Can Democrats Hold Georgia? | Washington Monthly
In the preface of his new book, Flipped, the political reporter Greg Bluestein of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes that in 2020 Georgia helped Democrats win back the White House and the Senate “with a formula that could serve as a template for the party in once bright-red territories elsewhere.”
That formula seemed counterintuitive to many Democrats accustomed to chasing swing voters. “Georgia Democrats mostly abandoned attempts to pose as moderate ‘Republican-lite’ figures and jettisoned all-out efforts to convert conservative voters with poll-tested talking points,” Bluestein writes. “Instead, leaders energized the party’s core constituencies—including many who rarely cast ballots—with policies that just a few years prior would have seemed unthinkable.”
Back in 2014, Georgia’s Senate Democratic nominee, Michelle Nunn, wouldn’t answer directly if she would have voted for the Affordable Care Act, and lamented that the legislative process wasn’t bipartisan. She lost to Republican David Perdue by eight points. Six years later, Democrat Jon Ossoff ran on expanding the ACA by offering the option of a government-run health insurance plan, and he beat Perdue by one point. And Reverend Raphael Warnock, the Democratic nominee in the concurrent special Senate election, had a similar health care platform and won by two points.
Democrat Jason Carter—who ran for governor in 2014 and, like Nunn, came up short—told Bluestein, “In 2014, there was no justifiable path to victory by relying just on the base. It had to be a ‘both, and’ strategy. We had to energize Black voters and win over persuasion voters.” Democratic strategists hoped to win 30 percent of the white vote, with Black voters turning out in large enough numbers to comprise 30 percent of the electorate. Nunn and Carter failed on both counts. Black voters made up under 29 percent of the electorate, and each candidate won just 23 percent of the white vote.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton did worse on those metrics: the Black vote share dipped below 28 percent, and she got only 21 percent of the white vote. But she flipped two suburban Atlanta counties—Cobb and Gwinnett—that had been Republican strongholds. Bluestein writes of a Cobb County transplant and local organizer, Jen Cox, who had to convince her liberal friends to “come out of hiding, so to speak, and hold events for Hillary Clinton.” One sign-waving event drew more than 200 people, “some in disguise lest they be outed.” But Cox sensed that it meant the tide was turning in the suburbs.
In the aftermath, according to Bluestein, “old-guard Democrats insisted” that to get sufficient white support, “Democrats needed to run even harder to the middle.” But it was with the squarely progressive Ossoff and Warnock that Democrats essentially hit the 30-30 mark, with exit poll data showing each getting 29 percent of the white vote and the Black share of the electorate reaching 30 percent.
But does all credit go to the progressive platform and the Democrats’ complementary efforts to juice turnout among their base? Bluestein writes that the Democrats’ “hard work” was buoyed by “extraordinary fortune,” foreshadowing his account of the Republican circular firing squad that shot down rural conservative turnout, part of the reason why the Black share of the electorate was so high.
So, do Democrats have the formula? Or if they are to win Georgia again in 2022, do they need more fortune?
Bluestein did not write Flipped to answer that question for you. He does not feign omniscience. He does not bludgeon you with superficial hot takes. He is a Georgia politics beat reporter, and a darn good one. Flipped doesn’t tell you what to think; it just tells you plenty that you don’t already know. Bluestein combines his firsthand reporting from 2020 with a deep knowledge of Georgia’s political history to give readers a complete understanding of what happened. And every Democrat needs to fully understand what happened if they want to figure out how to make it happen again.
Flipped tells the story of Democratic triumph alongside the story of the Republican debacle. That narrative structure implicitly conveys to the reader that whatever Democrats did right to flip Georgia, they had help from Republicans.
