Podcasts: Analysis

Podcast: How Democrats won Georgia – and what happens now

Travelling across Georgia, we saw a radically different way of doing politics. The violence in DC should not obscure this story. And Democrats must learn from it.

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small Aaron headshot.jpg
Mary Fitzgerald Aaron White
9 January 2021, 4.53am
A New Georgia Project volunteer handing out pasta, gloves and scarves at a polling station in Pittsburgh, Atlanta
Aaron White, openDemocracy

The violent scenes in Washington, DC this week risk overshadowing Georgia's historic election result. The Democrats' victory in this Deep South state holds vitally important lessons for the future of US democracy.

Biden's party may now have a slim majority in the US Congress, but the country remains bitterly divided and – as this week demonstrated – support for Trump is not going away.

Some suggest Trump’s persistent false claims of election fraud hurt the Republicans in this election. But, as we learned travelling across Georgia, the Democratic victory here didn't happen overnight.

We spoke to dozens of voters and activists on the ground, as we watched an ambitious, long-term, grassroots operation help turn this traditionally red state blue.

Just as in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement, activists and organisers from Martin Luther King’s home state are once again sending leaders in Washington a powerful signal of where things need to go next. But will they listen?

Listen below – and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Soundcloud.

This episode was produced by Freddie Stuart. Special thanks to Penny Dale.


CNN: CNN will now project that Democrat Raphael Warnock is elected to the US Senate.

Reverend Raphael Warnock: Thank you so very much. I come before you tonight as a proud American and as a son of Georgia. My roots are planted deeply in Georgia soil. A son of my late father, who was a pastor, a veteran, and a small businessman, and my mother, who as a teenager growing up in Waycross, Georgia, used to pick somebody else's cotton. But the other day, because this is America, the 82 year old hands that used to pick somebody else's cotton went to the polls, and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.

CNN: CNN can now project that the Democrats will be the majority in the US Senate. Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate in Georgia is defeating David Perdue, the Republican candidate.

Jon Ossoff: Georgia, thank you so much for the confidence that you've placed in me. I am honored by your support. And I will look forward to serving you in the United States Senate with integrity and getting things done for the people of Georgia. Thank you so much.

Mary Fitzgerald: This historic election changes the game for the Biden administration, which can now pass laws and make executive appointments without Republican obstruction. But the euphoria of the Democrats’ win here in Georgia was quickly overshadowed by the chaos in Washington DC this past week, and a president clearly fomenting violence.

Donald Trump: All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by radical left Democrats, which is what they're doing and stolen by the fake news media. That's what they've done and what they're doing. We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn't happen. You don't concede when there’s theft involved.

Mary Fitzgerald: I’m Mary Fitzgerald, Editor in Chief of openDemocracy, and I’m joining you with our North America editor Aaron White from downtown Atlanta, Georgia. We’ve travelled across this state during the special senate run-off race.

Aaron, what have we seen here over the past couple of weeks?

Aaron White: Well we’ve seen an incredible grassroots mobilisation of millions of voters – to push Democrats over the line, winning the slimmest of majorities in the US Senate.

Mary Fitzgerald: It’s made us quite hopeful, hasn’t it? Despite the ugly scenes in DC and the ones we saw first hand here in Georgia.

Aaron White: Yes there are incredibly important and inspiring lessons to take from what just happened here in this state. What thousands of organisers pulled off here, over years is the political future.

Mary Fitzgerald: But the question is: Will Democrats learn from this? And can they build on what’s happened here in Georgia to pull this country out of its deep crisis?

[ourVoices loop]

Mary Fitzgerald: As listeners from our last episode might remember, I was born in Georgia back in the early 1980s and have always thought of it as a deeply conservative place. But after Biden became the first Democratic president to win here since 1992, I’ve been on a bit on a journey – talking to friends, relatives, experts and organisers – and re-learning what I thought I knew about this state.

