3 takeaways from the Georgia runoffs

Democrats won both Georgia runoffs, and control of the Senate with them

Raphael Warnock campaigns with fellow Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams in Atlanta on Nov. 3. Warnock and Democrat Jon Ossoff won a pair of Senate runoffs Tuesday, allowing their party to retake the chamber.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Raphael Warnock campaigns with fellow Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams in Atlanta on Nov. 3. Warnock and Democrat Jon Ossoff won a pair of Senate runoffs Tuesday, allowing their party to retake the chamber. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 7, 2021 at 5:30am

The extraordinary voter turnout, fundraising numbers and attention from across the country that contributed to the Democratic sweep in the Georgia Senate runoffs Tuesday will likely be hard to replicate in future cycles. 

But strategists on both sides are already analyzing the four candidates’ campaigns for themes that could inform future elections. 

Some of the forces that resulted in Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock’s narrow defeats of Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler were beyond any of the candidates’ control — two Senate seats open during the same cycle and a Republican president who undermined the incumbents’ efforts to turn out base voters with his attacks on state GOP election officials and his insistence that the election was stolen. 

Here are three takeaways that will likely inform 2022 races — starting in Georgia, where Warnock will have to defend his seat for a full term in just two years. 

Voter mobilization is local

More than 4.4 million people voted in Tuesday’s election, a staggering number for a runoff that eclipsed turnout in most presidential elections in Georgia. For example, 4.1 million state voters cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election, which was a record at the time. 

Those numbers were partly a reflection of the national attention and huge sums of money that went into both races. As of Tuesday, total spending from the candidates and outside groups on both sides had exceeded $830 million

Both sides used the windfall to launch impressive voter mobilization efforts. But the Democrats’ edge began to show early, with strong participation from Black voters, young people and voters in left-leaning counties who were among the more than 3.1 million early in-person and mailed-in votes.  

“We got destroyed in early voting,” said Chip Lake, a Republican strategist who works on Georgia elections. “That is not sustainable to us.” 

Loading the player...

Lake said the problem for the GOP is more of a “consumer issue,” with Republican voters more likely to trust ballots they cast in person than those they put in the mail. That wasn’t much of a problem before the pandemic, when voting in person was the norm, and it was exacerbated by Trump’s baseless claims of mail voter fraud. 

“If this really is a new way of voting, Republicans have to do a much better job of getting our base to vote early,” Lake said. 

Even so, the Democrats’ victories were narrow, though better than President-elect Joe Biden’s win by less than 12,000 votes in November. Warnock was ahead Wednesday evening by about 1.6 points, or about 70,000 votes, while Ossoff led by 0.7 points, or around 33,000 votes.

Democrats were quick to credit their 2018 Georgia gubernatorial nominee, Stacey Abrams, with spearheading a voter mobilization campaign that helped to register 800,000 new voters and helped deliver the state to Biden.

Ossoff also started early, building on a network of volunteers he developed in his unsuccessful 2017 attempt to flip an Atlanta-area House seat. His campaign hired 2,000 organizers who lived in the state to knock on doors in their own communities during the last two weeks of the runoff, an effort a campaign spokesman who spoke on background said helped pull turnout over the top. 

Democrats ramped up their field programs for the runoff, after the state’s coordinated campaign had paused in-person canvassing before November due to the pandemic. 

“There’s no substitution for high quality face-to-face conversations. Period,” said Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, a voter engagement group that Abrams founded. Ufot’s group knocked on nearly 2.1 million doors in the 2020 cycle, with 1.7 million coming after Nov. 3. 

Ufot said it’s important for Democrats to focus their field efforts on the party’s base, namely people of color and young voters, whom her group targeted.  

Clear message

With the pandemic still raging across the country and in Georgia, Ossoff and Warnock made economic recovery and help for struggling families and communities a central theme of their closing message, arguing that their election and a Senate controlled by Democrats would result in direct pandemic relief payments of $2,000.

Ufot said her group found that voters were tuned in and motivated by the debate over the payments. 

“It absolutely had an impact, and we saw it move people to action,” she said.  

Perdue and Loeffler ultimately supported the payments, but that came after weeks of relentless Democratic attacks accusing them of looking out for themselves instead of Georgians and highlighting the wealthy senators’ stock trades. 

Republicans, meanwhile, tried to stress to voters the importance of holding the Senate as a check on the Democratic House and a Biden White House. 

But Trump complicated that message with his attacks on the state’s GOP election officials who had certified Biden’s victory there. Perdue and Loeffler, who both have ranked among the wealthiest members of Congress and have deep connections to the state’s political and business elite, also had trouble replicating Trump’s success in portraying himself as a political outsider and crusader against corruption. 

Lake, the GOP strategist, said the two senators had no choice but to align themselves with Trump early on because of his sway over the party’s base. But they were overwhelmed by forces beyond their control. 

“It was just the perfect storm that Georgia, out of all 50 states, was the one state that had the closest margin in the presidential race, and that ended up working against Kelly and David,” Lake said. “There was a runoff campaign and there was also a campaign going on to discredit the election results from Nov. 3. And it’s just very difficult to do both of those at once.”

One GOP strategist involved in Senate races did not believe Trump substantially depressed GOP turnout with his baseless election fraud claims. 

Tuesday’s election day turnout, which was supposed to have favored Republicans, exceeded expectations. But the strategist said the president remaining in the headlines contributed to “sky high” Democratic turnout, handing Ossoff and Warnock their victories. 

“Our sense is that the president bears much of the blame here,” the strategist said. “Clearly, he is the Democrats’ most effective base animator. … It was pretty clear in hindsight that their base was very fired up.” 

Candidate money matters

The pair of Georgia runoffs were the most expensive Senate races in U.S. history, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The two Democrats also shattered fundraising records, bolstered by small individual donors. The massive war chests helped them compete against an onslaught of spending from outside GOP groups. 

A similar dynamic played out in other competitive Senate races across the country in 2020, with Democrats raising eye-popping figures and GOP outside groups spending millions to bolster Republicans. 

But one Democratic strategist noted the candidates’ financial advantage was particularly helpful in Georgia with outside groups focusing squarely on the state, since candidates can buy television ads at much lower rates than outside groups. The surge in fundraising also helped the candidates invest in field programs. 

“A lot of people wrote this post-mortem [that] small-dollar money didn’t really matter and folks didn’t spend it wisely,” the strategist said. “The small-dollar, candidate fundraising advantage really drove this race.”

Rachel Irwin, a spokeswoman for the Democratic super PAC Senate Majority PAC, noted that GOP outside groups outspent Democratic ones on the airwaves. SMP spent $100 million on the Georgia Senate races, including investments in field operations.

“Republicans had all the money in the world,” Irwin said. “But I think Democrats had better candidates, a better message, a better field and mobilization program, and an urgency to communicate statewide to every single voter: voters of color, younger voters. And it paid off.”