Zombie voters, shredded ballots, evil election machines … oh my. Donald Trump’s wild call pressuring officials to “find” votes made Georgia seem like the most fascinating thing since sliced pie. As if the most expensive Senate races in history, which will decide which party controls the chamber, needed extra whipped cream. With the last Election Day of the 2020 cycle finally here, we’re going deeper to give you the surprises of this race — from the clandestine campaign for GOP moderates to exclusive forecasts to the key turnout numbers for both parties. As a Georgia native, I’m excited to give y’all a tour.
Nick Fouriezos, Senior Reporter
1. Old-School Outreach
Hey there, you upper-income, suburban Atlanta business conservatives — yes, you in the back there. Georgia Republicans realize you have long been the staunch base of the party surrounding the city too busy to hate, and they are reaching out to you … just not out loud. With Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler stoking the Trump base — and the president himself dividing the party by attacking Gov. Brian Kemp at his Monday-night rally in northwest Georgia — the job of appealing to the old-school GOP falls to a number of grassroots groups. They are quietly taking their messages straight to people’s doors while admitting some forbidden truths, such as that Trump lost the election.
It took me a few blinks to make sure I’d read it right: “Your next stimmy is on the line,” the text from “Amy w the ga dems” said. It’s been a true joy this election season having a Georgia cellphone number that was briefly registered to my Gen Z sister a decade ago. Still, it was a reminder of the way Democrats Jon Ossof and Raphael Warnock have leaned into the $2,000 stimulus check conversation in the homestretch. The proposal is wildly popular — although, as FiveThirtyEight notes, it is unclear whether that sole issue matters enough to make people change their pick or get off the couch to vote if they weren’t already planning to.
3. Swaying African Voters
Bethlehem Fleming was already incensed by Trump’s “shithole country” controversy, and then the president suggested that Egypt should bomb her native Ethiopia over a water dispute. Now the naturalized American citizen is channeling that outrage to rally the 40,000 or so African immigrants across Georgia to back Democrats. The population is small, but it could make a difference considering the presidential election was decided by just 11,779 votes in November. Still, the new American population is nuanced and won’t automatically pull the lever for liberals unless their needs are met.
When I sat down in an Atlanta café with Stacey Abrams for her first national profile in 2016, her demographic pie charts predicted that 2020 would be the year of the Democratic takeover. But that vision has always depended not just on Black voters but also an increase in Asian and Hispanic voters at the polls. The latter group seemed to waver for Democrats in Georgia. Which means that the election could come down to winning over Asian Americans in the Atlanta suburbs, particularly in Gwinnett County, where millennials like Sam Park led a blue wave in November. Asian American turnout in the state almost doubled since 2016, and they were a key part of the coalition that helped Biden win Georgia in November. Can they win it for Democrats again?
Our friends at data firm 0ptimus exclusively shared their analysis of the Senate runoffs for us, and on the eve of the contest they gave Democrats a 41 percent chance of sweeping both seats and taking control of the Senate. While Biden did secure a narrow win in November, Perdue outperformed Ossoff in their race (falling just short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff), and Republicans collectively secured more votes than Democrats in the Loeffler/Warnock jungle primary — a signal that Georgia’s Republican lean is likely to hold.
2. Wither the Polls?
Polls have been tight, on average giving Ossoff and Warnock slight leads. But major pollsters have been reluctant to survey Georgia — considering that runoff turnout is incredibly hard to model and that many of them have egg on their faces from GOP overperformance in November. Considering how Senate Republicans ran ahead of public polls, 0ptimus adjusted how much it weights polling for its Georgia runoff model. That means a sunnier outlook for the GOP.
3. The Win Number
What’s a piece of data better than polls? Votes. And they’re giving Democrats reasons for hope. With record-smashing early in-person and mail votes, Black voters are a bigger proportion of the early electorate for the runoffs than they were in the general election — which has the GOP worried. But Republicans can come back: One GOP strategist tells us the party will feel good if Election Day votes make up 25 percent of the total electorate. “Less than 20 percent, we’re toast,” the strategist says.