Before coming back here to Georgia with you Aaron I spoke with lots of organisers including Helen Butler, who’s been doing voter mobilisation work here for more than 20 years. She told me about how two factors helped Georgia go blue in November.

Helen Butler: What we've always told people about is that public policy impacts every facet of your life from the day you're born to the day you die, and everything in between. It was highly realized this election cycle, because of two things: criminal Justice, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the killing of Breonna Taylor, the killing of George Floyd, that, again, showed people that it's important to have elected officials that will make laws that are just for everyone.

And then COVID came along. COVID really impacted healthcare, what kind of health care you got, because you had to close down a lot of businesses, a lot of people lost their jobs. So it showed that, well, for me to get my tax dollars back in unemployment benefits, I got to have an elected official that will do the right thing. And having trusted messengers, tell them, now, do you see why this is important? Do you see why having a good district attorney is important? Why it is critical to have good judges? Why it is good to have good sheriffs? Why is it good to have a good mayor that will appoint a police chief? It's all connected. And now they see that more than ever.

Mary Fitzgerald: Aaron, you’ve been reporting on progressive organising movements across the United States for openDemocracy for the past couple of years, so I was delighted when you said you’d hit the road with me again to travel across Georgia for this special Senate election.

What did we see that has particularly stayed with you?

Aaron White: Well we drove all over the state but one of the places that really stood out was Gwinnett County.

Aaron White: Okay, so we just left a canvassing launch event in Gwinnett County, which is a small suburb on the outside of Atlanta. What were some of the main takeaways that you got from that, Mary?

Mary Fitzgerald: Well, the thing that really struck me was how meticulously organized this Get Out The Vote operation is – making a plan to vote with people door to door is actually a pretty complex, detailed, focused process. They get people's numbers, they call them, they email them, they insist on speaking to every person in the household. There's a lot of forensic planning that goes into encouraging people to vote and holding them accountable for doing so. You know, it's friendly, it's supportive, it's sort of got a positive energy, but it is persistent and relentless. And it's clearly a technique and a strategy and a system that's been honed.

Dylan: On election day, you are going to have this massive list of like 30 voters, maybe more, let’s shoot for like 40, 50 each. And you're gonna be like, okay, here's the five people I'm following up with at 8am. Here's the 10 people I'm following up with at 9am. And you're gonna be texting them that day, making sure they're getting to the polls, making sure they know their polling location.

One of the fun things about Georgia is that sometimes they move the polling location day of. And so we will get that information as a campaign if they've moved the polling location. And then you can look at your list and say, okay, who are all my voters today who are going to that location? I'm going to text them right now and tell them that it's moved.

Aaron White: And they were doing it all during a massive global pandemic, with a particularly bad outbreak here in Georgia.

Dylan: Can we eat in restaurants even outside?

Canvassers: No.

Dylan: If we're inside in the hotel lobby, can we take off our face shield if we’re more than 10 feet away from someone?

Canvassers: No.

Dylan: if you're driving with your partner, and you're not in the same pod, how can you eat lunch, if it's raining and you want to eat in your car?

Canvasser: Rotate, one person gets wet.

Mary Fitzgerald: And it's so striking that people are coming from across the country from California from Delaware from New York to stand in a car park, by the side of a freeway outside a Cracker Barrel next to the Hampton Inn, wearing masks and PPE. And running through voter mobilisation drills. It was really one of the most nondescript places to see a seed of the revolution take place.

Melody: My name is Melody, and I'm a student. I'm from the Bay Area. And I think I'm here because as a Californian, I'm really worried about climate change. A lot of my friends were staying with me during the pandemic, because their houses were at risk for burning down. One of their houses was actually partially destroyed by the fires, so yeah, that was something that really hit close to home. And I really didn't like the way that the administration was handling and denying climate change. So I flew over to Georgia yesterday. And I'm excited to be here.

Mary Fitzgerald: We met volunteers who came here from all over the country – but the really important story is the years of groundwork that’s been done by local organisations and movements here – and how necessary this has been.

