'Don't Game Our System': How The Race To Georgia Senate Runoff Is Heating Up
Georgia voters are being bombarded, whether it's Twitter messages, robocalls or the more than $100 million-worth of television commercials they'll see between now and Jan. 5. That's when Georgia's two Republican senators will face Democratic challengers in twin runoffs that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.
Money and operatives are flooding the state to get out the vote.
Republican Sen. Rick Scott from neighboring Florida paid for an attack ad that features Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer from election night saying "Now we take Georgia, then we change America!" Scott then warns "Georgia, don't let these radicals change America."
A host of powerful GOP figures is trying to help incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Neither got more than 50% of the general election vote, resulting in runoffs against Democratic challengers.
Loeffler faces Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. Perdue is against Jon Ossoff, who gained national attention in a 2017 special election for Congress, nearly flipping a seat long in Republican control.
The runoff is one more reason that Georgia is in the national political spotlight. A hand retally in the presidential election there is complete and awaiting official certification for Democrat Joe Biden. President Trump has attacked Georgia's Republican Secretary of State and Gov. Brian Kemp over the count. Meanwhile, Democrats are working to keep up the enthusiasm after Biden's victory.
The state has added more than a million new registered voters since 2016 when Trump took the state by roughly 5 percentage points. Results in 2020 show a more diverse and younger electorate that is changing the political landscape.
'To make sure that our voices are heard'
"Welcome to Students for 2020 HQ," says 17-year-old Edward Aguilar, as he walks under colorful string lights on a friend's back patio in Alpharetta. This is the makeshift office for the group that developed an algorithm for college students to determine where their vote matters most – in their hometowns or where they go to school.
Now calling themselves Students for Tomorrow, they're shifting gears for the runoff.
"We founded this organization because we want our interests to be represented in government," says Aguilar, the CEO. "We want to make sure that our voices are heard."
They're backing Democrat Jon Ossoff for senate, in part because of his age. He's 33. On this evening, the mission is to refine scripts for issue-focused phone canvassing.
Michael Giusto says the calls should start from common ground. He suggests a template.
"Hey, we're students for tomorrow," he says as if making a canvassing call. "We're trying to get student ideas into office, and we've been calling other students to make sure that their ideas are being represented."
Giusto turned 18 after the general election, but can now vote in the runoff and wants to persuade others to join him, and register by the Dec. 7 deadline.
It's estimated that more than 20,000 potential voters will have turned 18 between the general election and the runoff, according to the Civics Center, a youth engagement group.
But Edward Aguilar says that's not enough to make up the difference between Perdue and Ossoff, who was down by more than 80,000 votes.
"I feel that the only way Ossoff can really win is by bringing over voters from the other side," Aguilar says.
'Engaging young voters'
So they will try deep canvassing, tapping issues that resonate with young Perdue voters – the economy for instance – and explain how Ossoff's policies might fit.
Aguilar sees momentum from the general election in terms of engaging young voters.
"What's exciting about right now is that we just saw absolutely historic turnout," he says.
In Georgia, some 20% of ballots were cast by voters between the ages of 18 and 29.
The figures mirror the record turnout both nationally, and in Georgia, a state that moved firmly from taken-for-granted Republican stronghold to courted battleground territory in 2020.
Now with control of the Senate on the line, the attention is even more intense.
Other groups are also making a concerted effort to drive turnout. When We All Vote uses social media and games like Among Us and Kahoot! to share information about how to register or how to request an absentee ballot, says Tiffany Pham, a 16-year-old student activist from Clayton County, Ga.
"I think this is really important to equip the next generation with the most important tool, which is their vote," Pham says. "Historically, in our country, we've always been seen as like the apathetic generation that doesn't really care. And that's just simply not true."
This weekend, Black Voters Matter is launching a "Can't Stop Won't Stop" bus tour in Georgia.
And Republicans are working just as hard to keep their voters engaged.
GOP senators 'have a very delicate balance'
A key message is keeping the Senate in GOP hands.
"From the Republican perspective, a lot of people view this as the firewall," says attorney Jake Evans, chairman of the Georgia chapter of the Republican National Lawyers Association, and past president of the Atlanta Young Republicans.
But talking about a firewall is tricky for the GOP senators, Evans says, because that acknowledges Biden as the president-elect when Trump is still disputing the outcome in Georgia and elsewhere.
"They have a very delicate balance," Evans says. "They have to balance to Trump supporters under the reality that he likely is not going to be president on Jan. 21, 2021."
Republicans have historically performed well in runoffs, which tend to have lower turnouts. Even in this heightened atmosphere, Evans says the GOP has the advantage.
"I don't think that the Democrats have the Darth Vader at the top of the ticket – who's Donald Trump - to drive up their turnout," Evans says. "You had a lot of first-time voters in metro Atlanta who were really turning out to the polls for one reason, and that was to vote against Donald Trump."
But no Trump on the ticket could also work against Republicans, and some have suggested that attacks on Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger are part of a strategy to keep the base fired up. Both Loeffler and Perdue called for his resignation.
Some have speculated that political operatives could come here and register to vote in the January runoff. Georgia's voting implementation manager Gabriel Sterling says that would be a felony.
"If you want to move to Georgia and be a part of the No. 1 state in America to do business, we are happy to have you," Sterling says. "But if you are here for the sole sake of politics – don't game our system."
Early voting in the Georgia senate runoffs starts Dec. 14.
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