Warnock And Ossoff Are Testing A New Strategy For Democrats In The South
"For most of the past four years, the Midwest occupied the leading spot on the marquee of U.S. electoral politics. Voters there helped tip the Electoral College toward Donald Trump in 2016, as he eked out victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And rebuilding the so-called blue wall was in part why Democrats chose an older, white, relatively moderate man as their presidential nominee in 2020. That strategy worked. Joe Biden narrowly carried all three states, providing him the Electoral College margins to win the presidency.
But now a new star has elbowed out the Midwest for top billing: the South. It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of Georgia’s two U.S. Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5, which feature Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler facing Democrat Raphael Warnock in one race and Republican Sen. David Perdue versus Democrat Jon Ossoff in the other. If Democrats win both races, they would effectively control the Senate, giving the party a governing trifecta in Washington.1
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Georgia, though, is a much different place than the Midwest. That’s obvious, of course, but those differences lead to important distinctions in what we can expect from campaigns there. What makes Georgia electorally unlike most swing states is its large Black population. About 33 percent of Georgians are Black, a much higher share than the nation overall (13 percent) and higher than all but two other states (Mississippi and Louisiana).
To be more precise, what’s really different about Georgia’s electoral politics is that Democrats there are disproportionately Black. Like in most states, Republican voters in Georgia are overwhelmingly white. And nationally — even in the Democratic Party — non-Hispanic white people are by far the biggest bloc. We don’t (and will never) have exact figures for this, but nationally in 2020, it’s likely that more than 60 percent of Biden voters were white and fewer than 20 percent were Black. But in Georgia, there were very likely more Black Biden supporters than white ones — in fact, Black voters may have been an outright majority of his supporters.2
A large share of the Democratic Party’s base in Georgia is Black, and they have a huge influence on the campaigns to win these two Senate races, including in ways the party has little control over. That’s been especially true recently, as the region has grown more racially diverse and suburban. And we are likely to see more Black-centered campaigns in Southern states in the future, particularly if Warnock or Ossoff (or both) wins.
A potential new model for Democratic campaigns in the South
Warnock and Ossoff are somewhat unusual candidates to run for statewide office in the South and get strong backing from the Democratic Party — Warnock is Black, Ossoff is a fairly liberal Jewish 33-year-old. For much of the past four decades, as the Republican Party has increasingly gained strength in the South, the Democratic Party has employed a two-pronged strategy to try to limit its losses: take more conservative stands than the national Democratic Party on some policies and embrace white candidates, usually men, in key statewide races. That strategy didn’t really work overall, but it’s not clear it was wrong either — there was probably not any way to prevent the South from shifting Republican over the past several decades.
And in some specific cases that strategy has worked. Currently, the three Democratic governors in Southern states that are red or purple politically are all white men: Kentucky’s Andy Beshear, North Carolina’s Roy Cooper and Louisiana’s Jon Bel Edwards. As are the only two senators, Alabama’s Doug Jones3 and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. Edwards and Manchin in particular are fairly conservative Democrats. In Georgia, Biden outperformed Warnock and Ossoff, and that might have been because Biden is an older white man who is often cast in the media as more conservative than other Democrats.
That strategy also has downsides, though. It steers the party toward candidates who sometimes don’t share the views of the party’s base on key issues — Edwards is opposed to abortion rights, for example — and away from candidates who are people of color.
Stacey Abrams had long criticized that approach as ignoring the growing number of voters of color in the South and the region’s liberalism on some issues. Not only is she a Black woman, of course, but her own 2018 gubernatorial campaign was a decided break from this strategy, as it emphasized outreach to people of color and didn’t tack to the right on key issues. Her strong showing suggested Democrats in statewide races could be competitive in the South without going the conservative-ish-white-guy route.
The 2020 election results reinforce that conclusion to some extent. Black male Democratic Senate candidates in Mississippi (Mike Espy) and South Carolina(Jaime Harrison) lost by substantial margins, but Biden lost in those states by even more, suggesting those Black candidates didn’t suffer from a major racial backlash.4 Warnock and the other Democrats in his Senate race combined won 48.4 percent of the total vote, and Ossoff won 47.9 percent; Biden won 49.5 percent in Georgia.
Those results aren’t too surprising. The Democratic Party that has emerged from the Obama-Trump era is a multiracial coalition of people with generally more progressive attitudes about racial issues. The GOP is a mostly white coalition of people who tend to have less progressive attitudes about racial issues. And more and more Americans are voting by party instead of ticket splitting.