They’re doing things like getting volunteer translators into Latino neighborhoods – remember Gabriel, the restaurant owner in Gainesville who we spoke with during one of our many car journeys on polling day?

Aaron White: Yeah.

Gabriel: I've had three people come up to me today. I've been here at this precinct all day, they've come up to me and said, “hey, I need some help. I don't know if I'm registered to vote.” And I asked, “did you vote in the general election?” They said, “yeah, but I don't know if I have to re-register again.”

But you know, so things like that. Aside from obvious issues of translating the ballot, which is a really intimidating thing if you don't know the language. So that's the biggest one, they might not know how to cast their ballots, because there's no material in their language.

Mary Fitzgerald: One of the things I was totally amazed by here is how hard it is to vote in the state of Georgia -– how many barriers and obstacles are thrown in people’s way; which is why these long-term organising efforts, like those from the New Georgia Project run by Nse Ufot have been so important.

Nse Ufot: Georgia has a long and a recent history of voter suppression. As the dust settles, and as we learn more about how these races were won, and how this state was flipped, I think that it is important to know just how truly remarkable this was. We did it in the face of extraordinary attempts to mute the Black vote, to mute the youth vote. And so I will just talk about the suppression attempts that we overcame in the runoffs.

We saw that they reduced the number of early voting days, they reduced the number of early voting locations. They reduced the number of drop boxes. There was a memo that went out about a week before the election from the Secretary of State that communicated his intent to criminally prosecute individuals or organisations like ours, who were preparing to do what we call line warming activity. So bringing comfort to voters, bottles of water, hot coffee, hot chocolate, pizza, that we would be prosecuted if we participated in those events. So those are the waters in which we were swimming – as we were working to get the vote out. How we overcame it was direct voter contact – we knocked on over 2 million doors, we made almost 7 million phone calls, and sent 4 million text messages – talking directly to Georgia voters about the importance of this moment, and why we need to show up for each other by voting in these two elections.

Aaron White: Yeah and in Pittsburgh, a historically Black neighbourhood in the south of Atlanta, we really saw Nse’s New Georgia Project in action.

Aaron White: So there's a DJ outside the polling location. It's a very different vibe from where we just were.

Mary Fitzgerald: I've just seen a bus drop up, drop off a bunch of voters here. It seems like there's an operation going on to actually bus people here to this polling station.

Aaron White: And give them food and snacks as well.

New Georgia Project volunteer: We’re doing a winter release jam. So we are passing out free scarves and free gloves. And we also have free food for families in the community but also people who happen to be voting today. So we're just doing some work in the community on election day.

Mary Fitzgerald: So it’s a good place to hand out reliefs.

New Georgia Project volunteer: 3 million people have already early voted. So it's pretty slow, but I think it's a good turnout.

Mary Fitzgerald: And voters we met there really painted a clear picture of what was motivating them to vote – like Lawrence Miller, a 59-year-old former naval officer, who came to vote with his husband.

Lawrence Miller: So race has to do with almost everything, unfortunately, in this country. There is nothing more important, regardless of what the issues are, and legislation is based on keeping one race out and other races down. The Republicans under the leadership of Trump, well they don't think of us as human. And as a result of that, they feel like they can say anything any time they want to, any way they want to. And they've got some blind followers who just accept what they'll say,

Aaron White: Listening to Lawrence there, I think it’s worth reflecting on what was on offer this time to Georgia’s voters and how it was different.

Ronald Town: My name is Ronald Town. I grew up on the other side of the train track. But I went to middle school right here, Paul's Middle School. I grew up right here at this fall. And the reason I am voting, I am voting for a change, it’s time.

Aaron White: Ronald told us why he was voting for one of the Democratic candidates in particular: Pastor Raphael Warnock

Ronald Town: I used to go to Ebenezer Baptist Church where he used to preach. He's not trying to be a politician. That's what everybody don't realize. He's not trying to be a politician. He just trying to make a change.

Mary Fitzgerald: And not only is Warnock Georgia’s first Black Senator. When he was born, both of Georgia’s Senators were racial segregationists.

