If the Democrats’ Senate candidates are going to take the majority, they’re going to need to do something in Georgia that they haven’t done elsewhere in 2020: win.
Hyped and well-funded Democratic candidates for Senate fell short this week everywhere from Iowa and Montana to South Carolina and Maine, prompting disappointment and soul-searching over strategy from Democrats who’d come into November very optimistic about taking the majority.
Democratic candidates fell behind in Alaska and North Carolina, though those races are not yet called, so the party is increasingly focused on Georgia’s two Senate contests, which look to head to January 5 runoffs. As of Friday morning, at least one race is guaranteed: the special election between Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and Democrat Raphael Warnock. The other, where Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) faces Democrat Jon Ossoff, has not been called yet, but with Perdue under 50 percent, both campaigns are preparing for the January rematch.
That the battle for Senate is going into overtime allows each side to make adjustments and possibly apply lessons from this week’s election. For Democrats, the discussion is focusing on the nuts and bolts of campaign strategy: how to allocate resources, what kinds of ads to run, and how to organize for getting out the vote—all of which are drastically more fraught decisions during a deadly pandemic that has upended everything, including politics.
“We’re already having conversations about what we can do differently,” said Howard Franklin, a Georgia Democratic strategist. “Running in the dead of winter will be harder because of cold weather and COVID-19… We haven’t yet come up with a suitable substitute for in-person canvassing, meet-and-greets, and getting people together in ways that pay heed to the pandemic.”
Phone banking, texting campaigns, and remote events have all made organizing easier in the COVID-19 era. But knocking on voters’ doors and holding in-person events are, normally, among the most powerful ways to galvanize support. While Republicans have continued those tactics as normal—and are expected to do so in Georgia over the next two months—Democrats have largely stopped due to concerns over the coronavirus that the GOP clearly does not share.
In some places where results on Nov. 3 were disappointing for Democrats, that discrepancy has mattered. In Texas, for example, there’s already been a backlash to Democrats’ heavy reliance on phone and digital tactics of getting out the vote in the lead-up to an election where Republicans bested them across the board.
In a series of tweets on Friday morning, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) said “the decision to stop knocking doors is one people need to grapple with and analyze.” Her colleagues, Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), “never stopped,” she said, “and they may very well have helped deliver a Biden presidency” because they drove such high voter turnout in their heavily Democratic districts situated in presidential battleground states.
And generally, top Democrats are warning that, in light of this week’s results, a serious reconsideration of campaign strategy will be required in order to win in Georgia. “We’re going to have to sit down and take a serious look at how to run these senatorial campaigns in Georgia,’’ Rep. Jim Clyburn (R-SC), the number three Democrat in the House, told USA Today on Friday. “We’re not going to win these campaigns if we run those the way we ran Biden’s campaign.”
“It’s going to take more than a virtual campaign,” said Clyburn. “It’s going to take more than television. We’re not going to win this campaign by television."
How Democrats thread the needle of pandemic politicking in Georgia could very well affect the outcome, and control of the Senate, as much as any of the campaign ads that go viral or are blanketed on TV airwaves 24/7. Officials and operatives in the party want to adhere to public health guidelines but realize that in order to win, they’re going to have to get creative about ways to reach voters directly, and in a safe way.
Nikema Williams, the chair of the Georgia Democratic Party and the congressmember-elect in Georgia’s 5th District, said, “We’re not going to do anything that puts voters at risk or canvassers or organizers at risk.”
“The best way to influence elections is direct voter contact,” said Williams. “We also know that the Democratic Party believes in science, and we believe in keeping people safe in the process.”
But threading that needle effectively will become even more urgent given the tsunami of cash that is about to hit Georgia, both from the campaigns themselves and from outside donors and special interests looking for a chance to sway the Senate one way or the other. Democrats in Georgia have looked at the existing onslaught of ads in their own state—and in others where Democrats fell short—as ineffective.
“There is a problem we have in politics,” said Nabilah Islam, a progressive organizer in Georgia who previously ran for Congress this year. “You raise a lot of money, but you’re talking at people—you’re not talking with them.” Islam said Democrats should focus on leaving literature at voters’ homes, and find ways to tailor communications to diverse populations that will cut through the noise broadcast by repeated ads.
“Communicating in different languages is going to be key, just making it feel really local,” said Islam. “There’s a knowledge gap between the consultants who do these ads and the communities on the ground. You can run really great ads, but they need to be in ways these communities typically receive information.”
The Warnock campaign says it intends to mobilize voters safely and in a variety of ways, from digital to in-person, including contactless drops of campaign literature. Employing these processes during the election, the Warnock campaign said it reached one million Georgia voters before the Nov. 3 election.
