Politics

Democrats' historic Georgia Senate wins were years in the making thanks to local grassroots

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Key Points
  • Strong turnout from Black voters and other voters of color fueled Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff's historic wins in Georgia – the culmination of on-the-ground organizing and voter mobilization efforts years in the making.
  • Local Black organizers and organizers of color have been working for years to register and engage Georgians traditionally underrepresented in the political process, even when they struggled to secure investment from funders and campaigns.
  • These grassroots groups take an innovative approach to building political power, emphasizing relational and cultural organizing while investing in digital infrastructure and technology. 
Democratic candidates for Senate Jon Ossoff (L), Raphael Warnock (C) and US President-elect Joe Biden (R) bump elbows on stage during a rally outside Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 4, 2021.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden's victory in Georgia marked the first time a Democrat won the state's presidential race since 1992.

Just two months later, Georgia voters made history again in two competitive runoff elections by sending Democrats to the Senate for the first time in two decades. Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, will be the first Black senator from Georgia. Documentary filmmaker Jon Ossoff will be the first Jewish senator from the state and the youngest senator in the new Congress.

Strong turnout from Black voters and other voters of color fueled Warnock and Ossoff's historic wins in Georgia – the culmination of on-the-ground organizing and voter mobilization efforts years in the making.

More than 4.4 million ballots have already been counted in the runoffs, shattering turnout records for such elections in Georgia. When all votes are tallied, turnout could reach as high as roughly 92% of turnout from the general election, according to NBC projections.

"It's not so much a story about Republican turnout being weak as it is Democratic turnout, especially Black turnout, being much much stronger than anyone predicted," said Bernard Fraga, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta who has been analyzing runoff election data.

Black voters made up the majority of the Warnock and Ossoff's winning voter base, Fraga said. Roughly 30% of the registered voters in Georgia are Black and 92% of Black voters supported the Democratic Senate candidates, according to NBC exit polls.

Latino and Asian American voters also supported Ossoff and Warnock at rates of 63-64% and 60-61%, respectively. A historic surge in Latino and Asian American turnout pushed Biden over the margin of victory during the general election and moved the Georgia U.S. Senate races into runoffs when no candidates received more than 50% of the vote in November.

High Democratic turnout can be attributed in part to rigorous get-out-the-vote efforts by the Warnock and Ossoff campaigns, with a particular focus on Black, Latino and Asian American communities. The Democratic Party's coordinated campaign made over 25 million voter contact attempts throughout the runoffs through door-to-door canvassing, phone calls and text messages reaching over a million Georgia voters, according to spokesperson Maggie Chambers.

But even more grassroots organizing came from dozens of nonprofits and advocacy groups working in overdrive, particularly organizations centered on racial and ethnic communities. Their voter mobilization efforts propelled the historic and decisive turnout during the runoffs, but their work began years – and for some, more than a decade – prior.

Grassroots organizing

Local Black organizers and organizers of color have been working for years to register and engage Georgians traditionally underrepresented in the political process, even when they struggled to secure investment from funders and campaigns.

Most prominent of this cohort is Stacey Abrams, the former state lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate who founded voter registration group New Georgia Project and later voter rights organization Fair Fight. 

"[L]et's celebrate the extraordinary organizers, volunteers, canvassers & tireless groups that haven't stopped going since Nov.," Abrams said on Twitter on Jan. 5. "Across our state, we roared."

Many organizers credit her for putting the vision for a battleground Georgia in the national political spotlight and pulling in high-level funding to scale up voter mobilization efforts.

"She connected to a level of philanthropy that grassroots nonprofit leaders like myself could not reach. So much credit to her," said Helen Kim Ho, a longtime collaborator with Abrams and the former executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, a nonpartisan advocacy group Ho founded in 2010. 

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Ho said it was Abrams' gubernatorial campaign in 2018 that first centered the electoral power of Black, Latino and Asian American communities in Georgia and "opened the political spigots of money."

Bianca Keaton is the chair of the Democratic Party in Gwinnett County, a former conservative stronghold that's now an increasingly diverse majority-minority area where Warnock and Ossoff won by more than 20 points. She said she was laughed at by members of her committee when she set out to fundraise greater amounts of money for the county party two years ago.

"People didn't have faith in what we were doing," Keaton said. "But we kept plugging away until we got what we needed. And with all of us collectively walking in faith, we moved a mountain."

These grassroots groups take an innovative approach to building political power, emphasizing relational and cultural organizing while investing in digital infrastructure and technology. 

"We start early. We work to build relationships in the communities that we want to eventually turn out," said Nse Ufot, chief executive of New Georgia Project. "The work of community organizing, the work of issue organizing, the work of overcoming years of suppression is not something that's just going to happen after Labor Day."

New Georgia Project, which focuses on registering people of color and young people to vote, launched in 2014. From October 2016 to October 2020, the number of Black registered voters in Georgia increased by about 130,000, accounting for more than 25% of newly registered voters, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of state voter registration data. The number of Latino and Asian American registered voters increased by more than 50% each, making up a quickly growing share of Georgia's electorate.

Former US Representative and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams speaks at a Get Out the Vote rally with former US President Barack Obama as he campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden on November 2, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Elijah Nouvelage | AFP | Getty Images

Ufot said New Georgia Project knocked on more than 2 million doors between November and January, along with more than 6.7 million phone calls and more than 4 million text messages.

Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said his group incorporates "music and culture and dance and joy" into their campaigns. Black Voters Matter Fund toured across the state ahead of the runoffs in what the group calls the "Blackest bus in America," stopping in areas that are often overlooked by traditional political campaigns to rally voters.

Black Voters Matter Fund has local partners in 50 counties throughout Georgia, collaborating with community groups like churches, NAACP chapters, neighborhood associations and historically Black Greek letter organizations.

"Our message goes way beyond the election," Albright said. "We're doing this to build long term power."

María Teresa Kumar, CEO of voter registration group Voto Latino, said that after the 2016 election, her organization invested in data scientists and technology to target potential voters on social media and in the digital space, borrowing commercial marketing tactics to register people to vote. Voto Latino registered roughly 15% of all new registered voters in Georgia since November, according to Kumar.

"So many organizations on the ground are doing the work that already provided people with enfranchisement. That is the model," Kumar said.

Advocacy groups for communities of color have also worked for years to combat voter suppression and increase language accessibility. Groups like Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, Asian American Advocacy Fund, Latino Community Fund Georgia and Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials have focused on efforts including multilingual outreach and in-language voter protection hotlines.

Organizers shared a common message: For Democrats and other political campaigns hoping to replicate the Georgia playbook elsewhere in the South and across the U.S., invest in local organizing and leadership.

"For those that have the resources to give, find the people on the ground that truly are doing the work," said Ho. "Give the money there. That's the best way. That truly is."