Democrats pin Senate hopes on breaking Georgia runoff jinx

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CUMMING, Ga. — Joe Biden turned Georgia blue. Compared to what they’re up against now, that was the easy part for Democrats.

To repeat Biden’s feat in a pair of Senate runoffs on Jan. 5, with control of the Senate on the line, the Democratic Party will have to defy a long track record of failure in overtime elections. They’ll need to overcome the entire weight of the Republican Party descending on the state — from organizers and operatives to potentially hundreds of millions of dollars. One of their Senate candidates, Jon Ossoff, would have to make up the nearly 90,000 votes he ran behind the GOP incumbent on Nov. 3.

And Democrats will have to manage all of that without Donald Trump on the ballot to motivate their voters — while Republicans energize their base with warnings that electing Ossoff and Democrat Raphael Warnock would allow liberalism — or even socialism — to run amok in Washington.

“We are the firewall, not just for the U.S. Senate, but the future of our country,” Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who is facing Warnock in the special election, told a crowd of about 100 people packed into a restaurant last week to hear from her and Republican Sen. David Perdue.

The last time a Georgia Senate race went to a runoff, in 2008, Republican Saxby Chambliss crushed Democrat Jim Martin by 15 percentage points — just a month after he only edged Martin by 3 points in the Obama-fueled November election.

Both parties are mobilizing for a two-month sprint that will focus the entire political world on Georgia and easily cost more than $100 million. But the odds are stacked against Democrats: The runoff system itself is a relic of the Jim Crow era, when the white majority wanted to prevent candidates from winning with a plurality of the vote.

Ossoff, Warnock and their allies are well aware of their party’s history of losses. They think they can defy it by out-organizing Republicans and reminding their voters that they have the chance to deliver a Democratic Senate.

"This is a very different state than 2008," Warnock said during a press conference last week.

"The issue is not with the voters as much as it is with those who are trying to discourage and demoralize certain parts of our electorate," he added.

Democrats have identified thousands of potential new voters they’re working to register, and tens of thousands of volunteers are already mobilizing voters who showed up on Election Day to turn out again.

“There’s a huge surge of momentum and enthusiasm, a feeling of invigoration here,” Ossoff said in an interview last week, standing in the dark outside the local Civic Center in Columbus following a massive drive-in rally, the third of eight events he held across the state in the past week to re-rev up voters still jubilant from Biden’s win.

“It’s going to be about who works harder, who inspires more people to come back out, who does the voter registration work and who has the energy,” Ossoff said.

Throughout his first week of events, the speakers who introduced Ossoff continually hit on one theme: Biden’s win proved Georgia can go blue after a three-decade losing streak, but it’ll take serious work for that to translate into success in January. Daniel Blackman, who is in a runoff for public service commissioner, told the hundreds gathered in a parking lot in Columbus, just across the Chattahoochee River from Alabama, the work “can’t stop, it can’t slow down” and there would be time to sleep on Jan. 6.

Tonza Thomas, the first vice chair of the Muscogee County Democrats, said after the event repeating Biden’s success required putting money into the communities and groups who were already familiar with how to turn out the state’s voters.

“It’s nothing but a repeat of what we’ve just done,” she said. “If we want it bad enough, we will get back out and do it.”

Volunteers for Ossoff’s campaign have already made more than 220,000 phone calls in the days since the runoff was declared, and 21,500 volunteers already signed up for shifts. Warnock’s campaign had 10,000 people sign up to volunteer since the day after the election, doubling their volunteer database.

Democrats say they are laser-focused on registering voters and pushing them to vote early or absentee. Nse Ufot, who leads the New Georgia Project, a group focused on voter registration, told POLITICO earlier this month they identified upwards of 100,000 potential voters to register ahead of the Dec. 7 runoff deadline. Ossoff’s campaign estimated more than 20,000 potential new voters became eligible after Nov. 3.

They’re relying on a cadre of groups, from those like The New Georgia Project and Fair Fight, founded by 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, to help on the ground, along with the state Democratic Party and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has announced a multi-million dollar field program focused on mobilizing voters.

Abrams has raised at least $9.8 million in a fund split between Fair Fight and the Ossoff and Warnock campaigns.

Organizers all the way down to the local level are preparing for the sprint. James Williams, the president of Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council, spoke at Warnock’s first press conference of the runoff, held in the parking lot of an IBEW headquarters in Atlanta last week. Williams told POLITICO his organization would hit the ground Monday with literature, phone calls and text messages, sending out mailers and registering union members.

“We’re going to basically pull everything we can out of the woodworks for this,” Williams said. He and others have emphasized early and absentee voting, which Democrats used heavily this month and will be even more important in the runoffs, which take place right after the New Year’s holiday. Abrams tweeted Sunday that 600,000 Georgians had requested absentee ballots already.

“You could be sitting there at the Christmas dinner table, filling our your ballot and getting it ready to go,” Williams said.

Republicans are also mobilizing on the ground. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has a dozen staff members in the state partnering with the campaigns and is planning a field program including 21 regional directors and 1,000 field staff organized throughout the state. They’ve already raised a combined more than $32 million through the committee, the two campaigns and a joint fundraising committee, primarily through digital fundraising.

Other GOP groups are in: The Club for Growth announced a $10 million investment in the two races, partnering with a handful of Republican senators and other conservative organizations. The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, which ran digital advertising and door knocking campaigns for Republican senators this cycle, already has dozens of staff on the ground in Georgia.

“What we have to do now, though, is not persuade people,” Perdue said at the event with Loeffler. “What we have to do is get the vote out.”

But Democrats are equally optimistic that the voters are out there for another win — though recent history is against them. The 2008 runoff blowout was an example of the worst-case turnout scenario for the party. But in 2018, Democrats Lindy Miller and John Barrow, the former congressman, lost runoffs for public service commissioner and agriculture commissioner by larger margins than in the general election the month before. Those runoffs came after Abrams lost the governor’s race, and without any high-profile Democrat or national implications driving voters.

Miller credited the long-term organization in the state with limiting drop-off in her race, which had much higher turnout than expected, and she anticipates even more voters to participate this time. She said the key now, alongside the surge of money coming to the state, is to ensure they can scale their operations proportional to the national attention.

“That is a very high level of sophisticated activism we’re seeing now, where people are ready and willing, and they want to go out there,” Miller said. “That is the tip of the iceberg and a signal for why we should be so optimistic.”

Republicans acknowledge they’re in a fight. But the combination of their success in past runoffs, their performance on Nov. 3 despite Trump’s defeat and the threat of complete Democratic control of Washington are all reasons they expect their voters to be there in January.

“Runoffs are all about turnout. It’s not about changing people’s minds in most cases,” said Scott Johnson, a state Board of Education member and former GOP chair of Cobb County. He spoke to POLITICO in the parking lot of the county GOP headquarters after Loeffler’s kickoff event with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), which packed more than 100 supporters into the offices.

“We’re going to work hard. We’re going to turn out,” Johnson added. “I’m not believing for one minute the other side isn’t going to work hard and turn out, too. Because they will. Because the stakes are high here.”

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