Aaron White: Yes, and as a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which they call America’s Freedom Church, where Martin Luther King once preached – Warnock directly inherits and symbolises that Civil Rights legacy

Reverend Warnock: 1982, a 12 year old is accused of stealing and dragged out a store. Told he looks suspicious because his hands are in his pockets. I'm Raphael Warnock, and that boy was me. Back then I didn't understand how much the system works against those without power and money, that the rules were different for some of us. Too often. that's still true today, especially in Washington. I approve this message because it's time for that to change.

Mary Fitzgerald: That was one of Warnock’s campaign ads. I do think it’s worth telling people, too, just how much money was thrown at this race: more than half a billion dollars, much of it on blanket advertising. Every time we turned on the radio in the car, they were there.

Loeffler ad: Warnock isn't going to tell you himself, but he's a militant fundamentalist who spent decades spreading a radical political agenda. Great. Exactly. Warnock wants to defund police and dismantle the prison system. Warnock is so radical, he wants to pack the Supreme Court, pass the Green New Deal, raise record taxes and let the government redistribute American wealth just like third world countries.

I thought you were telling me a joke.

That was just to get your attention. Trust me, Raphael Warnock is no joke. This election, cast your vote and save our country.

Mary Fitzgerald: That ad you heard was from Kelly Loeffler, one of the Republican candidates, and the racist dog whistles are unmistakable: that Raphael Warnock is somehow ‘unAmerican’, that he’d bring chaos and destroy America’s way of life.

Aaron White: And of course it’s deeply ironic that just hours after he was elected, it was actually die hard Trump supporters who launched an armed insurrection on the Capitol.

DC Trump supporters: USA, USA, USA!

Mary Fitzgerald: I guess we should spend some time talking about all the things Republicans did wrong, and the crisis they’re now in – both in Washington and here in Georgia. As Lawrence Miller in south Atlanta said, the Republican Kelly Loeffler made a fatal error by attacking Warnock’s sermons.

Lawrence Miller: Kelly Loeffler pissed off the Black clergy. They’re a dynamic group of people who try to stay as impartial as possible. But now they stepped out of that and said, we need to stand up and say, hey, listen, this is wrong. This is just wrong.”

Aaron White: Yes, we went to watch Kelly Loeffler speak to rural white voters on the back of a pickup truck last weekend.

Aaron White: Today is January 3 and we're in McDonough.

Mary Fitzgerald: On the road to Macon, just outside of Atlanta. It's a beautiful sunny day. And there's a long line of people waiting to see Kelly Loeffler who's bidding to retake her Senate seat for the Republicans. They're lining up outside Gritz Family Restaurant in the main square. There’s not an overwhelming amount of mask wearing going on and people are packed in together quite tightly – quite different from some of the other places we've been.

Kelly Loeffler: This battleground might be here in Georgia, but the nation's depending on us. We are the firewall to stopping socialism. We know that because we heard Chuck Schumer say, Now we take Georgia then we change America. Well, that's frightening because you know what he wants to do? He wants to raise taxes on you – $4 trillion in taxes on hard working Americans.

Mary Fitzgerald: To me, the lack of vision and ambition in Loeffler’s pitch was really noticeable

Kelly Loeffler: Right here in Georgia, every family 2000 bucks off the bat, goodbye up to the Federal Government. Making it bigger, making your life harder, making government bigger, more bureaucracy, red tape, Green New Deal, socialised health care, turning your doctor's office into the DMV? No, thanks. We got to hold the line right here. Are you with me holding the line?

Mary Fitzgerald: With thousands dying from COVID every day and an economic depression not seen since the 1930s, I’m not surprised that the message to “hold the line” and, essentially, keep things the way they are, didn’t motivate enough voters.

Aaron White: But what I’m more interested in is what happens now Democrats do control Congress. Remember Tomaso, the volunteer canvasser from Oakland, CA, who we met on election day in Savannah?