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The majority-Black South Atlanta county is home to the busiest airport in the world and also the votes that put Biden over the top in November. Ossoff cleared nearly 80,000 votes against Perdue in Clayton County. Given that overall turnout will likely drop around 20 percent from November to January, Democrats will be looking to emerge with a margin of around 65,000 votes. But Clayton and neighboring Democrat-heavy metro Atlanta counties will take a while to fully count, meaning Republicans will be ahead in the early going. Friendly reminder for those wishing for a quick resolution: Biden didn’t take the lead in Georgia for three days after Election Day.
Welcome to the exurbs, even if towns like Woodstock and Canton have become more hip in recent years, attracting a younger crowd buying their first homes while trying to avoid Atlanta prices. Perdue won with a 60,000-vote margin here in November, but Cherokee is one of the worst-performing counties in the early vote so far. That’s troubling for Republicans, who are relying on banking voters here and in other conservative areas. What’s more, vote-by-mail turnout, favored by Dems, is at 82 percent of November’s total, while the more GOP-friendly in-person early vote settled at around 59 percent.
Its county seat is Dalton, the former carpet and flooring capital of the world and the site of Trump’s rally on Monday — the kind of postindustrial, NAFTA-hating town where Trump has thrived. But only about 30 percent of Whitfield County voters showed up in early voting, compared to the state average of nearly 40 percent. Trump’s most hardcore supporters may be sitting this race out … or maybe they are home sick. One in 10 residents here has tested positive for COVID-19, and the nine-county region has only four ICU beds available. Those nine counties combined to give Perdue a 110,000-vote margin in November — and they will likely report early on Tuesday to give you a barometer of where this race is going.
get to know the candidates
1. Warnock: The Puppy Defense
The attack ads on Raphael Warnock, 51, have been incessant, accusing him of everything from spousal abuse to obstructing child-abuse investigations to being anti-white, anti-cop and anti-military. Warnock, the pastor of Atlanta’s famous Ebenezer Baptist Church, has adopted the puppy defense, through disarming ads that emphasize a regular-Joe persona while the father of two takes his beagle for a walk. It’s a cute misdirection but also evidence, analysts say, of the pitfalls of running as a Black man against a white woman in the South — and the need to not come off as angry.
2. Loeffler: A Shrouded Thing
When Martha Zoller, a conservative radio host, met with Kelly Loeffler in 2013, she gave her the skinny about being a GOP woman: Block out time to get your hair done, get somebody else to hold your purse and understand that sexism in the Republican Party “can be a shrouded thing.” The 50-year-old Fortune 500 executive and co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream has come a long way since and is now the richest member of the Senate (ballpark net worth: $800 million). But as her hopes of focusing the campaign on her upbringing on an Illinois farm and her rise in the business world have been subsumed with debates about whether she’ll support Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, one wonders how sexism might play a role in an unlikely but real scenario: a split decision in Georgia where Perdue wins and Loeffler loses.
Jon Ossoff, 33, worked as a staffer on Capitol Hill and raised a record $23 million in his race for Congress in 2017. But his media career, as CEO of Insight TWI, gets less attention. Ossoff’s documentaries shed light on conflict zones, such as a female-led Yazidi battalion fighting ISIS in Afghanistan, a look at Ebola victims in Liberia and an investigation into corruption in professional soccer in Africa. That career has also drawn scrutiny, particularly for the way Ossoff was able to leverage his family wealth to build a media empire while still in his 20s. And some Republicans have tried to tie him to liberal Hollywood, although those attacks may be blunted by the Peach State’s courtship of the film industry in the last decade.
4. Perdue: Crybabies
David Perdue’s big break into Georgia politics began with a series of viral 2014 ads in which he depicted his GOP primary opponents as coddled babies crying on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. The 71-year-old former Dollar General CEO rocketed his way up the polls, pairing his C-suite background with a folksy jean jacket and an anti-establishment message — one so successful that Trump invited him to Trump Tower to pick his brain before launching his own outsider businessman campaign for the White House.