Tanzina Vega: While the battle to remove President Donald Trump from office following last week's insurrection of the Capitol continues in Washington DC, another important political story is playing out in the American South.
Last week after months of fierce campaigning, the Democrats took control of the US Senate and they did it in Georgia, a state that's been reliably red for almost two decades.
Jon Ossoff: We were told that we couldn't win this election.
Raphael Warnock: Whether you were for me or against me, I'll be for you.
Ossoff: We prove that with hope, hard work, and the people by our side, anything is possible.
Warnock: It is with humility that I thank the people of Georgia for electing me to serve you in the United States Senate.
Tanzina: That's Raphael Warnock, Georgia's first Black Senator, and Jon Ossoff, who also beat the Republican incumbent in the special election. Much of the credit for Ossoff's and Warnock's wins could be attributed to large and sustained grassroots organizing led by Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, and much of that work was focused on turning out voters of color.
Stacey Abrams: Georgia deserves real leaders; men and women who will stand up for all Georgians and who will do what's right for our people, especially for our military families.
Tanzina: Is the Ossoff, Warnock when a fluke, or does it make Georgia a bellwether for the political future of the rest of the South? That's what we're talking about. I'm Tanzina Vega and this is the Takeaway. Brannon Miller is a democratic party strategist and a partner at Chisholm strategies, a political consulting firm based in Jackson, Mississippi. Brannon, welcome to the show.
Brannon Miller: Hey, great to be with you.
Tanzina: Anoa Changa is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta and the host of the politics podcast, The way with Anoa. Anoa, welcome to the show.
Anoa Changa: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Astead Herndon is a national political reporter at the New York Times. Astead, welcome back.
Astead: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: Let's start with you, Astead. We're talking about the South today and there's a moment where there was this interesting juxtaposition, I'll call it that, during the Capitol insurrection last week, where there was one of the insurrectionists was walking through the halls of Congress holding the Confederate flag and yet we have the State of Georgia with two Democrat wins. This juxtaposition, where does that tell us about where we are today with the South? It just felt really intense to see that.
Astead: Yes, I think the scenes that we saw last week are an encapsulation of the real split-screen we're seeing in American politics right now. You have a real rising, multicultural tide changing the electorate that's particularly been true in Georgia that's emerged as the state that represents the changing South, the new South, and the coalition that was building there that helped elect these senators. Not only does that include the base of Democrats in the South, which has been Black people and arise in that vote share, but it also includes new communities coming to the state. You have a rise in Latino voters, API voters, and a break from Republicans among the white suburbs.
That coalition together helped elect folks, but at the same time, you have a backlash to that multiracial democracy that has been fueled by President Trump. That is a white grievance driven, mob violence that we've seen across the country, but made its way to Washington last week. Both those tides are very real in this country and going forward as a democracy the open question we wrote last week in the Times was, whose democracy is it and will the militia, the insurrectionist, this respect, the core tenants that we've come to know about democracy, that much of Georgia represented.
Tanzina: Anoa, how much has the Georgia demographics changed? What I mean by that is we're talking about grassroots organizers and their role, particularly Stacey Abrams and securing democratic wins and we're thinking Black women, Latinos, a lot of the folks that Astead mentioned, Asian American voters. How important and how much has the landscape of Georgia changed in the past couple of years?
Anoa: I appreciate the question. Yes, we're seeing a real increase, not just in raw demographic numerical changes, but in terms of the actual investing and turning out particular voters. Not just showing up like we see in traditional political cycles a few weeks before an election, but having that deep year-round organizing and engagement by civic engagement, by voting rights orgs regardless of what type of election cycle it is, or as the case right now, today we start our legislative cycle here in Georgia.
We do see an influx of folks coming into the state who are more diverse, but we also are seeing new voters, new Americans, and some areas like Gwinnett County in particular that are really taking root and taking hold as a part of the democratic process here. It's also being reflected in terms of the people that are being sent to the Georgia state house in terms of those who have been elected either in the Senate or in the House of Representatives. To Astead's point earlier about Black voters and having a larger share, that investment is also not being solely concentrated in the Atlanta Metro area.
We saw amazing turnout in a runoff in rural areas of Black voters, of other voters of color as well, but when you see someplace like Cuthbert, Georgia, like Randolph County, which made news in 2018 for being targeted for the closure of seven out of nine polling locations in a predominantly Black county, to see that resilience now in this election cycle that we just had in terms of that voter turnout is really amazing on top of the fact that Southwest Georgia, in particular, has been hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and rural hospital closures. People are tying these issues directly to the political process and seeing that their engagement is also a part of how they can turn some of these situations around.
