Black Turnout, Trump Meddling Handed Georgia to the Democrats
As a roiling, armed mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters turned the U.S. Capitol into an unprecedented scene of chaos and violence Wednesday, Black voters in Georgia basked in a victory equally unprecedented.
The day before, they had defied political history and voted in record numbers. The descendants of slaves played a pivotal role in handing control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats, including Georgia’s first Black senator.
Raphael Warnock won by about 75,000 votes in a race in which 4.4 million people cast ballots. Jon Ossoff’s margin of victory was fewer than 37,000 in the unofficial results. Their narrow wins came after months of grassroots efforts by groups such as the New Georgia Project, the Working Families Party and BlackPAC, which inundated voters with door-to-door visits and endless text messages urging citizens to the polls.
The Democratic voter-data firm TargetSmart found that 115,000 people who voted on Tuesday hadn’t cast a ballot in November, and 40% of them were African-American. Overall, Black voters made up 32% of the electorate -- 3 percentage points higher than in the Nov. 3 general election -- and those voters opted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates, by margins of 93% or more, according to an AP VoteCast survey of more than 2,700 verified Georgia voters.
“People are contorting themselves trying to explain through the lens of White voters what happened in Georgia” said Nse Ufot, the chief executive officer of the New Georgia Project, an organization founded by Stacey Abrams, the former gubernatorial candidate.
“What happened is a surge in Black, brown and gold voters,” said Ufot, whose organization knocked on 2 million doors, made 7 million phone calls and sent 4.4 text messages. “We were clear about where the numbers were and who needed to show up to vote.”
Trump himself played no small part. His threats in a phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and other election officials just three days before the vote -- urging them to “find” thousands of ballots to flip the state to him -- spurred an already motivated Democratic electorate. Republicans feared that the president’s charges of election fraud dampened their supporters’ enthusiasm.
Tuesday’s results capped years of Democratic organizing and voter registration that harnessed dramatic demographic changes in a state that hadn’t picked a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton in 1992, before going for Joe Biden in November.
“We spent $2.5 million on the Senate race,” said Britney Whaley, 35, a senior political director for the Working Families Party. The group ran a get-out-the-vote campaign in 11 counties, including texts, door knocking and millions of phone calls.
The group, which has operations in 12 states, has worked in Georgia since 2017 – including on behalf of Abrams and in legislative and local races – but never at the scale of the runoff, Whaley said. It focused on five metro Atlanta counties and on smaller cities, including Columbus, Albany, Warner Robins, Valdosta, Brunswick, Statesboro and Savannah.
Doorknocking was a priority, and it worked unusually well, in part because so many people were home, either working there or had lost jobs to Covid, Whaley said. “We did extensive training on protocols so we would not get too close,” she said. “We’d put literature in the door, then knock and step way back.”
The method came through for Warnock, the 50-year-old pastor of the church once led by Martin Luther King Jr. and a political newcomer, who defeated wealthy incumbent Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler.
Ossoff, a 33-year-old documentary producer, beat the other incumbent, Senator David Perdue, to become the state’s first Jewish senator. Perdue is an Old South Republican from central casting -- a member of a powerful political family, successful in business and rock-ribbed in his conservatism.
Georgia requires a candidate to get at least 50% of the votes in the general election or face a runoff. In the past, mostly White Republicans have turned out in runoffs in far stronger numbers than Democrats. This time, with the country ravaged by a deadly virus and energized by a racial reckoning, Black voters were buoyed by a powerful movement to register and turn out people who had been infrequent voters.
The movement was cultivated by Abrams, who gained national attention in losing a close race for governor in 2018 to Republican Brian Kemp, the then-secretary of state whom Abrams charged with systematic efforts to suppress Black votes.
Abrams’s efforts date back a decade, when she was minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, working to challenge restrictive voter laws and energize minority voters.
“Being a battleground means you have to fight for victory,” she told CNN on Tuesday night. “Republicans, for 20 years, took for granted their successes.”
(Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, donated $5 million in 2019 to Fair Fight, a voting rights organization Abrams founded in 2018.)
Abrams, 47, has developed a playbook to reach disenfranchised communities in a state that has been controlled for years by Republicans.
Abrams is “the queen general of this ecosystem of democracy defenders,” Ufot said. Her organizations, as well as others such as Black Voters Matter and the local chapter of the NAACP, worked together.
Georgia’s voters “demonstrated that the best victories are born out of collective Black power,” Patrisse Cullors, co-founder and chair of the Black Lives Matter Political Action Committee, said in a statement. The credit, she said, goes to “the Black women organizers who organized and mobilized Georgia to make this possible.”
While Black voters turned out in large numbers, many Republicans sat on the sidelines. Voters in predominantly Black counties turned out at 89% of the rate they did in November. In predominantly White counties, turnout was 83% compared with November.
Perdue and Loeffler had staked their political futures on Trump, agreeing with him as he questioned the results of Georgia’s Nov. 3 election and refusing to acknowledge President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Loeffler had promised to challenge the election results in the Senate on Wednesday during the formal tally of Electoral College votes. She backed down after Trump incited followers to a deadly riot in the Capitol.
Trump and the defeated senators also launched attacks on their fellow Republicans -- the state’s governor and secretary of state.
As the president drove a wedge into Georgia’s Republican Party, his charges of voter fraud turned some of its supporters away from the polls.
Gabriel Sterling, a lifelong Republican who is the top election system manager for Raffensperger, didn’t hesitate when asked Wednesday what he thought had hurt the two Republican incumbents.
“President Donald J. Trump,” said Sterling, who presciently warned several weeks ago that the chief executive’s vitriol would lead to violence. “When you say your vote doesn’t count and you have people who are saying ‘Don’t vote,’ you spark a civil war within a GOP that needed to be united to get through a tough race like this.”
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