Georgia, a once-solidly Republican state, has not one but two competitive Senate races this year.
Driven by booming and quickly-diversifying suburbs outside Atlanta, and suburban women fleeing the Republican party under President Donald Trump, these trends could give Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock a shot at winning.
“The fact we’re even talking about a competitive race in Georgia tells you the impact of demographic change on American politics,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres recently told Vox.
Ayres, for one, thinks traditionally southern states like Georgia and Texas are still a few years away from being true swing states. But Democrats in the state aren’t so sure.
“Our time is now,” 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, the founder of voting rights group Fair Fight, told Vox in an email interview. “We’re in a strong position; our message to voters is that when we overwhelm the system with our voices, we will win.”
In one Senate race, Republican Sen. David Perdue faces Ossoff, who narrowly lost a 2017 Georgia Congressional race in a district Democrats flipped the next year. Then there’s a less conventional — and far more crowded — special election race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson. A whopping 20 candidates running in the special election, but the three at the top are Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler (appointed to replace Isakson in 2019), Democrat and senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor Warnock, and conservative Rep. Doug Collins, who is running to Loeffler’s right.
If no candidate clears a threshold of 50 percent, Georgia Senate races go to a federal runoff election, scheduled for January 5, 2021. The special election is widely expected to go to a runoff. Polls have shown Warnock in the lead, with Loeffler and Collins splitting the Republican vote, but no one close to 50 percent.
The regular election between Perdue and Ossoff is also incredibly tight; a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed Ossoff just one point ahead of the Republican incumbent — a statistical tie at 46 percent to 45 percent. The same poll found Trump and Democrat Joe Biden essentially tied as well. Another recent New York Times/Siena College poll found Ossoff and Perdue tied at 43 percent each.
The big question in Georgia politics these days is not just whether Democrats can pull off a win — it’s also whether there will be two runoffs this winter.
For the “special election, it’s a surety,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “For the other one, if indeed the polling is accurate, then I think it’s a high probability.”
The traditional Senate race, explained
This spring, Sen. Perdue gave a group of GOP activists an unvarnished warning about the coming election year.
“Here’s the reality: The state of Georgia is in play,” Perdue said on a call obtained by CNN. “The Democrats have made it that way.”
Perdue was initially considered one of the more insulated senators in a year where Republicans were defending a lot of territory. Perdue is conservative and business-friendly, and a staunch defender of the president in a historically Republican state. He’s a multi-millionaire former CEO of companies like Reebok and Dollar General, and lives in a gated community on Georgia’s ultra-wealthy Sea Island.
“He has been absent for six years, I mean completely absent,” said Georgia state Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat. “No town halls, no public events, nothing. It’s not like he’s at his local Kroger.”
Even more warning signs started to appear in the spring, as polls showed the race between Perdue and investigative journalist and 2017 congressional candidate Jon Ossoff tightening.
“From day one we’ve known that this will be one of the most competitive races in the country,” Perdue campaign spokesman John Burke told Vox in a statement, adding, “We are confident that Georgians will re-elect Sen. Perdue on November 3rd.”
Atlanta’s diversifying suburbs were already worrisome for Republicans. The party is also watching as existing trends are being hastened a combination of white suburban voters moving away from Trump, and increased turnout among Black voters.
“Counties and suburbs of Atlanta are moving at light speed away from Republicans,” said Cook Political Report Senate editor Jessica Taylor, who rates both Georgia races as tossups. “Trump has accelerated a more natural evolution, but that has made it hard.”
While Perdue has spent the race painting Ossoff as a “socialist” with a “radical agenda,” Ossoff has spent his campaign talking about anti-corruption reforms, racial justice, and lowering the cost of health care. Ossoff told Vox that if he’s elected, anti-corruption reforms — including a Constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, a corporate PAC ban, and a ban on stock trading by sitting senators — will be his first priority in the Senate.
The third item is a direct shot at Perdue and Loeffler, both of whom have taken heat for stock trades made after they received classified briefings on the Covid-19 pandemic while they were in office. Both have denied the allegations of wrongdoing, and say that the trades were made by outside advisers, without their knowledge.
“The necessity of anti-corruption reforms also cuts through the partisan divide because everyone recognizes the political system is corrupt,” Ossoff said in an interview. “Everyone recognizes that it’s a systemic issue more than it’s a partisan issue. The key is connecting it to people’s daily lives: The outrageous price of prescription drugs, the abuses that we face daily, from insurance companies, the way that polluters are empowered to destroy our clean air and clean water.”
Beyond policy, Ossoff also gets a boost in Democratic circles from his 2017 congressional campaign in Georgia’s 6th Congressional district — a traditionally Republican district that’s part of Atlanta’s suburbs. Even though Ossoff ultimately lost that race, multiple sources told Vox that Ossoff’s 2017 race energized a contingent of disillusioned white suburban women and Black voters, and helped beef up Democratic organizing in the area. Democrats flipped the district the following year, electing Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath.
“Democrats really were in the wilderness since at least 2002,” Jordan told Vox. “No power, Republicans weren’t even being challenged. Jon runs for this congressional [seat] and all of a sudden you see these women in the Atlanta suburbs coming out in droves to support him and work for him.”
Ossoff recognizes the changing demographics of the Atlanta suburbs are a growing source of energy for Democrats in state, combined with a “massive” investment in party infrastructure.