Tomaso: Well, there's so much they need to do to undo years and years of neoliberal policies. Unfortunately, Biden himself is a neoliberal. So I don't know how much he's gonna do on that. But my top issue is the climate crisis. I've been fighting against the climate crisis for almost 15 years. And hopefully, we'll finally get some action on that from the United States.

I think his policy platform is decent. It's not enough, but it’s better than what we've had in the past. The problem is the Senate, if we do get these two votes, we have a Senator from West Virginia [Joe Manchin] who has been in the bed of the coal industry since he was elected. He actually got elected on an advert where he was shooting a gun at the climate bill that was making its way through Congress at the time. So with only 50 votes, and that guy representing West Virginia, we're likely not going get anything through the Senate that will actually improve people's lives and air quality and stop this inter-generational genocide.

Mary Fitzgerald: Yeah, and this was so common amongst many of the organisers we met, especially those from out of state. They weren’t particularly enthusiastic about Biden or what he can deliver, but they were pragmatic. They know that a Democrat-controlled Congress gives them a much better shot at economic relief, climate change and healthcare.

Connor Buckley: I'm 21 years old. I'd say that we're afraid for the future of this country economically, where the people with the most wealth and power accumulated are continuing to absorb more and more of the years as we continue to tax the richest people in this country less and less. I definitely have qualms with Biden and his commitments to corporate centrism, which scare me, but I also know that he's the only shot that the Democrats have of any kind of change in any of those areas that I just described.

Aaron White: Yes, and the pandemic has really put things in sharp focus for so many of them.

Chris: My name is Chris, I'm from Delaware. I'm out here because my dad actually got COVID, a couple of weeks ago. It was right before Christmas, put my mom through a loop. And I know that if they had been getting these monthly stimulus checks that places like South Korea and other countries are getting, my dad wouldn't have had to go into work. He's considered an essential worker, my family's working class. And so it's like, you know, he had to go in, had to pay the bills, had to pay the mortgage. And it was kind of that choice between being able to afford to live in our house and put food on the table – or potentially get COVID. And that's what ended up happening. And that was just really hard. Every vote that I can get out this coming four days, is one step closer to $2,000 checks not $600 checks. Maybe monthly, who knows, so that's kind of why I'm out here.

Aaron White: So Chris was talking there about the Democrats’ commitment (partly prompted by Trump) – to pay out $2,000 stimulus checks to all Americans who earned less than $75,000 a year.

Mary Fitzgerald: Yes, and that feels like the most immediate and most easy task that Democrats have on their plate: hand out money to people who badly need it. But everything else is going to be so hard.

Aaron White: Yes. And with such a slim Senate majority – it’s going to be difficult to pass anything. Just this week, Joe Manchin, the Senator from West Virginia has signaled potential opposition to passing those $2,000 stimulus checks.

Mary Fitzgerald: And on the other side of this, looking at what just happened in Washington, I’m still really worried about what happens next with Trump supporters. There are millions of people across this country who don’t accept the election result – plenty of extremists, yes, but also lots of the soft-spoken mums and grandmas we met across this state

Norma: We don't mind losing. We just want to have a fair election and know know that it was legal.

Mary Fitzgerald: Or like the lady we met at the Stop the Steal rally at the State Capitol, the day after the vote. She was there alongside a former KKK leader, who you can actually clear in this next clip, but she also wasn’t a big fan of people carrying weapons wherever they pleased.

Dana: It doesn't excite me. I don't think that it should be allowed just walking down the street as an everyday thing. Although I do think that we have gun rights, and I don't think they can take those away from us. I'm not comfortable with just walking down the street with it, it leads to nothing good in my opinion.

Aaron White: And then, of course, there are the diehards. Remember Matthew at the Loeffler rally in Henry County, all into the voting machine and COVID conspiracy theories.

Matthew: The machines are not even supposed to be on to the internet. But they've already proven as well in Savannah, Georgia, that the machines were talking directly with the Nest thermostats that are on the wall. This stuff has been suppressed. The media is not telling the world what is happening.