So, in most races, Democrats aren’t going to win a lot of votes from conservative-leaning white people, particularly in the South, even if they run an older white man who is somewhat conservative. And they are going to win the votes of white people with more progressive attitudes on racial issues, even if the candidate is not a white Christian older man.
Those conditions help explain how Warnock and Ossoff — who are unlike most previous Democratic candidates in Georgia — ended up at the center of U.S. politics.
Two candidates tied to Atlanta’s Black political class
Ossoff won the Democratic primary for the Perdue seat in June in part because he had built a big following and fundraising network from his unsuccessful 2017 run in a U.S. House special election that got a lot of national attention. But the more interesting story is how Ossoff won the Democratic primary in 2017, when several other Democrats also sought the seat in Georgia’s 6th District in the suburbs of Atlanta. After all, Ossoff wasn’t exactly an obvious candidate — a lawyer or doctor or someone who had served in office before — at the time. Only 30 years old, he was running a documentary film company and didn’t actually live within the district’s borders (he lived in a neighboring district closer to where his now-wife worked).
The explanation for how Ossoff won is pretty simple. In his initial House run, Ossoff got the enthusiastic support of two Atlanta-area congressmen, Hank Johnson and, more significantly, John Lewis. Ossoff had interned in Lewis’s congressional office and then worked on Johnson’s campaign and in his D.C. office. It’s fairly unusual for a white man to work in the congressional offices of two Black House members and use that as a launching pad for his own political career. But the top ranks of elected officials in the Atlanta area are made up largely of Black Democrats and white Republicans — so it was entirely logical that someone like Ossoff, a politically inclined white Democrat who grew up in the Atlanta area, would end up working for Black politicians. And with the Atlanta area growing increasingly diverse and its white voters likely becoming more liberal on racial issues after Trump’s election, Ossoff’s associations with two Black members of Congress were great credentials for his 2017 House campaign and to later run for the Senate. Atlanta’s Black political class in some ways accidentally birthed Ossoff as a U.S. Senate candidate.
Why did down-ballot Democrats have such a mediocre showing?
“When he [Ossoff] announced his Senate campaign last year, his first major rally was with none other than John Lewis. The congressman told me afterward he would do everything he could to help energize Black voters for Ossoff,” said Greg Bluestein, a political reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Warnock is more obviously rooted in Atlanta’s Black scene. He is Black himself. And he has served for 15 years as the senior pastor of Ebenezer, the 6,000-member Baptist church that was led by Martin Luther King Sr. for decades, with Martin Luther King Jr. serving as a co-pastor from 1960 until he was assassinated in 1968. Politicians, including some Republicans, have long visited the church as part of their outreach to Black voters. And even before becoming a candidate, Warnock had been politically engaged himself, leading a protest at the state’s capitol in an effort to get Medicaid expanded in Georgia; he even flirted with a U.S. Senate run back in 2016.
But Warnock’s decision to run for the Senate this year wasn’t just about his own political ambitions — the Democratic Party really wanted him to run, in part because of his race. There was some grumbling among Georgia Democrats in 2019 that Ossoff and most of the other leading contenders in the Democratic primary for Perdue’s seat were white.5 So, last fall, when then-Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican, announced his retirement, setting up a second Georgia Senate election in 2020, Democratic leaders in Washington, as well as Abrams, strongly encouraged Warnock to run.
Warnock formally announced his candidacy in January. He was not the only Democratic candidate who ran for the seat vacated by Isakson, which Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Loeffler to fill. But the Democratic Party did everything it could to make sure that Warnock — not his Democratic rival Matt Lieberman, who is white and the son of the former longtime Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman — was the Democratic candidate to advance to the runoff. The Democrats’ Senate campaign arm, along with Sen. Cory Booker and Abrams, endorsed Warnock right at the start of his campaign, and other party officials, mostly notably former President Obama, also got behind him. In the November election — which included more than a dozen candidates overall (and several from both parties because of the special election rules triggered by Isakson’s resignation) — Warnock ended up getting about 33 percent of the vote, while Lieberman got just under 3 percent.
So the Democrats avoided an all-white slate in Georgia. But we’ve also seen some subtle differences compared with past Democratic candidates in how Warnock and Ossoff have campaigned after making it to the runoffs.
