Essential Politics: How Georgia upended expectations

Supporters wave flags as they wait for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at a drive-in rally in Savannah.
Supporters wave flags as they wait for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at a drive-in rally Sunday in Savannah, Ga., for Democratic U.S. Senate challengers the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.
(Stephen B. Morton / Associated Press)

Does it feel like 2020 never ended?

President Trump and his supporters are still circulating baseless conspiracy theories about President-elect Joe Biden’s win. A group of Republican officials is still trying to intervene as the results are recorded. And we’re still waiting for results in a key race with dozens of absentee ballots ahead, this time in Georgia.

The sense of déjà vu has been even stronger in that state, where voters relived the runup to the 2020 election, in which neither of the state’s Republican senators managed to clear the 50% threshold needed to win. For weeks since, Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler and their Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock campaigned ahead of twin runoffs. Warnock won his race against Loeffler, a victory that will make him the first Black senator from that state and that puts Democrats within reach of controlling the Senate.

But even if the circumstances are familiar, they’re not the same, and that’s part of what makes these runoffs significant. Since November, Georgia — once reliably red but now a battleground state — has been a thorn in the president’s side.


A Biden victory without clear Senate ones rattled Republicans. But much as in 2016, when the “blue wall” crumbled, to Democrats’ surprise, an unexpected outcome is a reminder that there are no guarantees in electoral politics.

I’ve spent this week emailing with Jenny Jarvie, The Times’ Atlanta bureau chief. Over the last few weeks, she has written about the shifting relationship between faith and politics and how Georgia’s demographics had been changing for decades before they tipped the scales. Her work paints a picture of a state that — like many others that haven’t been widely seen as competitive for Democrats — has far more dimension than many outsiders believed.

Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

LB: You’ve been covering the South for a long time. Even without knowing the election results, what do you think the big takeaways are? Was there anything that surprised you?

JJ: Politics is more contested than it has been for many years in the South — or at least the small corner of the South that is Georgia. Over the last decade, I’ve watched Democrats here grapple with defeat, but all the while, the margins have gotten closer. In 2018, Stacey Abrams lost the race for governor to Brian Kemp by just 1.4 percentage points, and many Democratic voters were angry and demoralized. Since then, voter outreach groups, like the New Georgia Project, Asian American Advocacy Fund and Mijente, have continued to hustle on the ground to mobilize young and minority voters. It was only a matter of time before all that work began to pay off.

When the Senate runoff races began, it was looking like Republicans would win; the GOP candidates performed a little better than Democrats in November, and Democrats don’t typically turn out in great force here in runoffs. But two months later, Democrats have ramped up turnout, and Republicans have been embroiled in an extraordinary level of infighting over Trump’s defeat and his subsequent claims of election fraud. The level of Republican dysfunction hasn’t been entirely surprising — we all know Trump thrives on drama — but it has been fascinating to watch how deeply Trump’s influence permeates the Georgia GOP.

LB: This election season was unique in every state, but Georgia is the only one reliving the Senate campaigns. How do you think the runoffs compared to the first round of the election? Is it Groundhog Day or something else entirely?

JJ: Yes, it felt like Groundhog Day. That’s the exact term Gabriel Sterling, one of the state’s top election officials, used Monday when he got up to host another press conference to debunk President Trump’s claims of election fraud. Most people I spoke to — strategists, elections officials, activists, reporters, voters — couldn’t wait for it all to be over.

But it wasn’t an exact repetition of the general election. Democrats were more confident after Biden’s victory, and Republicans were more rattled by their defeat. Deep down, many GOP leaders worried that Trump’s loss in November was a sign that the state was slipping out of their control. Democrats saw it as a test of whether Biden’s victory was more than a one-off and represented a broader realignment of political power here. As Stacey Abrams put it Monday: “Georgia, we have a chance tomorrow to prove what happened in November wasn’t a fluke, but the future.”


The dynamics were also different because the Democrats and voter mobilization groups in Georgia actually changed their strategy. Before November, Democrats did not knock on doors because of the pandemic, instead relying on texting, phone banking and virtual organizing. This time, groups like the New Georgia Project were constantly knocking on doors. Reporting on the election from home one day, I had three voter outreach groups knock on my door.

Another key difference was that everyone was watching Georgia. Before, national political pundits were more focused on other battleground states, like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. There was a lot more pressure on Georgians.

LB: You mention that pressure on voters. It’s something we’ve seen a lot of — people were donating and phone banking from all over. Biden and Trump visited. How did voters respond?

JJ: It’s been intense. Many Georgians got more election fliers than Christmas cards. Over the holiday period, I got hand-written postcards from California and New York. Another one just arrived at my house Monday from Reno, Nev.

