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WASHINGTON – Democrats were forecast to win big on Election Day. But in congressional races across the country, they saw loss after loss even as President-elect Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the White House race.
At least 10 Democratic incumbents fell to Republicans in the House, though the party clung on to control of the chamber. Aspirations to take the Senate majority seemed to wither as race after race was called for Republicans – even in states where Democrats polled significantly higher than incumbents.
Democrats have promised methodical after-action reports to examine what went wrong and how to how to learn from it. But the party is still in the midst of a battle over the Senate with the majority hanging in the balance – all coming down to Georgia and two runoff races on Jan. 5.
While Democrats are still licking their wounds from the Nov. 3 Election Day, experts say the party will need to make changes and resist making some of the same errors in hopes of claiming victory in the state. Flipping the seats held by incumbent Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler will be an uphill battle for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, but a victory will give Democrats the power to pass Biden’s legislative agenda.
"You rarely get a second chance in politics but Democrats have gotten one in Georgia," said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Manley pointed to Biden’s ability to flip the state blue this year for the first time since 1992.
"It’s definitely doable for us. But I think we as a party have to be cautious and resist some of worst urges," he said.
Struggle with economy, defending against GOP attacks
A host of issues divided Americans as they voted by mail and at the ballot box. Health care, the coronavirus pandemic and racial justice were all rated as the key issues that decided people's vote.
But one issue at top of the list in many exit polls seemed to trouble Democrats: the economy.
The split among Republican and Democratic voters seemed to rest on a choice between getting a handle on the coronavirus pandemic or reopening efforts to help rescue the economy.
Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the few red-state Democrats still in Congress, said the split displayed a clear issue the party needs to address.
“When you don't have a message on the economy, (voters) believe that that (Democratic) brand basically is more concerned and interested in people that don't work or won't work, more so than the people that do work and will work," the West Virginia Democrat said. "There's a problem.”
But while the party will have several years before the next election battle, Democrats in Georgia are already in the middle of campaigning, with only weeks until the runoff races. Experts argue shifts in messaging simply won’t be able to move voters this late in the race.
"I think it’s too late in the game for a policy shift," Manley said.
Democratic strategists across the board and in the state say the focus on health care and beating the coronavirus pandemic was largely successful, but candidates had issues fending off GOP attacks focusing on socialism and the defund the police movement, attacks that have been blamed for some Democrats' losses.
"Republicans have worked very hard to tar these slogans," said Danny Barefoot, a Democratic strategist, admitting that Democrats need to learn from the struggles they saw in this cycle. "We have a branding problem."
He said Ossoff and Warnock should veer away from "dabbling in these issues," but should make clear where they stand.
While messaging on socialism has been blamed for some losses, including within the Hispanic communities of South Florida, it might not be as big of an issue in Georgia, Barefoot said.
"Both of these candidates need to ignore the noise. They understand their communities and what voters are hoping to see from them," he added.
Barefoot said in a post-election focus group he conducted, many voters were wary that the country could again impose strict mandates as COVID-19 cases rise. "I think we really missed the COVID fatigue," he explained. "I think Trump’s reopening message resonated more than we thought."
With cases rising and some communities already issuing restrictions that force businesses to close and residents to stay home again, that is likely to weigh heavily on voters’ minds.
"There’s a middle ground approach here on being empathetic, being worried about the economy and continuing to live amid the pandemic," Barefoot said. "There’s a way to safely live your life and not isolate at home."
Ground efforts, money and GOP's conflicting message
Many have also attributed Democratic losses on Election Day to a lack of ground game. As COVID-19 ravaged the country and continued to spread, campaigns had to shift to a more digitally focused operation than ever before.
Most restrained from holding in-person events or having campaign workers knock on doors, key aspects that help turn out voters. As the pandemic wore on, Republicans were quicker to restart holding typical events. President Donald Trump led the way with packed rallies, not mandating face masks or social distancing.
Trump appeared in Georgia Saturday to rally for Loeffler and Perdue, urging voters to cast their ballots for the Republicans, railing against election integrity and highlighting what is at stake with the two races.
