Loeffler Says Georgia Democrats Had A Better Ground Game. Now She Wants To Match It
Georgia Republicans have seen their fortunes change quickly.
Their recent losses in presidential and U.S. Senate contests have revealed some problems: First, robust Democratic organizing in the state has engaged younger and more diverse voters at a large scale. And more recently, false claims of widespread voter fraud by some Republican leaders have sown doubt among many of the party's voters about the system's trustworthiness.
Kelly Loeffler, one of two Republicans who lost a Senate seat in January, is hoping to fix those problems. She's created and funded a new group called Greater Georgia.
"If we don't register more voters, if we don't engage more Georgians, bring more diversity to our party and instill more trust and confidence in our elections, I'm not sure it matters who runs for any race in 2022 and beyond," Loeffler said.
"I very much am focused on the fact that half a million Georgians who voted on Nov. 3 did not vote on Jan. 5, the majority of whom were Republicans," she said.
Loeffler said a 2022 Senate bid to reclaim her seat remains "on the table" but that her focus right now is with the new effort.
Critics argue her group's goal of improving trust in elections — which for Republican state lawmakers in Georgia is translating into bills that would add voting restrictions — contradicts the other stated goal of recruiting new minority voters.
Loeffler is not actively lobbying for any of those GOP proposals and said it "shouldn't be controversial" to want to improve trust and transparency in elections.
But for Georgia Democrats, it all sounds the same.
"There's an old saying in the Black community: 'I can't hear what you say, for watching what you do,' " said longtime Democratic state Rep. Carolyn Hugley. "Now, you can't tell me that you want me to be involved in what you're doing but at the same time try and put in barriers for people who look like me to participate in the process."
Republicans have defended the legislation as responding to their constituents' concerns.
"That stuff has to be fixed," Republican strategist Jay Walker, who runs Republican statehouse campaigns, said about individual testimony lawmakers have heard about issues with absentee voting. Republican election officials have maintained there was no widespread voter fraud.
"We don't have a choice," Walker said of the proposals. "It is the No. 1 issue among Republicans, and I understand why it is."
Greater Georgia mirrors another alliterative Georgia-based group, Fair Fight, which former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams began when she lost her own election in 2018. It's an example of the Democratic infrastructure Loeffler said she faced on her Senate campaign, and that's she's hoping to match.
"We had tremendous efforts in terms of the ground game. We had about 1,000 people on the ground, thousands more volunteers, and we worked every single day," Loeffler said. "But what we saw on the other side of the ballot was even more. They had thousands more staffers, thousands more volunteers."
Fair Fight has grown into a voter mobilization, advocacy and litigation juggernaut working in coalition with groups across 20 states with tens of thousands of volunteers.
"I see us to be a progressive engine in the state of Georgia, with a heavy focus on voting rights, but to be part of the coalition of groups to help advance a broader progressive agenda," said Fair Fight CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo, who is also Abrams' former campaign manager.
Groh-Wargo said Fair Fight's political action committee has become a major funder of the Georgia Democratic Party and spent more than $25 million during the Senate runoff campaigns alone.
"What we saw in the final analysis was that there was a longer-term ground game, there were stronger Election Day operations, there was a more institutionalized effort on the other side that we need to build out," Loeffler said.
Republicans in Georgia have been winning easily for decades and simply haven't needed a large-scale ground game. Democrats, on the other hand, have been growing theirs through many groups, including Fair Fight.
"I have to tell you that it's been a process," Democratic Rep. Hugley said. "Stacey Abrams didn't just pop on the scene in 2018. Grassroots organizations have been working on voter registration for years here in Georgia."
The Georgia GOP used to have a ground game, said longtime political reporter and columnist Jim Galloway. They employed it to take control of the state two decades ago, focused on rural voters.
"They know how to get voters registered and to the polls," he said. "It's just a matter of which ones that they've been getting. Now what they've seen is that they have a deficit."
"Money, message and mobilization"
Fair Fight's Groh-Wargo isn't worried about Republican efforts like Loeffler's group.
"The reality is they are pushing up against a demographic change and a really built-out, sophisticated, thoughtful, well-funded, relatively harmonious progressive and Democratic ecosystem that is years ahead of them on the tools and the tactics," she said, pointing to the "three Ms of politics: money, message and mobilization."
"On all three metrics, the progressive and Democratic side has a leg up," she said. "That doesn't mean we're always going to win; it means that we're going to be competitive."
Walker, the Republican strategist, agreed that Democratic fundraising has outpaced Republicans, and that his party's message needs work after its recent losses.
"Our message basically was, the other side is really bad," he said. "They are ... but that can't be a message. Your message can't be, 'Elect me, because I'm not bad.' We have to get back to talking about who we are, what we do, and what we stand for."
Yes, he said, the party also needs robust voter registration and engagement. But it's an "all of the above" strategy that he thinks the party is going to adopt.
"We're going to talk to people about taxes. We're going to talk to people about education. We're going to talk to people about things that actually matter to them in their house," Walker said.
And Republicans right now, are "ready to fight," he said.
"[Democrats] woke us up," he said. "We realized that they can win in the state of Georgia now. And we don't want that to happen anymore."
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