By the end of election week in November, Democrats’ hopes of winning a sizable majority in the US Senate had collapsed. But party agents had already started to work out their plan to secure enough seats to take control.
The losses in Maine and North Carolina meant Democrats had to sweep two second-round races in Georgia to reach the 50 seats required to control the upper house of Congress, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking ties. Their hopes rested on two candidates – Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock – defying historical trends in Georgia and setting up a comeback after the GOP candidates won more votes in both races in November.
Both campaigns and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee knew that solving the problems would require the type of massive ground game Democrats had avoided during the era of the pandemic. Christie Roberts, senior adviser to DSCC, had started looking for an agent to lead a unified field operation even before election day. It was one of the crucial changes the party made ahead of the two-month second campaign run that proved pivotal to Warnock and Ossoff’s victories in the election which saw record turnout.
Some of these changes were relatively minor. Ossoff’s campaign, for example, opened a TikTok account after Democrats largely avoided the platform due to security concerns during regular elections. But other actions represented significant changes.
In TV commercials, Democrats doubled down on the corruption argument against GOP sensibilities Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue which the party largely avoided making against President Donald Trump. And the return of coronavirus relief to the news has helped the party develop a more precise and specific economic message focused on securing larger relief checks for voters.
The 50-seat majority in the Senate may not be enough to fulfill dreams of Democratic politics, but it will allow President-elect Joe Biden to quickly fill his cabinet and get judges through. It also gives hope for liberal action on coronavirus relief, healthcare, climate change and other key issues.
Controls and corruption
Days before the election, Warnock was campaigning in the small town of Valdosta and had a question for the people inside dozens of cars gathered to hear his socially distant speech.
“Did you see them playing games with the $ 2,000 stimulus package this week?” Warnock called out a chorus of horns. “I mean, people are in danger of being deported. People feel pain. They have been waiting for help for months. “
Ossoff and Warnock had long pushed for an additional coronavirus relief program, and Ossoff had focused on Perdue’s opposition to direct aid to individuals. But in the final weeks of the race, Biden’s Democrats united to push for bigger controls, while Republicans were divided as Congress negotiated another round of relief.
At the same time, Democrats continued to hammer Loeffler and Perdue over their stock market scandals, with Ossoff dubbing them “Bonnie and Clyde of political corruption.” The message worked, especially when paired with highlighting the GOP’s position on coronavirus relief.
A Senate majority poll of PAC, the main super PAC supporting Senate Democrats, found that only 22% of Georgian voters believed the COVID relief program which included $ 600 checks was doing enough to help the country. Voters seem to blame Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: His approval rating among Republicans across the state fell from 70% in November to just 57% on December 29.
“As COVID-19 raged and Georgian small businesses collapsed, Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were carrying the economic message to put money in people’s pockets,” wrote the chairman of Senate PAC majority JB Poersch in a note to donors obtained by HuffPost. “It was the perfect contrast to the corrupted GOP ticket, which saw a tidal wave of negative news that we hammered into the commercials.”
An unprecedented ground operation
On polling day, the Democratic Party of Georgia hired Jonae Wartel, a native of the state who worked for LeBron James’ advocacy group More Than A Vote, to lead the ground operation. Roberts and Lauren Passalacqua, director of communications for the DSCC, both settled in Atlanta for the second round of the campaign.
“I cannot overstate as an operator how difficult it is to develop a field program of this size in such a condensed time,” said Roberts.
The party quickly made a crucial decision. Rather than chasing swing voters, they would focus on transforming the Democratic base, especially black voters. The choice was not obvious. There were around 100,000 voters, mostly in suburban Atlanta, who voted for Biden and Purdue in November. But knowing that Republicans had about 300,000 more high propensity voters in the state than Democrats, campaigns bet their best bet was to get black participation.
There, they had significant outside help. A coalition of liberal groups and unions joined together to spend tens of millions of dollars and knock on doors over 10 million, and managed to reach 93% of the 3.1 million voters targeted. The effort was led by BlackPAC (4.9 million doorsteps), the UNITE HERE union (1.6 million) and the New Georgia Project (1.3 million). Another coalition member, the Latinx Mijente advocacy group, knocked on the doors of all registered Latino voters in Georgia.
“I think this was one of the biggest independent spending efforts ever,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC.
Some of the efforts were innovative. Ossoff’s team hired 2,000 mostly young, mostly black, community organizers to access their personal social networks and encourage people to vote. BlackPAC has engaged more than 2,500 businesses across the state – including ice cream parlors and hair salons – to distribute literature to their customers.
The Republicans hit back with their own massive ground game, with the Republican National Senate Committee hiring 1,000 pitch organizers. While Republican turnout in the second round was also high, it lagged behind Democrats in some crucial conservative areas. But GOP agents said Trump’s refusal to accept the election results limited their ability to present the race as an essential check on Washington’s democratic control.
Both sides saw relatively little hope of persuading voters after tens of millions of dollars had already been spent on television advertising in the general election. Ossoff’s campaign tested over a dozen negative posts about Perdue and a dozen negative posts they believed the Republican would deploy against Ossoff. None had a significant impact on the electorate.
The mobilization effort has borne fruit. Turnout among black voters jumped statewide, from Atlanta to smaller towns like Savannah to rural counties with large black populations in the southwestern state, after taking lagging behind other groups in general elections. This was the main reason Warnock and Ossoff were able to improve Biden’s performance starting in November.
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