By Travis Waldron
On Friday afternoon, news outlets finally began to call President-elect Joe Biden the winner in Georgia, a state that hadn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992.
For years, groups have been organizing and engaging Georgia’s substantial Black, Latino and Asian American populations, pushing Democratic candidates to appeal directly to those voters, and beating back decades of efforts to suppress minority votes. And now that they’ve succeeded, progressive organizers across the South are looking to Georgia for lessons in how to do the same in their states.
“It’s an affirmation that we’re on the right track and that our work can pay off,” Cassia Herron, board chair of the progressive grassroots group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said of Georgia’s blue shift ― a sentiment that organizers in Mississippi and other Southern states echoed.
Progressive victory may feel a long way off in Kentucky, South Carolina, and Mississippi, where Republican voters propelled both President Donald Trump and GOP Senate incumbents to easy victories. Republican challenger Tommy Tuberville also handily defeated Democratic Sen. Doug Jones to reinforce the GOP’s stranglehold on Alabama.
But it wasn’t that long ago that the landscape looked similarly dire in Georgia, where 2020’s blue turn was more than a decade in the making.
After close calls in recent election cycles, including former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams’ narrow loss in the 2018 gubernatorial race, the years of organizing finally paid off in 2020. Along with Biden’s apparent victory, Democrats flipped a metro Atlanta congressional seat that the GOP has held since 1995 and ousted two county sheriffs who helped spearhead Trump’s anti-immigration agenda. Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both advanced to runoff elections against incumbent GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively.
The lesson, organizers in Georgia say, is that altering the landscape of a deep red state whose conservative tilt is shored up by aggressive efforts to suppress minority votes takes tons of effort and even more time ― especially when national Democrats all but leave the state for dead.
“Investment in community organizing is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Jerry Gonzalez, CEO of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, which has sought to boost political involvement of Latinos across the state for nearly two decades. “It takes long-term investment … to provide greater space for communities to be heard in the electoral process. That takes relationship building. That takes a lot of one-on-one conversations with voters. And that takes time.”
Gonzalez helped form GALEO in 2003, at a time when Georgia was solidly conservative and only about 10,000 Latinos were registered to vote statewide. Other community organizing groups were active in the state as well, especially in its Black communities, and in 2008, they got their first big sign that Georgia was moving left when Barack Obama lost the state by just 6 percentage points in that year’s presidential election.
In 2013, Abrams, then minority leader of the Georgia House, helped establish the New Georgia Project, a progressive organization that sought to register and engage voters from what it called the “new American majority” ― people of color, those between the ages of 18 and 29, and unmarried women ― who had not signed up to vote in numbers that matched their share of the state’s population. Abrams later launched Fair Fight, another grassroots group, to register even more voters and to help them navigate barriers that had been erected to keep Georgians of color from voting.
After registering more than 200,000 Georgians ahead of the 2018 gubernatorial election, grassroots organizations added another 800,000 to the rolls this year ― offsetting voter purges that had taken place last year. Black Georgians, who make up roughly one-third of the state’s population, account for a substantial number of those new voters. But there are also now nearly 250,000 registered Latino voters, according to Gonzalez and GALEO’s estimates, and nearly 240,000 Asian American voters in the state as well.
At the beginning of the 2020 cycle, Abrams called on national Democrats to invest in Georgia as if it were a swing state, arguing that to do any less would be “strategic malpractice.” That sort of investment never materialized from the Biden campaign or the national Democratic Party, even with two Senate races on the ballot. Still, the state’s Black, Latino and Asian American populations turned out in massive numbers during early voting periods and, together with shifts in support among white, college-educated voters, propelled Democrats to victory up and down the ticket.
While much of the nation focused on the presidential race, Georgia organizers drilled down on local issues that intertwined with national conversations ― including immigration and racial justice protests ― to further motivate new voters, who they thought might need to be convinced that casting a ballot could lead to substantive change in their own lives.
Those arguments resonated in county sheriffs’ races, in particular, Gonzalez said.
