The entire political world is watching Georgia’s two runoff elections this January. Beyond the obvious stakes, these elections showcase how Republicans plan to respond to their losses in 2020, especially in states where they have consistently struggled during the Trump era.
So far, the plan is simple. Republicans have described Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock as liberals that are out of touch with Georgia. In contrast, they declare that the candidates in touch with the state are their opponents, far-right incumbent Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. This argument has been the crux of their campaign since the start of the runoff elections, with attacks focused on Warnock.
In a race this important, negative campaigns are not surprising. What is surprising is how these Republican attacks assume that Georgia is still strongly conservative. Since 2016, Georgia has hosted some of the closest and most hotly contested elections in the country, even voting Democratic in the presidential election for the first time in 28 years. Yet Republican candidates campaign as if simply pointing out that their opponent is a Democrat is enough to win.
This attitude has become so ingrained among Republicans that Perdue even refused to debate Ossoff, as if it would be beneath him to recognize a liberal challenger. To Perdue and his party, Georgia is still fundamentally center-right, if not conservative.
This idea of a right-wing Georgia is divorced from reality, coming from an outdated view of the Atlanta suburbs. Democrats saw some of their largest gains in the country in these suburbs, which combined with similar communities around the country to win them the White House. In response, Republicans say Democratic success in these areas was solely the result of Trump, rather than a judgement on policy: just the President’s brash personality driving some squeamish RINOs away.
To Republicans, these defectors still hold conservative views. Some have even categorized them as “Romney-Biden voters” to emphasize their supposedly innate conservatism. When faced with liberal candidates, it is said they will return in droves to the Republican party now that Trump is off the ballot. This has become a major part of Perdue’s strategy, as detailed in a call with donors.
While this may sound like a heartening story to Republican staffers in D.C., it is at odds with the experience of organizers in Georgia. One of these organizers is Lesley Bauer, University of Georgia alumnus and co-founder of No Safe Seats, a women’s progressive group in the metro Atlanta area.
“That is definitely not the reality we’ve seen on the ground,” Bauer said. “What we’ve learned organizing here is that Republicans held these seats not because people were or are Republican, but because we were all asleep at the wheel.”
Regarding a Republican homecoming, Bauer is very skeptical.
“The vast majority of women in communities I help organize are lifelong political progressives.” Bauer said. “We’ve never spent any time convincing Republicans to vote for Democrats, and I don’t know anyone who would vote for Republicans ever in the future.”
The numbers support Bauer. If there were any county where “Romney-Biden voters” should exist, it would be Cobb County. North of Atlanta, Cobb backed both Mitt Romney and Joe Biden by similar margins in each candidate’s respective races. If voters were just reacting to Trump, you would expect this to be voters simply moving from side to side. That’s not what happened. Instead, the numbers show that the Republican vote total actually remained about the same from 2012 to 2020. What changed was a gigantic increase in Democratic voters.
Similar surges occurred throughout the metro Atlanta area, transforming the suburbs into Democratic strongholds. As Bauer says, none of these new voters should be expected to become Republicans. This means that Georgia is a true swing state, where even liberals can win.
Considering this, Georgians deserve a far higher standard of coverage. Lazy trafficking in old stereotypes is not just bad analysis, it has poisoned our politics. Because they are told by both conservative media and GOP messaging that they still live in a conservative state, Republicans feel empowered to nominate far-right candidates. In turn, this causes Democrats to look upon every election as a high stakes, existential battle, creating an environment of fear that insulates party leadership and squashes internal criticism.
Georgia actually has much to gain from its new reality as a competitive state. The need to win over a divided electorate provides a strong incentive for officials at every level to do a better job. Dearths of competition have led to bad governance across the ideological spectrum, from deep blue New York’s disastrous electoral system to ruby red South Dakota’s extremely poor pandemic response.
Regardless of who’s in office, all Georgians stand to benefit when politicians feel the pressure to perform. Once state Republicans finally work through this stage of denial in their grieving process, they will hopefully give up their outdated strategies so a new chapter in our politics can begin.