In a briefing on Friday, the Ossoff campaign said it planned to build the strongest field operation in Georgia history. “I think we have figured out safe ways to campaign in person,” said Ellen Foster, Ossoff’s campaign manager. “Every tactic is on the table, and we’ll implement what we think is safe in the coming weeks.”
For some key outside groups backing the two candidates, in-person canvassing remains off the table for now. Representatives for Planned Parenthood Votes and Georgia Conservation Voters, for example, said that was not in their plans.
Barbara Luttrell, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Votes, said that she is confident Georgians will have all the information they’ll need about the runoff—which in itself is a crucial task, given that Democrats typically see turnout drop among less habitual voters in a January contest. “They will have no doubt that their vote matters now more than ever,” said Luttrell.
But others feel that there is a way to make those valuable, personal interactions with voters happen safely during COVID-19. “At the end of the day, you can text people, you can send them things in the email, but if there’s an opportunity to knock on the door and leave a piece of literature, or knock on that door and back up 12 feet, that is very important,” said Clay Middleton, a DNC member from South Carolina who is helping to strategize for Georgia’s Senate races.
The nature of the runoff makes this even more crucial, said Middleton. “Now you know what the vote goal needs to be. You need to do better than what you did on Tuesday,” he said. “It’s important that you get your voters back out, and you go after people who did not vote for you… the only way you can do that is on the ground.”
Both Democratic senatorial candidates will look to improve their vote shares, but their paths to the runoff were quite different. Warnock will face Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) after the two emerged as the top vote-getters in a primary with two-dozen candidates. The Democrat notched 33 percent of the vote to Loeffler’s 26 percent, and both will compete to build on those numbers.
Ossoff, meanwhile, will get a head-to-head match with Sen. David Perdue (R-GA). In the first round of voting, in which a Libertarian candidate was on the ballot, Perdue missed the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff by just a few thousand votes. Ossoff, meanwhile, got nearly 48 percent of the vote, as the tally continued coming in Thursday night. At the same time, Biden and President Donald Trump were in a tight race to win Georgia’s 16 electoral votes and, according to Georgia’s secretary of state, appeared to be headed for a recount.
While Ossoff was able to outraise and outspend Perdue in the 2020 cycle, according to the most recent campaign finance reports, he still lacked the numbers that some other Democratic challengers across the nation enjoyed. And while Warnock got more in contributions from donors than Loeffler, according to the FEC records through mid-October, the incumbent loaned her campaign millions to boost her run.
Their totals are paltry compared to other, less successful, challengers. Amy McGrath, who challenged Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in Kentucky, and Jaime Harrison, who ran against Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in South Carolina, raised close to a combined $200 million for their bids. Both lost, by 20 points and 10 points, respectively.
McConnell and Graham, of course, are supervillains to Democrats, who spurred countless donations to their challengers from liberals around the country. Asked about the difference in donor interest, John Jackson, the chairman of the DeKalb County Democratic Committee, touted Harrison’s run, noting the importance the race could have in helping South Carolina Democrats moving forward.
“I think the money sent to McGrath in Kentucky was definitely money that would have been better spent in Georgia,” Jackson said. “McGrath didn't come close to beating McConnell, and maybe that money sent to us would have been put to better use. But that is spilt milk at this point.”
Democrats in Georgia are optimistic that, despite the challenges with organizing and their historic disadvantages in a runoff, Biden’s strength means that Georgia is quite winnable—and that Democrats could really secure the Senate majority there.
“We have the perfect opportunity,” said Williams, the state party chair. “We fully expect Georgia to be the center of the political universe. We have proven with presidential margins that we are a battleground… it’s possible for us to change the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.”
Wendy Davis, a DNC member in Georgia, said, “I'm not naive. Runoffs are not historically our best moments... but there is nothing about 2020 that has been typical.”
Davis, who also serves on the Rome City Commission, predicted “ample resources,” for the campaign that was likely to come.
“I think we will probably break records for whatever records Jaime Harrison might have just set in South Carolina. I can't imagine that every interest group on every side of every issue won't be jumping in here with both feet, especially if it looks like the balance of who has the majority in the U.S. Senate lies with these two U.S. Senate seats,” Davis said.
As Democrats consider how to use what will be considerable resources, Islam urged Democrats to keep their eyes on what matters most in moving voters.
“These runoff elections have to be very personal,” she said. “What I mean by that is, we’re each other’s neighbors, we’re asking each other to vote. It can’t be someone from somewhere else trying to bum rush you into voting.”