Incumbent sheriffs in Cobb and Gwinnett counties, just outside Atlanta, were among the most aggressive enforcers of immigration law under Trump. Groups like GALEO focused on those races in an effort to secure promises from the challengers that they would end the counties’ contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that give broader powers to local authorities to enforce immigration laws.
Organizations that focused on Muslim voter engagement prioritized the sheriffs’ races and their potential impact on immigration enforcement as well. Those contests also presented a chance to elect the counties’ first Black sheriffs and implement criminal justice reforms in metro Atlanta, where protests erupted this summer over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, in southern Georgia.
Even more than the presidential race, Gonzalez said, the ouster of those law enforcement officers proved the strength of the organizers’ work across Georgia, not just to register voters but to prioritize issues they cared about.
“There’s shared levers of power [in] our communities ― Black, brown, Asian, and GLBTQ ― that intersect in how we can work together to effect policy change that affects our everyday lives, more so than in the federal races,” he said. “It is a long-term prospect of working in collaboration with other organizations that share values and share destinies, to make sure we can build up our communities and be there for one another.”
The lack of investment from the Biden campaign or national Democrats also made it clear that, beyond a general enthusiasm for beating Trump, it was the focus on local issues that allowed organizers to connect with and turn out Georgian voters, said James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP.
“The Democrats didn’t win this. This was about people power. This was about the people of Georgia saying enough was enough and that we would not stand for this,” Woodall said. “We’re here organizing so that we can ensure that every single Georgian has access to clean water, clean energy, food, access to health care, to not have to be murdered in broad daylight as you’re running down your street. That’s what we’re doing down here. It’s not about political partisanship. … It’s about putting an agenda before those who are considered to be at the pinnacle of power and demand that they listen to ‘We, the people.’”
Replicating those wins won’t be easy in other Southern states, including those that are similar to Georgia demographically and have comparable problems with voter suppression.
Democratic Senate candidate Mike Espy lost his race in Mississippi by 13 points, a disappointing result in a race that drew some late enthusiasm. But there are signs of progress, said Melissa Garriga, a board member of the Mississippi Rising Coalition, a grassroots organization that works along the state’s Gulf Coast. After years of siloing around particular issues, Mississippi’s community organizing groups have begun to work more closely together on a broader agenda. This year, they were instrumental in winning voters’ approval for a ballot measure to adopt a new state flag, replacing one that still included Confederate imagery.
While Mississippi doesn’t draw much attention from national Democrats or progressives, it isn’t as red as it looks on electoral maps that tend to erase any nuance in how states vote. It won’t likely enjoy massive investment from Democrats anytime soon, but one lesson from Georgia, Garriga said, is that “it really takes people who have been in the community to know the community, to have a relationship with the community, and to be able to really make the change that’s necessary.”
“It’s not just electoral work. It’s issue-based work,” Garriga said. “And knowing what they did [in Georgia], and knowing that we’re doing the same thing, that’s where the hope lies.”
Kentucky, meanwhile, is barely analogous to those states. The small size of its Black and Latino populations separates it from the Deep South demographically. With Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell atop the ballot, the 2020 election was a bloodbath for Kentucky Democrats, who will now hold just one statewide office, eight of 38 state Senate seats, and a quarter of the state House. Just three of the state’s 120 counties favored Democratic Senate candidate Amy McGrath, who lost her race to McConnell by 20 points.
Still, organizers there have drawn energy from a tough Democratic Senate primary that included a progressive challenger and from their fights to expand voting rights to people with felony convictions and make voting more accessible during the pandemic.
Herron, of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said she has already talked with organizers from Georgia and other states where progressives had more success. The odds of immediate success are long, but she’s excited to get back to work.
“I’m really looking forward to engaging Kentuckians next year and connecting them to resources ― whether it’s joining campaigns, running for office, or cleaning up the water in your county,” Herron said.
“We’re organizers,” she said, “and we’ve got a lot of deep organizing to do.”