Tanzina: Brannon, you're the political strategist here and I'm wondering if you can give us an assessment about how the Democrats, in particular, generally get the state, they've struggled in the South for many, many decades. With the occasional election here and there, with the occasional win, largely the South has been considered a Republican stronghold, what did the Democrats do right this time?
Brannon: First of all, Georgia is a clear case of a state where demographics were in fact destiny. Democrats have been looking at Georgia for years now. Obama came within about five points of winning the state in 2008, CRUK and RCP listed their gubernatorial and Senate races in 2014, it's toss ups. There was some discussion of whether the Clinton campaign should invest there in '16.
All that makes sense, Georgia is a state with the second-largest African-American population in the country, the Asian and Latino shares of the electorate have tripled since 2008, and then of course, like Astead was saying, you've got this large urban and suburban white population who are exactly the voters who swung from Romney to Clinton in 2016. So Democrats had all of the ingredients to make a win happen in Georgia, but they've not been able to cook one up, so to speak. That's where organizations, most notably Stacey Abrams Fahrenheit, stepped in and were able to register hundreds of thousands of voters and move them to the polls.
The dynamic that I think gets talked about less often is actually how close Republicans came to foiling that plan with their own registration and turnout efforts. There were 19 counties in Georgia, mostly in Northern Georgia and ex-urban Atlanta that had more voters show up to the polls this year than were registered in 2016 and Trump won those counties 71 to 28. Overall, Trump increases vote share by about 18%. In general, both sides have just done a phenomenal job of registering and turning out new voters. The question in the runoff was, which side is going to do a better job of keeping those voters energized and Democrats obviously won that contest.
Tanzina: They won that contest, Brannon, but they won it with a very thin margin. I guess, Astead, I'm wondering, based on what Brandan just said as far as the Republican turnout, they didn't slouch there either, the margins of the victory here were extraordinarily thin. What does that tell you, Astead, about what this could signal for the future? I know it's hard to make predictions here, but are we going to see more tight races coming up, do you think?
Astead: I think that that's the nature of a purple state, which is now what Georgia clearly is. Just because Joe Biden and now the democratic senators have won there does not mean that it's gone from red to blue, it means that this state is one that is really up for grabs and that can swing with every election even as the demographic changes and other changes continue. I think that that's what we should come to expect, but I think on the Republican side, there's a lot of warning signs. This is certainly a race that they came in to it favored. You had David Perdue not even really campaigned in the runoff, not debate his opponent because of that level of confidence.
Obviously, he was ahead of Ossoff in November races, but you just do not have people. I think the big takeaway from the Republican side is that without Donald Trump on the ballot, we are not seeing those turnout that you need to overcome the losses in urban areas. While Donald Trump himself can really increase Republican turnout in some rural areas that can overwhelm the backlash to him in some states, we did not see that in Georgia on the presidential level in November, and then the chaos that was caused in the runoff certainly affected Republicans statewide.
Georgia remains a state with a lot of Republicans, yes, but I would say that the science coming out of the runoff are not positive for that state, even though they did have some down-ballot success.
Tanzina: I want to talk about that down-ballot success, Anoa. We're really focused on the Ossoff and Warnock wins here, but how have Democratic candidates fared in other down-ballot races?
Anoa: In the runoff, there was so much attention on the two Senate seats that folks often overlooked the fact that we had a third race in the runoff. The Public Service Commission, which had a very interesting turnout with the incumbent, the Republican incumbent actually had a higher vote share overall than either of the two US Senate candidates, but the Democratic candidate on that ticket did not really meet the same level of threshold and success. It raises a couple of different questions and issues when you have this type of strategic short span of getting people out to vote in terms of making sure folks understand everything that's on the ballot.
During the general election, however, we did see some really amazing wins happening. In Gwinnett County, you saw elections of folks to county commission. I think Democrats controlled the county commission after the first time in several decades. You saw folks being added to the school board. The sheriff in both Gwinnett County and Cobb County, Democrats took both of those seats. Both were people who pledged to do away with their 287(g) agreements, and the Gwinnett County Sheriff has already done away with that.
