov. 3 election but will be by Jan. 5, the date of the runoff.
The campaign is also working closely with progressive grassroots organizations such as Georgia Stand Up and Fair Fight, which is led by Stacey Abrams. Abrams, a former state legislator and gubernatorial candidate, had been laying the groundwork to flip Georgia blue for years, and was widely praised for her efforts in the aftermath of Biden’s victory.
To date, more than 762,000 absentee ballots have been requested in Georgia, according to WSB-TV. This figure already triples the amount of ballots requested in all of the state’s elections in 2018.
“I’m hearing voters are invigorated by Joe Biden’s victory here, who recognize that Trump is leaving,” Ossoff said. “And now we have the opportunity to define the next year in our history, but we can’t do that unless we win these two Senate races. … This is about energizing, unprecedented, record-shattering turnout here in Georgia.”
Ossoff feels Democratic enthusiasm is as high as it’s ever been in Georgia. But, he adds, winning both Senate seats is critical to Biden’s administration getting anything meaningful done.
Voter turnout is directly attributable to political engagement and trust in candidates, something both Ossoff and Warnock hope to build as they campaign all over the state. However, voter turnout tends to decrease substantially outside of presidential elections, in particular when it comes to special elections and runoffs.
“Of 171 regularly scheduled primary runoffs for U.S. House and U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2012, all but six of them resulted in a turnout decrease between the initial primary and the runoff, meaning that 96.5% of federal runoff elections had fewer people voting in the second round than in the first,” according to FairVote, a group that advocates for various election reforms. “The average reduction in turnout was 35.3%.”
Democrats say they understand that Black voters are the voting bloc most important to their success at the polls — and that, in Ossoff’s words, they “cannot be taken for granted.”
“The strength of Democratic candidates up and down the ballot these last five years in Georgia has been driven by powerful, determined turnout among Black voters in Georgia,” Ossoff said. “Black voters are the heart and soul of the Democratic electorate here in Georgia, the focus of our turnout efforts, and cannot be taken for granted.”
As senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. once pastored, Warnock is hopeful that his biography and charisma will take him across the finish line.
“It’s not all about reinventing the wheel, but putting the wheel on a new vehicle,” Clark, the Warnock communications director, said. “There is already a national enthusiasm, and you’re seeing it play out with the organic interest. … People see themselves in Warnock.”
Clark says his campaign is going back to knocking on doors — a strategy that many Democrats abandoned over the past year due to the pandemic but has long been understood as one of the most effective ways to recruit and mobilize voters. They’re also co-hosting events with small businesses, connecting with more rural communities in south Georgia and working to engage smaller but growing groups such as Asian Americans.
“Georgia is a diverse state, and many areas are changing,” Clark said. “It’s not the same Georgia of 2014, and Rev. Warnock is able to resonate with voters in such a way. … People see the electorate as just Black and white, [but it’s so much more].”
Warnock’s campaign has also emphasized social media, and his Twitter following has gained hundreds of thousands of followers since early November, surpassing the 400,000 mark in recent weeks. Print and digital ad buys on Hulu and YouTube have also been a focus of the campaign. You can’t turn on Hulu for too long in Georgia without seeing a commercial starring Warnock — with his small dog — criticizing his opponent, incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
— Reverend Raphael Warnock (@ReverendWarnock) November 24, 2020
Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue, the other Republican in the race, did not return a request for comment for this article.
While many critics say Democrats operate at a disadvantage in runoff races, Clark said this year will prove to be different.
“The reality is, year over year Democrats have performed better in these runoffs,” he said. “You can see what happened in 2018 [with Abrams]. The base is there. The floor is there. … We have a coordinated effort rather than the fearmongering on the other side.”
Election experts believe the Senate races will go down to the wire. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, told Yahoo News last week that he believes this is going to be a “tight, competitive race.”
“This election is going to be different,” said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. “Now that we know there are roughly equal numbers of Republican and Democratic voters in the state, we can expect that both parties are going to do everything they can to get those people who showed up to vote [on Election Day] and before [in early voting] out to vote in the runoff election.”
It’s a picture that is becoming clearer by the day to candidates on both the Democratic and Republican sides that only a few points may separate the winner from the loser on Jan. 5.
“When we get down to this, it will be a 1 or 2 point race,” Clark said. “We are looking to push it over the top with these moves.”
Below are key dates for Georgians to remember ahead of the state’s Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5, 2021:
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images, Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images, Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images
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