The Fight to Turn Georgia Blue

When Roy Barnes was running for governor of Georgia, as a Democrat, in 1998, he could see that his party’s traditional coalition in the s...

When Roy Barnes was running for governor of Georgia, as a Democrat, in 1998, he could see that his party’s traditional coalition in the state was falling apart. For three decades, its base had consisted of urban Black voters and rural white voters. But the latter group “were voting more and more Republican—and there were fewer of them,” he told me recently. He managed to win, with the help of moderate white voters in Cobb County, then a largely conservative area, where he lived. But he needed a new strategy for reëlection. He tried hard, as governor, to appeal to white suburban women. “We emphasized education,” he said. “We created a child tax credit. All these things that appeal to working white women in the suburbs. But I was ahead of the demographic shift—they didn’t come around fast enough.” He lost by five points, in 2002, to Sonny Perdue, who became the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, a hundred and thirty years before. (Perdue is now Donald Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture.) Barnes probably hurt his chances by supporting the removal of the Confederate emblem from the state flag. “That stopped the rural whites from voting Democrat,” he told me. In the years since, only one Democrat in Georgia, Michael Thurmond—who was elected labor commissioner, in 1998, and reëlected twice—has won statewide office of any kind. Barnes ran and lost again in 2010.

Since leaving office, he has watched Republicans become “more and more reactionary,” he said. “And now the moderates, the Republicans who were my friends, are gone.” He mentioned Johnny Isakson, who retired from the Senate last year, and was replaced by Kelly Loeffler, a conservative businesswoman. Loeffler was appointed by Georgia’s current governor, Brian Kemp—partly in an attempt, it seems, to shore up support among white suburban women. But Loeffler, who’s now running in a “jungle primary” against twenty other candidates from both parties, has moved right to fend off fellow-Republicans. She’s run ads that claim she is “more conservative than Attila the Hun,” and has touted the endorsement of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a congressional candidate known for having espoused QAnon. When Loeffler was asked, at a debate, whether there is anything Trump has said or done that she disagrees with, she said no. Loeffler’s chief Republican challenger is Doug Collins, a four-term congressman from a largely rural district in North Georgia, who recently announced a “Trump Defender Statewide Tour,” for which he’ll drive around in his Chevrolet Suburban followed by a van “that runs on liberal tears.” The choice of vehicles serve as a contrast with Loeffler, who has spent twenty-three million dollars of her own money on the campaign, and often travels on a private jet. The Suburban recently broke down while Collins campaigned with Carter Page.

I asked a spokesman for Collins whether it was fair to say that he and Loeffler have emphasized their support for Trump in order to appeal to conservative voters, possibly at the expense of moderates. He replied by poking fun at Loeffler’s “makeover,” noting her friendship with Mitt Romney, and saying “she seems about as comfortable as a vegan at a steakhouse.” A Loeffler spokesman responded, in an e-mail, by calling Collins “a career politician” who has voted with Nancy Pelosi. “The only reason he wants the Senate seat is so he can keep lining his pockets with cash from lobbyists and Big Tech,” the spokesman added.

Polls show Loeffler and Collins splitting the Republican vote and the Democrats’ leading candidate, Raphael Warnock, pulling ahead. (Georgia is one of two states that requires candidates to win a majority of votes to avoid a runoff—a requirement that dates back to the Jim Crow era—so the top two finishers will likely square off in January.) Warnock is the pastor at Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s old church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta; he presided over the funeral for the late congressman John Lewis, in July, and boasts endorsements from Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, and Barnes, who called Warnock “the new star in the Democratic Party of Georgia.” Warnock has taken relatively moderate policy positions: he told me that he wants to “strengthen the Affordable Care Act,” possibly with a public option, rather than pushing for Medicare for All, and he speaks about “responsibly funding law enforcement,” not defunding the police. He raised thirteen million dollars last quarter. The only other Democrat in the race to get much attention, Matthew Lieberman, the son of former Senator Joseph Lieberman, has faced criticism for past fund-raisers he’s held for Republicans, including Lindsey Graham, and is fading in the polls.

Isakson’s retirement made Georgia’s 2020 election doubly significant: the other Senate seat, currently held by the Republican David Perdue, Sonny’s cousin, was already set to come up this year. Perdue, a former management consultant who became the C.E.O. of Reebok and then of Dollar General, was first elected in 2014, when he mostly touted his business record. Unlike Collins and Loeffler, he faces just one opponent, the Democrat Jon Ossoff, in November; he hasn’t been pushed to make quite the show of fealty to Trump as they have. Still, he spoke at a recent Trump rally, in Macon, and, in his remarks, he used the first name of fellow-senator and Vice-Presidential candidate Kamala Harris as a racist laugh line, referring to her as “Ka-mala, mala, mala, I don’t know, whatever.” (A spokesperson for Perdue insisted, on Twitter, that the senator “didn’t mean anything by it.”) His campaign was previously criticized for a Facebook ad that enlarged Ossoff’s nose in a seeming effort to call attention to his Jewishness. (The ad also featured Chuck Schumer and the all-caps warning “DEMOCRATS ARE TRYING TO BUY GEORGIA!” Perdue took down the ad.) Ossoff, who’s thirty-three, rose to prominence during a losing special election for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, in 2017, for which he ran a spirited but somewhat cautious campaign. This time around, he has been more full-throated in his critique of Trump and his Republican opponent. He raised a state-record twenty-one million dollars last quarter, and multiple polls have shown him tied with Perdue, who recently pulled out of the final debate, opting instead to participate in a Trump rally in northwest Georgia.

