Georgia is the “center of the political universe right now,” Way to Win president and cofounder Tory Gavito tells us in a conversation about the state’s political past, present, and future. Two pivotal runoff elections — probably the most highly publicized and well-funded runoffs in modern history — will be held next week on January 5, with Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff facing off against Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively. The reason there is so much attention on them is because these elections will decide the balance of the U.S. Senate — and greatly influence the future of the country. If both Warnock and Ossoff win, Democrats would have an even split with Republicans in the Senate; since Vice President Kamala Harris would be the deciding vote in any Senate tie-breakers, this would effectively give Democrats a majority, making it easier for President Joe Biden to push through his agenda without obstruction.
The fact that this long-standing red state has become such a battleground has surprised many people, but blue energy has been percolating through Georgia long before these runoffs, and even before the 2020 election. Democrats had a couple of almost-wins thwarted in recent years: In 2017, they pinned their hopes on Ossoff to win a House seat in a suburban district of Atlanta, in a much-hyped election that ended up being the most expensive in history, but he lost the runoff to Karen Handel. Then, in 2018, Stacey Abrams came close to becoming governor, and many say she would have won if now-Gov. Brian Kemp — who, conveniently, was also overseeing the state’s elections at the time — hadn’t purged hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls right before the election. These close races led up to 2020, when, for the first time since 1992, Georgia swung blue in the presidential election. Even after President Donald Trump demanded both hand and machine recounts, Georgia’s record 4.9 million votes helped Biden secure the presidency. Turnout has already been promisingly high in the runoffs as well: So far, over 2.1 million people have voted through early voting, which started on December 14 and will continue until December 31. And some 168,293 Georgians cast votes on December 14, the first day of in-person early voting, more than on the first day of early voting in the presidential election.
The early-voting numbers are extremely encouraging, although it’s too early to tell exactly what they’ll mean for Democrats without knowing what turnout on January 5 will look like. But while there is a great deal of grassroots energy for Democrats, particularly among communities of color and immigrants, they are up against a formidable voting bloc: 70% of white Georgians voted to elect Trump. And, there have already been accounts of voter disenfranchisement targeting people of color, namely: counties with high Black and Latinx populations are closing polling sites, Georgia voting rights groups are suing several counties for preventing early voting, and voters are being purged from the rolls.
Additionally — and in keeping with Trump’s ongoing, baseless claims of voter fraud — state officials and voting rights experts say that Republicans are likely to challenge the results of the runoffs, especially given that the margins are expected to be razor-thin. Republicans, including the campaigns of Perdue and Loeffler, have already filed three separate lawsuits looking to restrict absentee voting ahead of the election, targeting drop boxes and seeking to strengthen signature requirements.
Despite the Republicans’ spreading of disinformation, there are many strengths on the Democrats’ side, such as Georgia’s rapidly evolving demographics; a large uptick in recent years in Black, Latinx, and Asian-American voter registration; a huge growth in young and new voters; and hundreds of grassroots organizations — like Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight — that have been working tirelessly for years, laying the groundwork for what Gavito calls a “New South.”
“I think it’s going to be a tight race, but there are dynamics on our side,” Gavito said. “We just won. Also, the right is in disarray. There’s a pretty public war internally in the GOP. You’ve got Republican leaders saying that the vote is rigged and telling Republicans not to vote, which I’m sure is blowing Karl Rove’s mind. I think it’s important to note that Georgia being so important is not a fluke; this is going to be a trend that lasts for future cycles, too. In 2022 we’re going to have a governor’s race, and Brian Kemp is not worthy of that governor’s mansion. In 2024 we’re going to have another presidential cycle, and Georgia will be a priority state. Georgia’s the future.”
Ahead, we spoke with several organizers who told us what lessons they’ve learned from these unusually closely watched runoff races — and how they’re preparing for a more progressive future for Georgia.