Bluestein illuminates the fissures in the Georgia Republican Party that were present well before Donald Trump was sowing grassroots mistrust of the party leadership during the 2020 election. For example, Bluestein observes that the state’s longtime Republican-held 6th Congressional District—almost picked off by Ossoff in a 2017 special election before the African American gun control advocate Lucy McBath flipped it in 2018—was redrawn in 2011 by Republicans to include more moderate voters. Why? Apparently, the Republican governor at the time, Nathan Deal, himself a former member of Congress, wanted to punish the suburban Atlanta Republican Representative Tom Price for withdrawing his endorsement of Deal in the middle of the 2010 gubernatorial primary. Price didn’t suffer directly, but when he was confirmed as Trump’s secretary of health and human services in 2017, the redrawn lines made the open seat ripe for the plucking.
The 2018 Republican primary for governor was a cutthroat affair with enormous, unforeseen consequences for the party. The lieutenant governor at the time, Casey Cagle, started as the clear front-runner in the gubernatorial election, outpacing then Secretary of State Brian Kemp by 13 points in the first round of the primary. But early in the runoff campaign, Cagle spoke too freely about his Machiavellian machinations to a former rival, who secretly recorded the conversation and leaked it to Bluestein. The resulting coverage fed Kemp’s narrative of a crusading outsider battling a corrupt insider, mortally wounding Cagle’s campaign.
Deal tried to save Cagle with a late endorsement, but Trump countered with an endorsement of Kemp two days later. Trump’s interest in the race baffled some Republicans at the time, but in Flipped, Bluestein sheds some light: Trump’s agriculture secretary was former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, and Perdue was carrying a 15-year grudge against Cagle for opposing his efforts as governor to raise tax revenue and fix a budget gap. Kemp benefited from the simmering intraparty tensions, crushing Cagle in the primary runoff by a 39-point margin.
By the end of 2020, Kemp was no longer the Trump-endorsed outsider but the Trump-loathed insider. Their relationship had already become strained in late 2019 when Kemp appointed the businesswoman Kelly Loeffler to a vacant Senate seat when Trump wanted Representative Doug Collins, who he presumed was more of a MAGA loyalist. Kemp’s refusal to indulge Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election shattered the relationship irrevocably. After Trump harangued the Georgia governor in a December 2020 phone call, Bluestein reports, Kemp told friends, “I didn’t give a shit about what he had to say.”
The Democratic Party had its frictions, too, when Stacey Abrams insisted that the party’s path forward was studded with new voters who were young and people of color. Bluestein reports that, as Abrams was ramping up her much-examined 2018 gubernatorial campaign, many state party veterans stuck to the belief that winning primarily required appeals to suburban white swing voters, not turning out reliably Democratic Black voters and new voters entirely. Abrams drew a primary opponent, Stacey Evans, who made that point bluntly: “We have to go to the suburbs and get moderate Republicans and independents to vote for us.”
The difference between the Democratic and Republican stories is that for the past few years, the Democrats effectively resolved their internal disputes, while Republicans found new ways to stick the shiv in each other.
Abrams shellacked Evans in the primary, and the party quickly rallied to Abrams’s side and her view of the electorate. Even though Abrams lost to Kemp, the margin was only 1.4 percentage points, the best performance by a Democrat in 20 years and far better than Nunn did with a more moderate approach. In 2018, more evidence for the Abrams minority-centric view of the election came when Lucy McBath flipped the suburban 6th District, which Ossoff had failed to do. (McBath held on to it in 2020, too.) Soon Abrams would be tapped to give the formal Democratic response to Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address and was heavily courted by Senator Chuck Schumer to run for the Senate.
Abrams passed on the Senate while Ossoff and Warnock stepped up. And once they advanced to the runoff, their campaigns synergistically worked together. They had similarly progressive platforms that avoided far-left pitfalls that could have spooked the middle—neither embraced, for example, “Medicare for All” or “Defund the Police.” That made it easy for them to campaign as a team in the homestretch. According to Bluestein, Ossoff likened it to a “buddy movie,” with the two of them joining forces to save America from the “Bonnie and Clyde of corruption.”
Well before the runoffs, clear-eyed Republicans began to worry. Attorney General Chris Carr warned Republicans at a 2019 rally that the demographics of the state were changing, and Democrats were gaining ground: “We can acknowledge that this is happening and do something about it and win. Or not and lose.” Kemp was concerned enough that he risked Trump’s wrath by appointing Loeffler to the Senate. Bluestein channels Kemp’s thoughts: “What the party needed was someone who could stop Democrats from peeling off white college-educated women voters in the suburbs. And Loeffler, a business-minded conservative, seemed to fit the bill.”
