As the aftermath of November’s Presidential contest drags on, the eyes of the nation are fixed on the voters of Georgia. In a few short weeks, they will be returning to the polls to decide for a second time what the political future of the country will be. Republicans are a hair’s breadth from retaining a narrow majority in the Senate, a success which would grant them the power to dictate a large swath of issues ranging from the confirmation of President-Elect Biden’s Cabinet to the release of additional financial aid in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, as both political parties throw themselves into the Georgia runoff races, a dogged battle drags on between the Trump campaign and several state courts over the validity of the initial results of November’s presidential race. According to several sources, 46 of these cases have been thrown out of court to date. None have successfully discredited Biden’s claim to the electoral votes in their respective states. As a result, several state legislatures, including Georgia’s, have agreed to hold election hearings at the request of Trump’s campaign. These hearings, while factually and substantively lacking, have re-inspired controversy in the court of public opinion. Republican leaders facing this political landscape are attempting to cross a harrowing gauntlet as they are caught between Trump’s unarguable pull with a large block of their base and his history-making disregard for the norms of our democracy. The ultimate calculation of where these political winds will head in the next few weeks for Georgia seems to hinge on the same characteristic that marked the 2020 presidential election in American history: voter turnout.
With 50 Republican, 46 Democratic, and 2 Independent Senators taking seats of power in the November election, the pressure is on Democrats to win both Georgia runoff elections or watch as Republicans cling to power in the Senate. In November, the leading contenders in Georgia’s regular senate race were Jon Ossoff (D) and David Perdue (R). Perdue took home 49.7% of the vote, casting himself as a Trump ally and a fiscal conservative. The one-term Republican incumbent touts experience from his long tenure as a business executive for Reebok and Dollar General and swears to rein in government spending. Meanwhile, Ossoff earned 47.9% of the vote running as a champion of health care and clean energy reform, focused on rebuilding a more equitable economy.
In November, a special election was set to decide the fate of former Republican U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson’s senate seat. In this contest, Raphael Warnock (D) led a host of democratic hopefuls with 32.9% of the vote. The remaining Democratic candidates constituted a combined 15.5% of the vote. The Republican party came up with a more evenly split result. Kelly Loeffler (R) led with 25.9%, followed by Doug Collins (R) at 20%. The remainder of Republican candidates in the race came up with a combined 3.4% of the vote. History tells us it’s quite likely that turnout will see a considerable drop from the roughly 4.9 million voters that participated by casting ballots in November. For each party, the question is how to retain engagement from as many voters as possible.
So, what’s the Georgia strategy?
The Republican party finds itself facing a unique challenge as they pick a strategy to get as many supporters back to the polls as possible come January. They have what could be an advantage in President Trump’s refusal to concede to President-Elect Joe Biden. Arguably, the headlines generated by this conflict are capable of breaking through an already-packed electoral media cycle in Georgia, energizing a base that is extremely frustrated with November’s results. What’s more, Trump’s post-election fight puts Georgia on a list of states he is targeting to obtain electoral college votes that would traditionally go to Biden after he won the popular vote. Where in previous runoff elections voter interest may have dissipated, the GOP could be working with an incredibly engaged electorate due to this battle. On the other hand, strategists are forced to walk a razor’s edge while finding ways to mitigate a growing sense of disenfranchisement among conservative voters who have been told their November votes didn’t count. It’s still unclear, but President Trump’s month-long assault on the voting system’s integrity may have unintended consequences. When it comes time for conservative voters to decide if casting a second ballot this year is worth the effort, frustrations from November could either motivate or discourage them.
If the responses from the crowd of Trump’s December 5th rally can tell us anything, it’s clear that a decent block of conservative voters expect decisive action from Loeffler and Perdue to support the sitting president’s current battle. During their brief statements at the rally, which made up only four minutes of the event’s 108-minute runtime, supporters roared over the candidates with chants of “fight for Trump.” Trump himself spent most of the event making unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud and railing against Georgia’s Secretary of State to press for signature confirmation.
