Georgia turnout efforts ramp up with November lessons in mind

Early voting in Georgia’s Senate runoffs starts Monday

Members of the Georgia Tech women's basketball team hold voting signs outside of a polling place on Election Day in Nov. 3. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Members of the Georgia Tech women's basketball team hold voting signs outside of a polling place on Election Day in Nov. 3. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 14, 2020 at 6:00am

Both parties are ramping up their turnout efforts for the pair of Georgia Senate runoffs on Jan. 5 as early voting starts Monday. And they’re also keeping some lessons from November in mind.  

For Democrats, that means expanding in-person campaigning, which was largely put on hold before the November elections because of the pandemic. Republicans are working to make sure their voters, who believe President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that the Georgia election was stolen, still cast their ballots. 

It’s not just the campaigns and state parties working to mobilize voters. The national parties and a constellation of outside groups are barnstorming the state, with Senate control on the line. If Jon Ossoff, a former congressional staffer and documentary filmmaker, defeats GOP Sen. David Perdue and Raphael Warnock, a pastor, defeats appointed GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler, Democrats will control both chambers of Congress and the White House. 

“It’s really not an exaggeration to say we are in an unprecedented situation,” said Tim Phillips, senior adviser for Americans for Prosperity Action, a conservative group that’s spending $12 million on turnout efforts in Georgia, with more than 200 staffers on the ground and plans to knock on 1 million doors.

These mobilization efforts are critical because turnout historically drops in special elections and runoffs. The last time the Peach State hosted a Senate runoff, in 2008, turnout dropped 43 percent, from nearly 3.8 million voters in November to just over 2.1 million in a December runoff. 

Turnout in the upcoming elections is expected to be higher than past runoffs, given the attention and money flooding the state’s airwaves. More than $400 million has been spent on ads so far. 

“There is so much attention on this race, there’s got to be very few people who don’t know that the runoffs are happening,” said Shaniqua McClendon, political director of Crooked Media, a company that was founded by former staffers for President Barack Obama and has recruited 7,000 volunteers to help with the Georgia runoffs. 

“Getting them to turn out is a different story,” McClendon added. 

Door-knocking Democrats return

President-elect Joe Biden narrowly carried Georgia, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in 28 years, but his vote tally was markedly higher than for either of the two Democratic Senate hopefuls. Warnock finished first in a crowded field that included Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins, while Ossoff actually finished behind Perdue, with a Libertarian Party candidate likely keeping Perdue from getting over the 50 percent level needed to avoid a runoff.

So after relying heavily on virtual campaigning ahead of the November vote, Democrats are expanding their field operation for the runoffs and are contacting voters in person at their doorstops. McClendon conceded that in-person campaigning may move only a small group of voters. 

But, she added, “a small group of voters is what wins elections.” 

Jonae Wartel, who is directing the coordinated campaign with Ossoff, Warnock, the state party and the national party, through the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, wrote in a memo last week that they had hired “the largest organizing staff in Georgia Democrats’ history.” A source with the coordinated campaign said they will have more than 200 staffers on the ground, exceeding Stacey Abrams’ expansive field operation for her unsuccessful 2018 gubernatorial race. 

Even though the coordinated campaign between Biden and the state party stayed virtual before November, grassroots groups in Georgia did continue in-person canvassing ahead of November, to which the state’s record turnout has been attributed.  

Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, a voter engagement group that Abrams founded, said its volunteers knocked on 400,000 doors for the general election and they plan to knock on 1 million doors for the runoffs. An average of 1,000 volunteers work with the group each day, and that number triples during the weekend.

“We would not be out here if it didn’t matter this much,” Ufot said. She said their field program has not been hampered by Georgia Secretary of State Brian Raffensperger’s announcement that he would investigate the group’s voter registration efforts, which Ufot dismissed as “nonsense.” 

Democrats believe their efforts are working. More than 1.1 million voters have requested absentee ballots so far, according to Raffensperger’s office, closing in on the 1.3 million who requested absentee ballots for November. 

Fair Fight Action, another group founded by Abrams, said last week that 70,000 of those requests were from people who did not vote in November. That group was predominantly young voters and people of color, who tend to support Democrats.  

Democrats are working to turn out the diverse coalition that backed Biden, as well as voters who did not show up in November. Although neither GOP senator won more than 50 percent of the vote, forcing the runoffs, the combined GOP votes for Senate outnumbered Democrats.

Republicans band together

Republicans are also focused on turnout. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has brought 21 regional field directors and 1,000 field staff to the state. And outside groups that cannot coordinate directly with campaigns are working on their own turnout efforts together. 

“It’s definitely a new level of coordination,” said Mallory Quigley, a national spokesperson for Women Speak Out, a political action committee associated with anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony List. The group  is part of the “Save America” coalition with nearly a dozen conservative groups that are engaged in Georgia. 

The coalition is led by Club for Growth Action, which has pledged to spend $10 million in Georgia, including on get-out-the-vote efforts. The group plans to knock on 1 million doors, make 1 million calls and texts and send 5 million mail pieces.

“We went into it thinking this is going to be a turnout race,” said David McIntosh, Club for Growth’s president. 

McIntosh said the group conducted a poll shortly after the November elections and found that Republicans were less enthusiastic about voting in the runoffs. Their canvassers found voters who questioned whether their votes would make a difference since they believed the November election was stolen. Phillips and Jessica Anderson, president of the conservative group Heritage Action, said their groups heard similar concerns from GOP voters. 

But these Republicans believe their voters will still show up and that Trump’s Dec. 5  trip to the state where he encouraged his supporters to vote was helpful — even as he continued to call the election system rigged and deride the state’s Republican governor and secretary of state.

“This is something that’s very important, and you have to get out, and you have to vote,” Trump told a rally with Perdue and Loeffler in Valdosta. “You got to make sure they don’t throw away any ballots. You got to make sure that when they collect the ballots.”

Despite the president casting doubt on the security of voting by mail and casting absentee ballots, Republican-aligned groups are continuing to educate GOP voters about that option. Republicans still expect most of their voters to cast ballots in person. 

For Republicans, the early in-person voting that starts Monday will be the beginning of a two-week “sweet spot,” said Anderson, whose group has roughly 1,000 volunteers and more than 300 paid canvassers on the ground. Turnout efforts are expected to quiet down for the Christmas holiday, which adds another challenge for those trying to remind Georgians to vote.

“We have three C’s working against us,” said Anderson, noting those stood for “COVID, Christmas and college football.” In other words, there are plenty of other things grabbing voters’ attention, which makes GOTV efforts all the more important. 

“We’re not going to leave anything on the table,” Anderson said. 

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