Connecting to Black voters in ways that don’t annoy white voters
Neither Ossoff nor Warnock is saying anything particularly bold on racial issues to appeal to Black voters. That’s not surprising. Ossoff and Warnock can’t take a stand on any issue, racial or nonracial, that is likely to alienate a lot of white voters in Georgia. A Democratic campaign needs to win around 30 percent of white voters in Georgia to carry the state — and that’s often where they fall short. Biden ran slightly ahead of both Ossoff and the combined total of Warnock and all the other Democrats in the other Senate race, suggesting that there may be some white moderates or independents who couldn’t stomach Trump but were fine with backing a Republican for Senate. Democrats need those voters to either stay home on Election Day or flip to the Democratic Party. So racial ideas like reparations, which are popular among Black voters, are off the table, as they would likely not appeal to white swing voters in Georgia.
Instead, Ossoff and Warnock’s approach is similar to Abrams’s campaign in 2018, when she ran for governor: a lot of focus on showing connectedness to Georgia’s Black community, but not a ton of policy, particularly on more controversial issues specifically aimed at Black people. Both Senate candidates frequently tout their connections to the civil rights-era hero they are associated with (Lewis for Ossoff, King for Warnock). Both candidates are prominently featuring Obama in their campaigns — the former president praised Ossoff in a new TV commercial and appeared in a recent virtual rally for Ossoff and Warnock. And both men emphasize their support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, a measure that would essentially restore requirements that some states pre-clear with the U.S. Justice Department any changes in their voting procedures.
Ossoff, as the white candidate who needs a lot of Black support, regularly pays homage to Georgia’s Black Democrats. (“Black voters are the heart and soul of the Democratic electorate here in Georgia,” he told Yahoo News in a recent interview.) Warnock emphasizes parts of his upbringing likely to resonate with Black people in particular: his mother picking tobacco and cotton when she was young; his family living in public housing when he was a kid; his college days at Morehouse, which he paid for in part with Pell Grants. The pastor also has a commercial in which he talks about being dragged out of a store as a 12-year-old because the workers there thought he had stolen something — they were suspicious because Warnock is Black and had his hands in his pockets.
“Warnock and Ossoff back stances that are largely popular with Black voters — including Medicaid expansion, decriminalizing marijuana and tackling student debt — that would also level the playing field some in terms of systemic inequality,” said Terrence Clark, Warnock’s communications director. Clark noted that both candidates speak openly and directly about how that inequality hurts Black people especially and aren’t worried about a backlash from this kind of racialized rhetoric. In Clark’s view, white voters in Georgia and across the country have “largely moved toward the left on social issues, so the electorate is not as sharply divided on issues that historically animate Black voters.”
And even as they take rather safe positions on racial issues, Ossoff and Warnock aren’t likely to join leading Democratic Party figures like Obama who are criticizing activists adopting more controversial stands like defunding the police. Why not? Because Ossoff and Warnock need strong turnout and support from all parts of the Black community, including younger Black people who might agree with more leftish positions. And Black Lives Matter and other left-leaning activist groups are on the ground in Georgia, trying to help the Democrats win there. So Ossoff and Warnock have little incentive to antagonize them.
“The idea that Black candidates can’t do as well as white candidates in the South has been untrue for years, and the operatives and politicians that push that narrative are generally speaking people who haven’t won sh– in the last 25 years,” said Trey Nix, a Democratic political strategist who often works on races in the South, including Cooper’s last two gubernatorial campaigns in North Carolina.
“Part of the future of winning in the South for Democrats is in candidates like Warnock and Abrams,” Nix added.
Maybe. If Ossoff, Warnock or both do fairly poorly (finishing at, say, 45 percent or below), then perhaps the recent blue shift in Georgia was really just anti-Trump sentiment and Democrats need Biden types in states like Georgia to be competitive now that the Trump era is likely over.
But as long as Ossoff and Warnock do decently well — getting at least 46 to 49 percent of the vote or winning — I suspect we are going to see more young, non-Christian, women and/or people of color as Democratic candidates in key races in the South (as opposed to just older centrist white men). In fact, soon after these Senate races are over, Georgia is likely to have another Democratic candidate running statewide and playing up her ties to the Black community: Abrams, who is expected to launch a second campaign for governor sometime in 2021.
I doubt we have seen the last of Biden-Edwards-Jones-style candidates in the South. But what Abrams has dubbed the “Abrams playbook” for Democrats in Georgia in particular — trying to win a coalition of progressive white voters and people of color with candidates and strategies that connect with those two blocs — may eventually be the default Democratic Party playbook for the South.
“This is a movement for health, jobs, and justice,” Ossoff said in a recent Twitter message, sounding like a civil rights activist as much as a politician.
He added, “@ReverendWarnock and I are building a multiracial, multi generational coalition: The New South.”