Georgia replaces Iowa as center of political universe

By: - December 1, 2020 8:00 am

Andrew Yang started 2020 campaigning in Iowa during his unsuccessful presidential campaign and this month “moved” to Georgia to knock on doors for the state’s two Democratic U.S. Senate candidates. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Georgia is taking center stage in the American political theater, closing out a year that began with Iowans basking in their familiar role as the focus of intense media saturation and front porch candidate campaign pitches.

Georgia doesn’t typically dominate the national political spotlight, since the GOP has a long statewide win streak that makes results predictable and the timing of its elections tend to water down the stakes in the grand scheme.

But Georgia is seizing political junkies’ attention the way the Iowa caucuses did last February, with the unusual alignment of two U.S. Senate seats on the ballot Jan. 5 and potential Democratic control of the federal government at stake.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang moved to Iowa ahead of the caucuses and the “Yang gang” is now campaigning door to door in Georgia for the duration. Celebrities are courting the state’s voters, with an all-star virtual rock show Dec. 3. President Donald Trump is set to hold a rally Dec. 5, so visitors had best reserve  rental cars now if they’ll need one that weekend. And rest assured, out-of-state reporters will parachute in to profile Georgians in a way that will cause people who live here to shake their heads.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent in television advertisements alone between the various campaigns, and experts predict the crush of political and entertainment celebrities arriving in Georgia will only grow in coming weeks, even with limitations on gatherings aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19.

“I think it’s going to get crazy,” Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, said about the next month in Georgia politics.

Democrats who came up short this month have another shot to try and rally enough support statewide to oust the state’s two sitting Republican U.S. senators. Clockwise from upper left: U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, Rev. Rafael Warnock, U.S. Sen. David Perdue and Jon Ossoff. (Georgia Recorder staff photos)

Georgia law says candidates must secure 50% of votes, so the professor said the state is used to having runoffs, but certainly not ones that attract this much attention. Neither Republican candidates U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler or Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock managed to secure 50% of votes in November and the runoffs.

The runoffs provide fresh evidence to determine if Georgia is truly flipping to blue. If Ossoff and Warnock secure both of Georgia’s senate seats, the upper chamber’s balance of power will be tied at 50-50. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would be able to cast tie-breaking votes.

Abramowitz said he wouldn’t be surprised if former President Barack Obama, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and perhaps even Biden make appearances throughout the state to rally Democrats ahead of the runoff.

For Republicans, it’s a bit more complicated.

Both Loeffler and Perdue have demanded fellow Republican Secretary of State Brad  Raffensperger resign for unspecified failures in his handling of the Nov. 3 election that assigned Georgia’s 16 electoral votes to Biden. (A recount is underway that is not expected to change the outcome, another echo of the Iowa campaign.) The president and members of congress have lodged baseless claims the election was stolen. And Trump has aimed his Twitter anger at Kemp, making the usual GOP unity rallies unexpectedly awkward.

Abramowitz says the key for Republicans will be igniting the base of Trump supporters without stirring up more opposition. Vice President Mike Pence toed this line during a bus tour from Canton to Gainesville on Nov. 20, the same day that Republican Raffensperger certified Biden as the winner of Georgia’s presidential election, the first Democrat to pull that off since 1992.

Taking the stage at campaign rallies to ignite Trump’s base could prove to be a high-wire act for the GOP senators as the feud among Republicans simmers. Loeffler and Perdue both reached runoffs in an election the president now claims was rife with fraud. Now some Trump loyalists are calling for a boycott of the two senate races.

Of course, one big difference between campaigning in Iowa last winter and pitching to Georgia voters this December is the presence of the virus, although the Democrats are embracing the new virtual style more than their GOP counterparts. The Republican senators are campaigning in packed sports bars where their supporters are largely maskless.

Meanwhile, Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight organization is hosting a Rock the Runoff Virtual Concert Dec. 3 so supporters can watch the show from the safety of a digital screen. Announced for the fundraiser are out-of-state hip-hop stars John Legend and Common, as well as the Georgia grown Indigo Girls. The performances follow a string of celebrity endorsements and virtual events, including an appearance this month by Abrams during an Instagram Live rap battle between Atlanta’s Gucci Mane and Jeezy for the Versuz series.  

Despite the high-profile shift to digital campaigning, Abramowitz said he expects traditional voter mobilization efforts are still likely the most effective. For the next month, campaigns will likely heavily rely on phone banking and postcards, although there might be a limited amount of door knocking, too. Georgians can also expect an avalanche of political advertisements. The New York Times reports $231 million had gone towards television ads as of last week, an amount that has “surpassed the spending in the entire primary and general Senate elections combined.”

One staple of Iowa media coverage you probably won’t see much of in Georgia during the next month is the news feature on the quaint local restaurant or report from the watering hole where political reporters wind down.

In pre-COVID times, Midtown Atlanta’s Manuel’s Tavern would be packed for key moments in Georgia’s twin U.S. Senate runoffs. The weekend after Thanksgiving management hired a sign spinner to let passersby know the nearly vacant beer hall was open. (Photo by John McCosh/Georgia Recorder)

Brian Maloof, the owner of Manuel’s Tavern, typically a popular media and political hangout in Atlanta, has set up tables outside as he’s adapted to greatly reduced indoor seating capacity.

Maloof said Manuel’s will likely see an influx of people on the night of Jan. 5 in anticipation of election night results. Due to COVID, the restaurant only allowed one-third of customers to fill its inside dining rooms, but about 200 people watched election results come in on the big screen  from the parking lot on Nov. 3 when the temperature was about 60 degrees. It was the restaurant’s busiest night since March when COVID-19 forced businesses to shut down. Comparatively, Maloof says thousands of people packed the parking lot for the 2016 presidential election. 

Even with COVID-restrictions limiting in-person gathering, though, Maloof says the significance of the runoffs will no doubt draw viewers to his TV screens one more time in an election season like no other.

“The balance of power for the United States is going to hinge on what happens in the state of Georgia,” Maloof said. “The whole world is watching.”

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Jewel Wicker
Jewel Wicker

Jewel Wicker is an Atlanta-based reporter who has written for publications such as Wall Street Journal Magazine, GQ, NPR and Atlanta magazine. She previously worked as a staff reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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