The people is awake. And the people have spoken. This man owns businesses. This man over here I was talking to he owns businesses. I have three businesses right now, right now. And the COVID is threatening to shut them down. We're no longer going to be put in a hole, no longer going to be put in a ditch and be stepped on with the hypocrisy that's taken place here.

We are ready to defend our business, just like the rooftop Koreans in California did in the Rodney King riots. If it takes us getting on the roof, and taking control, then that's what we're gonna do.

Mary Fitzgerald: Yeah looking back what Matthew told us was extra disturbing given the violence that erupted just days later. And to me, looking ahead, it seems entirely possible that a far more competent far-right leader or movement than Trump could combine the energy of the diehards who stormed the Capitol this week, with a more broad-based appeal to the many millions, on Right and Left, still deeply dissatisfied with the status quo.

Aaron White: Yea and when we spoke with Greg Palast, the journalist who’s covered voter suppression here for years, he made exactly that point:

Greg Palast: Just keep in mind, Trump ain't leaving. He's leaving the White House, I think. But he's going to be head of the right wing of the party. And he can punish senators and congressmen and congresswomen who don't toe the line. That's why he's still at 94 congress people vote to not certify a democratic election. It was crazy. It was decided by 7 million votes. So he's still there. And he's there to punish and he's there to call out and punish.

And you're right, we could have someone who will then be the candidate who takes Trumpism to a competent level, then look out. So it's not the next two weeks I'm worried about. It's the next basically 20 years. I'm very concerned that we have a new Brown Shirt force in America which is empowered, which knows it can hold office. These are people who were considered fringe nuts that no Republican wanted to be seen taking a picture with. Now, they're proud of taking their pictures with these barely disguised white supremacist organisations and violent organisations.

Aaron White: I do think this really is particularly a threat if Biden and Democrats aren’t able to take advantage of their majority and pass substantive action on COVID, healthcare and jobs.

Mary Fitzgerald: But Aaron, given we’re in Georgia, I think it’s appropriate to look squarely at what’s just happened here, and what it makes possible.

Aaron White: Yes, and if we’re doing that, I think it’s really worth reflecting on what Nse Ufot at the New Georgia Project told us about their strategy moving forward.

Nse Ufot: We don't elect messiahs. And so I think that our approach to the incoming Biden Harris administration is that these are organising targets. They are the party that is across the table that the people are negotiating with. It's just that we would much rather negotiate with Vice President Harris and President Biden, who have indicated a willingness to listen to the people and be moved by our stories and our priorities. Very much so in comparison to the incumbent to the outgoing administrator. So that's where we are.

Mary Fitzgerald: I really think what Nse and so many others like Stacey Abrams, Helen Butler, organisations like Mijente and countless more have managed to pull off in Georgia tells an extraordinary and ambitious story of how change is possible, but not if it’s top-down.

Aaron White: Yes, it does invite a radically different way of doing politics: long-term, bottom-up organising, led and run by people of and for the communities they serve – and not just pandering to the so-called center ground, but expanding the base.

There was a higher percentage of Black turnout in this run-off than in the November general election. More than 75,000 new voters were registered ahead of the runoffs, and more than half of them were under the age of 35.

Mary Fitzgerald: Sure, they had a big influx of organising help during the final critical days and weeks – but they’ve been building this for years making the election of someone like Raphael Warnock even possible.

Reverend Warnock: I remember my dad in this moment. He used to wake me up every morning at dawn. It was morning, but it was still dark. It's dark right now, but morning comes. And scripture tells us that weeping may endure for the night. But joy comes in the morning. Let us rise up, greet the morning and meet the challenges of this moment. Together we can do the necessary work and win the future for all of our children. Thank you. God bless you, Georgia. And God bless these United States of America.

Mary Fitzgerald: You know what it feels like? Just as in the 1960s with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, activists and organisers here have sent leaders in Washington a powerful signal of where things need to go now.

Aaron White: But I guess the real question now is, will they listen?

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