"This election is control of the U.S. Senate and that really means control of this country,” Trump said. "The voters of Georgia will determine which party runs every committee, writes every piece of legislation, controls every single taxpayer dollar."
Democrats have been resistant to holding such large in-person events over safety concerns amid the pandemic but have focused on virtual rallies and drive-in events where voters can stay in their cars. Biden said he plans to campaign in the state for the Senate race, though it’s unclear whether he will do so virtually or in-person.
Democrats are keenly aware of the dynamics in the state that allowed Biden to win, including shifts in the suburbs and know the keys to victory are turning out more voters and energizing African Americans in the state. Democrats and liberal groups have invested millions into the race, allowing Democrats to hire more staff and recruit more volunteers for a wide on-the-ground organization, which includes more voter calls and texts.
"Up until now, the reality is we weren’t knocking on doors or really doing a ton of connecting with voters," said Stefan Turkheimer, a Democratic strategist in Georgia. "The No. 1 question is how do you turn out people that previously turned out for you and a strong ground game is key to that."
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Republicans have similarly been investing heavily in Georgia, promising to build a presidential-level voter contact operation with staff embedded to work with both campaigns. Both Loeffler and Perdue have continued to host large events, including appearing with Trump on Saturday.
But the party is weathering an internal crisis in the state over Trump’s unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud and that the election was stolen from him, something that could help Democrats if Trump voters don’t turn out due to distrust in the electoral process.
"When the talking points are all about internal party mechanics in D.C., that just turns people off. It’s the last thing you want," Turkheimer said.
He said Trump’s claims have caused a mess for the GOP because their messaging boils down to: “You’ve told them that their votes haven’t counted. Why would they waste their time to vote then?”
Typically, Republicans have been successful in such runoff races, winning seven out of eight in Georgia since 1992, including two U.S. Senate races. Loeffler and Perdue have supported Trump’s baseless election fraud claims, hoping Trump's passionate followers back them in January.
He also targeted Republican officials in Georgia, including Gov. Brian Kemp, over the unproven claims of fraud. Trump urged voters to elect Loeffler and Perdue, insisting the two races will determine control of the Senate – something that would only be true if Biden did indeed win the presidential race since Democratic wins would mean the vice president will have to break a 50-50 Senate tie.
“They rigged our presidential election, but we will still win it,” Trump said at his rally in Valdosta, Georgia, as those in the audience started chanting, "Stop the steal."
"They’re going to try and rig this election, too," the president continued before pulling a piece of paper from his coat with statistics aiming to discredit Biden’s presidential win.
Key to the race: Voter turnout and resisting urges
It was about eight years ago that Stacey Abrams offered a 20-page PowerPoint presentation outlining a multiyear strategy to turn Georgia blue.
Steve Phillips, a Democratic donor and founder of the progressive organization Democracy in Color, still remembers that day and her proposal. Abrams' plan worked and was critical to Biden’s victory in the state, he said. At the heart of the effort: energizing the state’s large African American population.
"It’s not rocket science. It’s also what is going to make these Senate races," he said. "This is going to be 90% about turnout. That’s what this battle will be. It’s a labor-intensive, person-to-person movement."
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Phillips said the biggest variable is that Trump and Biden won't be on the Jan. 5 ballot. Many voters were not only energized to vote for Biden but against another four years under Trump.
"The votes are clearly there to win," he said. "But now the question is, can you get them back out?"
Millions have poured into the race for both Republicans and Democrats and with control of the Senate at stake, some high profile Democrats have gotten involved in fundraising for the race – a concern for some strategists.
“We always want to send in these D.C. hotshots, but I really think we have to let the folks on the ground take the lead. They know the state best,” Manley said. “We need to empower the folks down there to get the job done.”
Manley added: “Raising money hand over fist does not equal victory," pointing to races lost by Amy McGrath in Kentucky and Jaime Harrison in South Carolina despite millions pouring in this cycle to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close ally of Trump.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Georgia Senate battle: Here's what Democrats think could help them win