“I was out marching with NAACP in July, and it was people of all backgrounds, races ages, from all regions participating,” he told Vox. “This is driving the collapse of the GOP southern strategy, their approach to politics in the south since Nixon has been to divide voters along racial and cultural lines. And now we have this multiracial coalition ... that GOP strategy is breaking down.”
The special election, explained
Most Georgia politics observers expect we won’t know the winner of the special Senate election for a few more months.
The crowded field for the Georgia’s special election ultimately comes down to three people: Warnock, Loeffler, and Doug Collins, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee and a staunch Trump ally. The Democratic side has mostly cleared for Warnock, but polls show Republican voters are split between Loeffler and Collins. (Matt Lieberman, son of former vice presidential candidate and Sen. Joe Lieberman, is also running, but has seen his support disappear as the race heated up and Warnock was endorsed by party leaders including former President Barack Obama.)
The New York Times polling showed Warnock leading both Republicans at 32 percent, with Loeffler getting 23 percent of Republican support compared to 17 percent for Collins. A couple surveys have shown Warnock inching into 40 percent territory, but the conventional wisdom among many is that he won’t be able to clear 50 percent by November 3.
“He is opening a lead over either of the Republicans,” said Bullock, the University of Georgia professor. Loeffler and Collins, on the other hand, appear to be splitting the Republican vote pretty evenly. “If you add the vote for those two together, it comes close to equalling the vote for Perdue and the vote for Trump.”
For Warnock and whichever Republican emerges out of the special election, there’s an open question of whether voter enthusiasm will remain high in January. Turnout will likely be lower then, and if Joe Biden wins the White House, Democrats run the risk of Republican turnout being energized to put a check on a Democratic president.
Appointed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in 2019 as part of an effort to stop the exodus of white suburban women from the Republican party, Loeffler has taken a hard right turn towards Trump — even advertising in an ad that she’s “more conservative than Attila the Hun.” Loeffler was recently endorsed by controversial Congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, who espouses the baseless “Q Anon” conspiracy theory. If her original goal was to draw in disaffected suburban women, that might be more difficult. (Loeffler’s campaign didn’t respond to Vox’s request for comment).
“She didn’t really have a persona,” said Jordan, the Democratic state senator. “She was known as being really rich and one of the owners of the WNBA” team in Atlanta.
On the Democratic side, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee early on backed Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of the storied Ebenezer Baptist Church. Warnock’s church has a storied legacy; it’s where civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor in the 1960s.
“Georgia is the home state of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Warnock told Vox in an interview. “It has long been the tip of the spear for change in America. And I think that through this movement we’re building, it once again will be a central focus for that change.”
Even in 2020, the fight for racial justice and civil rights has been difficult. Georgia was the site of two shocking killings of black men this year alone: First, the shooting death of jogger Ahmaud Arbery in his neighborhood by two white men, and then the police shooting of Rayshard Brooks a few weeks after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis.
Warnock delivered the eulogy for Brooks this summer.
“It was one of the toughest things I’ve had to do in my ministry,” he told Vox. “The thing that that I remember the most was talking to his eight-year-old daughter. Earlier that day, she had been celebrating her eighth birthday party with her dad. And from now on her birthday will be associated with his last day. That is too much for any child to have to bear.”
Warnock said issues of racial justice are not just “theoretical” to him. One of his early ads was about his experience at age 12 being dragged out of a store and accused of shoplifting, simply for having his hands in his pockets.
“All these years later, while we have made considerable progress, we’re still fighting voter suppression and police brutality,” Warnock told Vox. “What I’m most inspired by is the appropriate restlessness of the yell. I think that they’re justified in their discontent.”
Georgia’s demographics are changing rapidly
The center of Georgia’s demographic change are Atlanta’s growing and diversifying suburbs. Business is booming in Atlanta, and so is population.
Between 2010 and 2019, the area’s population shot up from about 5.3 million people to over than 6 million, according to data from the US Census, reported by Curbed. That growth put the Atlanta metro area fourth in growth nationwide, behind Houston and Dallas, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona (Senate seats in Texas and Arizona are also considered Democratic targets this year).
“Every area in metro Atlanta is growing,” said state Rep. Angelika Kausche, a Democrat. “People come here for the education, for the schools, for the quality of life.” That has brought legions of diverse, younger voters to Atlanta’s metro area.
Amid the influx to the Atlanta suburbs, political observers in Georgia have been watching elections get closer and closer. In the 2018 governor’s race, Abrams lost to then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp by a little more than 50,000 votes — a scare for Georgia Republicans.
“Stacey Abrams lost by less than 55,000 votes out of 4 million in an election, which her opponent was also the umpire,” Warnock said. “With his thumb firmly on the scale, he barely squeaked by less than 55,000 votes.”
Abrams’s group Fair Fight and other voting rights groups like the New Georgia Project have been putting a ton of effort into registering and turning out Black voters in high rates this year. The state has already hit record registration levels, with about 7.6 million voters registered. And since early voting started, over 2.7 million voters have cast ballots.
“We’re going to have record turnout,” said Abrams. “We’ve already had half a million more Georgians cast their ballots than did for the entire early voting period of 2016. Georgia has by far the largest percentage of Black voters of any battleground state.”
Aaron Ross Coleman contributed reporting.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of University of Georgia professor Charles Bullock.