Loeffler bested Trump’s preferred candidate Collins and other Republicans in the first round of voting in November 2020. But to hold Collins off, Loeffler had to campaign like she was to the right of Attila the Hun, literally, which is not the best way to hold on to white college-educated women voters in Cobb and Gwinnett Counties. Moreover, mending fences and uniting Republicans would prove impossible while Trump was fixated on stealing the presidential election and lambasting any Republicans standing in his way.
Bluestein marvels at the voter-turnout operation that Democrats built for 2020, which Stacey Abrams had begun working on years earlier. For the two Senate runoff elections won by Ossoff and Warnock, Bluestein reports,
the overall Democratic effort boasted some forty thousand staffers and volunteers who accounted for 25 million attempts to reach voters. That amounted to ten different contacts for each of Joe Biden’s 2.5 million voters in Georgia, with a particular focus on Georgians of color, who were more likely to abstain from overtime contests.
Flipped provides the backstory of some of the unsung ground war generals, such as Scott Hogan and Nikema Williams—the state party executive director and chair, respectively—who in 2019 “knew they needed to line up staffers earlier than ever.” To drum up interest among out-of-state operatives and donors, Georgia Democrats needed an outsider to believe that their state was on the cusp. So, Bluestein writes, the “word battleground was strategically inserted into every piece of literature, every fundraising appeal, in hashtags on every social media post put out by the state party.” Once the party attracted an army of staffers, they put them to work in the 2019 municipal elections and built up their connections to local communities.
The Republican get-out-the-vote effort was similarly “staggering,” Bluestein writes. It was just undercut by Trump’s attempts to delegitimize the 2020 presidential election and denigrate the state’s Republican election officials. Bluestein notes that many of the approximately 750,000 Georgians who voted in the November general election but not in the January runoffs were in conservative rural areas. Some of the biggest declines were in areas where Trump spouted his nonsense at post-November rallies: Dalton and Valdosta. The president’s scorched-earth attacks on Kemp and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his declarations that the election had been a sham were bound to diminish turnout drives for Perdue and Loeffler.
As impressed as Bluestein is by what the Democrats accomplished, he ends the book on an uncertain note, pointing out that 2020’s turnout spikes cannot “be counted on without a global pandemic” encouraging easy absentee voting “and the polarizing presence of Trump on the ballot in 2022.” He concludes that we can’t yet determine “whether the suburban shift that had turned Republican bastions into Democratic territory was firm or a fluke.”
Democrats have experienced fluke flips before. Obama snatched North Carolina and Indiana in 2008, but Democrats have mostly struggled in those states since. Holding on to a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia in a midterm in a year when the Democrats hold the presidency may prove to be a steep challenge. Or Republicans may yet again give Democrats a lifeline, with Trump instigating a nasty Republican gubernatorial primary between Kemp and Perdue, as well as propelling the Senate candidacy of an admitted domestic abuser, Herschel Walker.
While Bluestein stops short of drawing definitive conclusions, Flipped does provide a road map. One, demographics aren’t quite destiny, but you sure want them moving in your direction. Two, run candidates who can energize base voters without alienating swing voters. Three, build a turnout operation to channel that energy. Four, stay united while Republicans squabble.
Will such a formula allow Democrats to flip other red states with significant Black populations? Not easily. For example, as Perry Bacon Jr. detailed for FiveThirtyEight, North Carolina doesn’t have quite as many African American voters as Georgia, and its pool of white non-college voters is particularly conservative on racial and social issues, making the 30-30 goal tricky to reach. But Stacey Abrams and the Georgia Democratic Party didn’t wait for the state’s demographic math to fall into place before building the necessary GOTV infrastructure. Flipped makes clear that flipping can take time and effort— and a little bit of unhinged stupidity from your opponents.