With the president’s help, Loeffler and Perdue seem confident they can turn conservative outrage into votes, as both candidates have come out with scathing rebukes of Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, and called for his resignation over the handling of November’s election. Only January’s results can genuinely say if this play for Trump’s base will carry enough votes to earn them each a senate seat. In the past, following Trump’s lead has proven effective for conservative representatives across the country. Though, that was before he lost the presidency. While strong arguments have come out of the GOP camp both for and against this strategy, one thing seems clear: neither candidate believes they can succeed in January’s contest if they draw Trump’s wrath.
On the Left, several voices, including Stacy Abrams, have promoted a localized strategy. Abrams is a ten-year veteran of the Georgia State House of Representatives. She made history in her 2018 campaign as the first female African American gubernatorial nominee for a major party. She has since championed a strategy based on combating voter suppression to re-enfranchise voters from minority communities. Her work to expand the franchise was critical to Biden’s November victory in the state. She has also been one of the strongest voices attempting to sway Democratic leadership towards a more ground-up organizing style. According to Abram’s strategy, in order to win votes from minority communities, you need to enlist leaders from those communities when building a campaign. The fact of the matter is that Atlanta’s minority communities and those of Detroit do not have the same priorities. The assumption that the same message will reach both sets of voters has sorely cost Democratic campaigns in recent months. Both Democratic runoff campaigns should use this knowledge to replicate the success that Abrams achieved in November. Yet, recent choices to bring a host of Democratic heavy hitters on the campaign trail may suggest otherwise.
On the same night as Vice President Pence visited Georgia to rally for Republicans, Democrats brought in their own “big guns” with an online rally featuring former President Obama. While his endorsements and compelling rhetoric may help inspire turnout, elements of his message may also threaten to alienate Georgia’s liberal voters. Naturally, a key message in his statement was the national importance of this runoff. The 44th U.S. president eloquently framed the contest as critical to the success or failure of a national agenda which includes health care reform and pandemic relief. However, the inevitable underlying statement that “it’s not just about Georgia” could serve to disillusion Democratic voters who feel that this race is no longer about them. Ossoff, Warnock, and Abrams all appeared at the virtual rally as well. What’s more, Biden’s recently scheduled appearance in Georgia is the most significant indicator that Democrats are hanging their hopes on national star power rather than local issues. The country will wait anxiously to see if the greater liberal agenda is a strong enough motivator to carry Ossoff and Warnock to the U.S. Senate.
On December 6th, 2020, three out of the four running senate candidates appeared before Georgia and the country to make their case to voters once again. The clearest confirmation of each party’s strategy played out on the stage as the candidates made their most recent appeals to the electorate. David Perdue declined to attend the debates, leaving the entirety of the event open for his opponent, Jon Ossoff. Ossoff spent a considerable amount of this time reiterating financial wrongdoing accusations against Perdue while emphasizing the importance of financial relief and science-based leadership to overcome the covid-19 pandemic. In the debate between Warnock and Loffler, both candidates exchanged a fair share of blows. Warnock focused on an appeal to Georgia’s common worker and painted Loffler as a detached corporate politician. Loffler deflected several questions regarding November’s presidential contest in Georgia by raising concerns about Warnock’s “radical socialist agenda.” With less than a month until election day, these harsh words from both sides will be among the last calls to ring out in the minds of Georgian voters as they decide the fate of the United States Senate.
As the campaigning seems to be reaching critical speed, Georgians have until December 7th to register to vote. A week later, on December 14th, early voting will begin. While it is advised to obtain one as soon as possible, Georgia voters will have until January 1st to request a mail-in ballot, and in-person votes will be cast on January 5th. Much like the November election, extended wait times could apply. Over 940,000 mail-in ballots have already been requested for the runoff election as of November 30th. Polling conducted by PoliticalIQ as of December 4th shows both contests are neck-and-neck, with results placing Ossoff ahead by one point and Warnock ahead by two. Both candidates’ leads are well within the +/- 2.6% margin of error for the poll.