Barnes is optimistic. “There’s a new coalition to be made, which is forming right now,” he said. “Suburban white women, African-Americans, a growing Latino population, and some old white-haired Democrats like me.” He believes that this coalition will elect both Warnock and Ossoff and deliver the state’s electoral votes to Joe Biden. Trump’s campaign manager has told reporters that he is “very, very confident in our standing in Georgia.” Trump and his top surrogates have visited the state, and the campaign has spent a lot of money here. Biden’s press secretary, T. J. Ducklo, told me, “Georgia is an important part of our expansion map.” Barnes compared the current moment to 1976, when the state’s native son Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford, two years after Watergate. “The true test,” he added, “is whether the Democrats take the Georgia House of Representatives this year. That’s more difficult. But it could happen.” Republicans currently have a thirty-seat advantage among state representatives; the gap looks likely to shrink, but “it would take quite a blue wave” to erase it, Barnes said.

Barnes, who now runs a law practice, offered two personal anecdotes as evidence that change is afoot. First, he mentioned “an old-time Republican client of mine—you’d recognize him—a very thoughtful and religious Republican, who called me yesterday and said, ‘I just went to vote and I voted for Joe Biden.’ ” Barnes asked him why. “He said, ‘I think Donald Trump is a threat to democracy.’ ” This friend was not a fan of Kamala Harris, Barnes said, but had overcome his reluctance to vote for her, and even voted for down-ballot Democrats for the first time. Barnes’s second anecdote was about going to his local precinct, in a conservative Atlanta suburb, to drop off the ballots he and his wife had filled out. (Early voting started in Georgia on October 12th.) “I got out, and there were three or four people there,” he said. “All white, all older. I put my votes in. I had my mask on. One of the ladies spoke up. She said, ‘We just put two in for Joe Biden.’ And I said, ‘Well, I just put in two as well.’ The other lady wouldn’t say, so I assume she voted for Trump. But when you have four out of six votes from older whites for Joe Biden, I know things are changing.”

Six people is not a very large sample, as the statisticians say. The day I spoke with Barnes, Quinnipiac published poll results showing Biden seven points ahead of Trump in Georgia, with a sample of a little over a thousand. The poll had been conducted shortly after Trump’s chaotic performance in the first Presidential debate and his positive test for the coronavirus; also, many of Quinnipiac’s state polls this year have had unusually good numbers for Biden. Still, it was such a large margin, in such a reliably Republican state, that the results trended on Twitter, and Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight, wrote a column analyzing the state of the race in Georgia, concluding that a “formerly red state has become perhaps the most competitive battleground in the country.” This, he noted, “is a bad sign for Republicans.”

Of all the people I spoke to who follow politics professionally—from academics, to consultants, to elected officials—nobody believed that Biden would win Georgia by seven points, or even that he should be favored. But they all thought the state would be the most competitive it had been since 1996, when Bill Clinton lost the state to Bob Dole by a little under three points. Democratic Presidential candidates have lost Georgia in every election since, often by large margins; in 2016, Trump won it by five. In the past four years, a million new voters have been added to the state’s rolls, and many of them are young and nonwhite. “There are more latent Democrats here now,” Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, told me. “You’ve got white transplants who aren’t conservative. You’ve got the African-American base. New Asian-American and Hispanic voters coming to the state. They all break Democratic.” Stacey Abrams, a former state legislator who has directed local voter-registration efforts, mobilized this coalition in her race for governor two years ago. She lost to Kemp by just fifty thousand votes, out of nearly four million cast. Kemp was then Georgia’s secretary of state, and thus in charge of the election; Abrams pointed to long lines and voting-machine malfunctions at majority-Black precincts as evidence of voter suppression. Days before the election, Kemp publicly opened an investigation into the Georgia Democratic Party for a “failed hacking attempt” of the voter-registration system; it was later determined that the computer activity in question was conducted by the Department of Homeland Security, and had been approved by Kemp’s office three months before.