Tanzina: Anoa, what's a 287(g) agreement just so our listeners know?
Anoa: Thank you. 287(g), just thinking about it, it's so commonplace to just talk about it in my head, but 287(g) is an agreement between law enforcement and ICE. This was something that organizations like [unintelligible 00:11:28], like LAR, Latino-based organizations, BAJI, which is Black Alliance for Just Immigration. These are things that organizers have been really advocating for. We've had this wave of more progressive-minded DAs coming through. Folks have started doing that same shift with sheriffs, and so we saw this coming in.
I'm not saying that people are super progressive, but they were willing to at least adopt some policies and agendas that communities have really been pushing under the guise of we want to keep our community safe, but that means everyone in the community and having unnecessary interactions with law enforcement could put people in danger of deportation or detention, and so that was really significant. Also, the new DA in Athens County, Deborah Gonzalez, who was the first Latina DA in the state, but also had to sue the government multiple times, the secretary of state who everyone has been praising wrongfully, but also the governor in terms of being able to even have her race.
Deborah Gonzalez fought an amazing race to be able to be elected to that position in DA, so we've seen amazing down-ballot wins all up and down the ballot. That's a testament to the year-round organizing. Yes, the demographics have been trending a certain way, but people have to do that work to educate and inform voters to make sure that they're actually turning out. That is something that's being done across the South, not just here in Georgia.
Tanzina: Brannon, you are based in Mississippi, we're over here talking about Georgia. You said that Republicans did turn out strongly for Donald Trump. Trump will not be running, at least in the next two years, let's say, for the next round of big elections that we're going to see for the midterms. What do you see as far as these wins in Georgia? Are they a bellwether for the broader South politically?
Brannon: There's obviously something to learn in the methods that organizers in Georgia use to register and turn out new voters, but in a twisted way, the win in Georgia actually makes things look even bleaker for a state like Mississippi in the sense that it came without any improvement for Democrats in rural areas. You have this combined problem for Democrats of population loss in rural Black communities and a shift away from Democrats among rural white voters.
Warnock, for example, got 500,000 more votes in the runoff than Obama got in the 2012 general and he improved on its net vote share by eight or nine points statewide, but 70% of that raw vote increase came from just six counties all in metro Atlanta. When you talk about the drop in the rural vote is obviously less important in a state like Georgia, which has one of the largest cities in the country and Atlanta, but it's critical in other states. Whereas only a quarter of Georgia's population lived in rural areas as of the 2010 census, half of Mississippi's population was still in rural areas.
If Georgia's win was only possible because of a dynamic, growing, diversifying urban and suburban population, that's something other states just can't recreate. Now that being said, if I'm the Democratic Party of Texas, which has 4 of the 11 largest cities in the country, or one of the Carolinas, which are closer to Georgia in terms of the urban-rural divide, I can look at Georgia for clues, but even then, Fair Fight was able to do what they did because they raised about $90 million. That's a lot of money. The lesson here is, hey, other Southern states, you too can increase democratic turnout for the low-low price of $90 million. I think the response would probably be, "Well, duh."
Nationally, Democrats, they need to learn don't stop investing in places like Georgia, in places like South Carolina where Democrats were disappointed after losing that Jamie Harrison race, but this isn't the end. Four or six or eight years from now South Carolina could be competitive again because it's got the same demographic changes happening on the ground, the diverse buying population, the growing urban population that made Georgia competitive this year.
Tanzina: Astead, I'm curious your thoughts on that analysis because we mentioned Jamie Harrison and there was a huge amount of money that, particularly after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that was funneled into a lot of the Democratic Senator races, particularly supporting Black candidates. That had mixed reviews, this $90 million price tag that Brannon is describing for these two races in Stacey Abrams' fight, that looks like it's going to just keep requiring more money to win. Do you see that there are people who are going to stay motivated to continue to donate that type of money to these campaigns going forward, or was this a one-shot deal because of the president being who he was in office?
Astead: I think there's an open question about what level of motivation Democrats will have without the villain of Trump. There, certainly, the kind of money we saw this year, not just in the senate race, but think about in South Carolina with the Jamie Harrison race, think about the Kentucky race with Amy McGrath and Mitch McConnell, races that were always long shots for Democrats, but were raising historic sums of money. We don't know whether the party's base will continue to be motivated on that front, but we do think that there are some lessons that the National Party has taken from this cycle like earlier investment in those organizers.