Many voters just tuned out. Some stopped watching live TV, prerecording shows so they wouldn’t have to deal with political ads.

I think most Georgians understand the stakes of the election, and many are excited to play a national role. They just don’t want to live it every minute of the day.


LB: Let’s talk about the results. Georgia’s ballot-counting process has undergone intense scrutiny. Since Nov. 4, state officials have put in the work to back up their numbers, but false information about how they handled the presidential election continues to spread. We heard that this week in the recording of Trump’s phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. And now they have to do it all over again. What kind of approach are officials taking this time?

JJ: Georgia election officials are taking a pretty thorough approach to debunking conspiracy theories. Over the last two months, Gabriel Sterling, one of the state’s top election officials, has hosted countless press conferences refuting Trump’s claims of election fraud. On Monday, Sterling announced it’s “whack-a-mole again” and spent more than half an hour refuting a raft of false accusations of voting by felons and underage teenagers, of ballots being scanned multiple times and of equipment tampering. He even refuted a claim that Raffensperger had a brother named Ron who works for a Chinese technology company, pointing out that his boss doesn’t even have a brother named Ron.

They’re bracing for more accusations of fraud in the runoffs, and I expect them to keep pushing back.

LB: For all the national stakes, something you’ve touched on in your coverage is that Georgia isn’t really the state it’s made out to be in national news coverage. And all these unique factors contributed to a result — at least in November — that upended the way people think about it. What do you think we’ve learned through these last couple of months?

JJ: For too long, people in the big coastal cities have thought of Georgia as a conservative, one-dimensional Southern state, without paying attention to the deep demographic and political changes that have been taking place.

But however much of a battleground Georgia has become, even as ideas and values are strongly contested, it’s also a place where many people, Republican and Democrat, really do live in political silos. Over the last two months, I’ve interviewed many Republicans from rural areas who still can’t get their heads around the fact that Democrats won — they don’t encounter many Democrats on a day-to-day basis, so they really don’t believe more Georgians could have voted for Biden than Trump. That’s probably not going to change.


LB: It makes me wonder what else might be missing from the conversation, or what’s still building. Is there anything you’re keeping an eye on going forward?

JJ: Georgia’s Republican party is bitterly divided — not just over Trump, but over how best to counter the inroads Democrats are making in the suburbs. It’s going to be really fascinating to follow Republicans as they navigate the state’s battleground status.

Also, there are already signs in Georgia and across the country that Democrats can’t just take for granted the votes of people of color. I think it will be increasingly important to pay attention to the range of voices in minority communities, particularly among the state’s fast-growing Asian and Latino populations, which have not traditionally had much of a political voice.

Two female election workers wearing masks sit at a table and check voting machine memory cards
Election workers check voting machine memory cards in Fulton County, Georgia, on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.
(Ben Gray / Associated Press)

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The view from Washington

— Plans are underway for Biden’s inauguration. Organizers said the event will include a swearing-in ceremony and a “virtual parade across America,” consistent with crowd limits. President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter will miss the ceremonies for the first time since 1977, though President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, do plan to attend.

— Top national security agencies confirmed that Russia was probably responsible for a massive hack of U.S. government departments and corporations.


The latest on today’s joint session of Congress

— What exactly is happening today? Sarah Wire has an explainer on today’s proceedings and what to expect when Republican lawmakers challenge the formal election results announcement.

— Republicans are splintering, write Janet Hook and David Lauter. This week tests the limits of their loyalty to Trump.

— That’s doubly true for Mike Pence, Eli Stokols writes. Trump’s false claim that Pence can singlehandedly “reject” Biden’s electoral college victory puts the vice president in a vise — between showing loyalty to the president or to the Constitution.

— Bracing for possible violence, the nation’s capital has mobilized the National Guard ahead of planned protests by Trump’s supporters in response to the congressional vote expected to affirm Biden’s election victory.

The view from California

— Gov. Gavin Newsom previewed a $4.5-billion stimulus program that includes a variety of grants and tax incentives aimed at small businesses and and unemployed Californians hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. John Myers writes that many of the proposals would require swift legislative approval to take effect.

— The former chair of the Federal Election Commission on Monday filed a complaint against a major contributor to the campaign to recall Newsom, alleging that a “shell company” was being used to hide the identities of its donors, Phil Willon reports.


Nicola T. Hanna, the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, will step down this week from the helm of the federal prosecutor’s office in Los Angeles, writes Matthew Ormseth.

— California Republicans scored a major victory in November by recapturing four of seven congressional seats that had flipped to Democrats. But analysts told Stephanie Lai it won’t be enough to avert the party’s “death spiral.”

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