In a tight race, such shenanigans can be decisive; so can turnout at the margins. So far, Georgians are voting early at twice the rate they did four years ago; more than a dozen counties have already surpassed their total 2016 turnout. The two groups that Democrats used to count on in the state, urban Black voters and rural white voters, are expected to show up in droves, but, as Dave Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report, recently noted, confident projections for nonwhite rural voters are harder to come by. I spoke to Royce Reeves, Sr., a Black man in rural Cordele, who voted for Trump in 2016 but who is now driving Democrats to the polls, in a funeral limousine, to vote for Biden. “Yesterday, five hundred people did early voting,” Reeves told me. “I haven’t seen that before.”

“Everybody is concerned,” a longtime Republican strategist in the state, who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, said. The strategist acknowledged that the record amount of early voting probably benefitted Democrats, and that Trump’s attempts to sow doubt about voting-by-mail had likely hurt him. “Republican enthusiasm, or trust, in voting by mail plummeted in response to the stuff that the President is saying,” he said. “And that’s dangerous! We want those votes in the bank!” Trump’s first debate performance had also made things harder, the strategist said. “I was watching that shitshow thinking, The gettable white women are gonna hate this, and they’re gonna blame Trump for this.”

Still, the strategist believed that Trump’s handling of the economy and his emphasis on “law and order”—by which Trump generally means aggressive police tactics used in response to protests for racial equality—would tilt the race in the President’s favor. “Those suburban white women who voted for Abrams and don’t like Trump, many are appalled by the Democrats’ rhetoric, or silence, when it comes to the violence and rioting in American cities,” the strategist said. “They don’t feel like Democrats are taking it seriously. If it stays quiet all this month, I think it helps Democrats. If another city burns—if we have another Kenosha—that’s good for Republicans.” (Nationally, at least, polls conducted in the wake of protests that involved looting and rioting have not shown swings toward Trump.) The strategist added, “I feel in my bones that Trump has lost ground here in recent weeks, since that debate. I don’t think the bottom has fallen out from under him, but it’s close enough that anything could happen.”

Carter Crenshaw’s mother and sisters are suburban white women. Crenshaw, who’s twenty-two, is a senior at the University of Tennessee, and a co-founder of G.O.P. for Joe, a kind of Lincoln Project in miniature, focussed on Georgia. He created it with Debbie Moscato, who works in pharmaceutical sales. They met in 2017, while working on the congressional campaign of Karen Handel, who narrowly defeated Ossoff in a special election for Georgia’s Sixth District. (The following year, Handel lost to the Democrat Lucy McBath.) Moscato told me that she voted for every Republican Presidential candidate from 1976 to 2012, but that, in 2016, she voted for the independent Evan McMullin. Crenshaw, a Romney fan, preferred Carly Fiorina. Afterward, he and Moscato decided they would try to find fellow-Republicans who wanted to deny Trump a second term.

Crenshaw began his efforts with his family, in north Atlanta. His father, a construction manager, and one of his older sisters, a nurse, were unmoved by his arguments. But his mother, who is also a nurse, seemed persuadable. “At the beginning of his Presidency, she would always say, ‘But the economy is strong,’ and now she can’t say that,” Crenshaw told me in the spring, when we first spoke. Crenshaw kept pointing to the connection between Trump’s actions and rising cases of the coronavirus. “I don’t think she can take much more of this,” he said, in late May, the day before the United States reached a hundred thousand COVID-19 deaths. But, for a long time, her support for Trump didn’t waver. Moscato and Crenshaw found kindred spirits, but they were mostly, Moscato told me, “Republicans who didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 or haven’t liked him from the beginning.” As the leaves turned, Moscato and Crenshaw seized on little breakthroughs. In late September, shortly after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Crenshaw’s older sister, an accounts manager in north Atlanta, began writing anti-Trump posts on social media, and finally committed to voting for Biden. She decided against voting for Loeffler, too, and was considering supporting Ossoff—because, as Crenshaw put it, Perdue had “just sucked up way too much to Trump.” In October, Crenshaw said that his mom no longer supported Trump; she’d vote for Biden, and also for Warnock. “It was really the mishandling and manipulation of the pandemic,” Crenshaw told me, “by Trump as well as Kelly Loeffler, who she just can’t stand. And, of course, the steady rising of cases.”

Meanwhile, a friend of Moscato’s, whom she described as “long-respected in Republican circles,” texted her to say that, although he had voted for Trump in 2016, he would be voting for Biden. His “last straw,” he wrote, was an audio recording of Trump speaking with the journalist Bob Woodward, in which he acknowledged the risks of the coronavirus and said that he wanted to “play it down.” Moscato’s friend even read Woodward’s book, Moscato said. In a text to her, he wrote, “If Trump had moved on the Coronavirus as quickly as he has on RBG’s replacement nomination, the world would be a much different place.”

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Newsrust: The Fight to Turn Georgia Blue
The Fight to Turn Georgia Blue,c_limit/Bethea-GeorgiaBlue.jpg
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