There's some lessons that aren't from the party but from foundations and other groups who were slow to invest in many of the organizers in Georgia who saw the changes in the state coming a long time ago. There will be and there already is better investment from those groups in Texas, in places like South Carolina and trying to shift the power base of the party away from the formal traditional organizers and more it's that kind of grassroots level. I think that will continue even if it's open the question of whether the kind of campaign money will.
Tanzina: I was just going to say Ossoff and Warnock, did they motivate the voters enough on their own, or was this really a rebuke of President Trump? Anoa, I'll give you the last word on that. We've got about a minute left.
Anoa: Definitely I just want to say that money alone is not nearly enough as folks mentioned. Amy McGrath's race, there was a ridiculous amount of money put in that race and it was still a very disappointing outcome. You do see a huge motivation by actual people on the ground who have been doing his work regardless of whether the democratic party or national funders are paying attention. We will continue to see a shift because folks don't want to come back to this moment we're in right now ever again.
How we do that is to have to continue organizing investment in support that we have seen from organizations like the New Georgia project fair by Black Voters Matter, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Georgia Coalition for People's Agenda, and in places like Mississippi like Mississippi Votes, in Louisiana, the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice. You have so many folks doing this work all across the South, that that is just something that people just need to have that value if we don't want to come back to this moment we're in right now.
Tanzina: Anoa Changa is the host of the politics podcast, The Way with Anoa. Brannon Miller is a Democratic Party strategist and a partner at Chism Strategies, a political consulting firm in Mississippi, and Astead Herndon is a national political reporter with The New York Times. Anoa, Astead, Brannon, thank you so much for joining us.
Brannon: Hey, great to be with you.
Anoa: Thanks for having me.
Astead: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: Our listeners in the South have been talking to us about this too.
Listener 1: I'm currently living in South Carolina. Before here, I lived in Missouri. Since moving here and with everything going on at the protests and seeing how our government is reacting to people with different skin color, my views have definitely changed. Because it's obvious that in America we live in today, it only benefits you if you look like me, if you look white. I've realized that there are systems that are set up in our country that never wanted Black people to win.
Jeff: This is Jeff from Gainesville, Florida. Since the mid-'60s, I've had a very negative image of the South. After having read about the racial inequities and harsh treatment of Blacks and seeing the horrifying photos of police brutality and lynchings, throughout life, I've gained a more nuanced view of the South but still feel a prejudice disdain for the inequities here. Following retirement, I work in my community in several ways to contribute to change.
Robin: My name is Robin, I live in South Florida. All my adult life, I have been a fiscal Republican and a social democrat. Now, everything is very different. Democrats have moved way left, a little bit too left for me socially, and Republicans, I do not even recognize the party anymore. I will never ever vote for a Republican again for the rest of my life.
Listener 2: My personal political leanings haven't changed and I remain a liberal southern woman. What most certainly has changed is my awareness and understanding of the unwillingness on both sides to engage in civil political discourse. The perceived need to cling to our political beliefs, whether based in fact or social media-based altered realities supersedes our moral codes, our faiths, our very foundations as Americans.
Listener 3: I'm from Alabama and I live in Florida now. I grew up a Republican. I've changed my views. Once they elected Barack Obama, I started realizing the Republican Party was just a bunch of racists, and I don't really want to teach my kids that. I swapped over to Democrat because there's really not a whole lot of choices.
Janice: Hi, I'm Janice, a lifelong Southerner. Although I was a high school student in 1963 Birmingham, I never actually witnessed the race riots, but I knew something was terribly wrong with how Blacks were being treated. My beliefs were shared by a very tiny group of high school peers. My family was very racist, but somehow I developed what would now be called a progressive mindset and it has only become stronger over time.
Listener 4: Even though I grew up in Southwest Arkansas and was raised in a conservative evangelical tradition, I've always considered myself politically neutral. I voted for Bill Clinton twice, and then George W Bush in 2000. However, in the past decade or so, I've watched as those in power on the right have lied to and manipulated the poor and less educated to vote and speak against their own self-interests on things like health care. They've done this by using emotional wedge issues that most in the GOP leadership don't really care anything about. The Republican leaders at the federal level climb on the backs of the poor to grab and keep power.
Add to that, the past four years of cowardice on the side of the GOP failing to stand up to Trump on anything with the exception of John McCain and I don't see how I could ever vote Republican again.
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