Can Warnock and Ossoff Really Win in Georgia?

Everything’s favoring them. But in Georgia, is that enough?

Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

If you were trying to construct the ideal circumstances for two Democratic Senate candidates in Georgia to win their runoff elections next month, I’m not sure you could set them up any better than they currently are. The pivotal Senate race should provide every possible advantage to the Democrats.

  • The state of Georgia just went blue for the first time since 1992.
  • One Republican candidate has never won an election in her life, actively campaigned with QAnon believers, compares herself to Attila the Hun favorably, was protested by players on the professional sports team she owns. Oh yeah, and she may have benefited from insider trading on Covid-19 facts that she as a sitting senator failed to provide the public she serves. Oh, and she’s attempting to cast herself as a fighter for regular people even though she is the richest of the 50 senators by a rather large margin.
  • The other Republican candidate claimed the vice president-elect’s name was too difficult to pronounce even though he has worked with her in the Senate for years, has profited off his status as a senator in defiance of ethics rules, was involved in so much shady trading that you’d find it surprising he ever had time to be a senator in the first place, and was so thoroughly dissected in a previous debate with his opponent, Jon Ossoff, that he now refuses to show up for any debates at all.
  • You have two quality candidates in Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, both of whom are inexperienced on the national stage but have clearly grown into much better campaigners over the last year, to the point that each has vastly outperformed any Georgian Democratic Senate candidate in nearly 20 years.
  • You have a highly engaged Democratic electorate that’s desperate to even the Senate at 50–50, which winning both races would do.
  • On the other side, you have lawyers for the president of the United States telling his supporters that they should not vote for either Kelly Loeffler or David Perdue because the whole election system in Georgia is corrupt and therefore should not be trusted in any way, shape, or form.
  • FiveThirtyEight’s poll average has both Ossoff and Warnock ahead with less than a month to go. Even if you no longer believe polls, you should believe them in Georgia, which didn’t have the polling error that so many other states had during the presidential election.

You could not ask for a better situation. This is all Democrats could hope for. This is the best-case scenario.

And yet every single person I talk to here in Georgia, where I live (in Athens), doesn’t think either Ossoff or Warnock has much of a chance.

Much of this is because of the history of runoffs in Georgia, which have a tendency to bring out many more Republicans than Democrats. The much-embattled Brad Raffensberger—the secretary of state of Georgia who Trump, Loeffler, and Perdue are all trying to get fired—won his general election contest by only 0.4% in 2018 and failed also to reach 50%, but he won his runoff by nearly four points.

There is also considerable election fatigue down here amid the deluge of negative campaign ads, particularly those from Loeffler and Perdue. Imagine how exhausted you were by the election in early November. Now imagine it going on for two more months. People are worn down, and there’s no way turnout will be even close to what it was a month ago.

But still: Georgia did just go blue, right? And the get-out-the-vote effort spearheaded by Stacey Abrams and her Fair Fight organization has hardly disappeared: It’s working in full force this entire holiday and is widely expected to make Abrams herself a considerable favorite when she gets another shot at Gov. Brian Kemp in 2022. This is the strongest Democrats have been in Georgia for a generation. So why does everybody feel so pessimistic?

The grim outlook here has a long history, with many candidates who were supposed to usher in a new era of a blue Georgia falling considerably short, from Jason Carter to Michelle Nunn to Abrams to Ossoff himself, who failed in his only high-profile race before this one, four years ago, a House race he lost (and that Democrat Lucy McBath would win a year later). It’s one thing for Joe Biden to edge out Trump to turn the state blue. It’s another for the people in charge here to be Democrats. That we have not seen since long before I moved here more than seven years ago. To people here, that seems like a lifetime ago.

It’s difficult to tell if this skepticism that Ossoff or Warnock — who, anecdotally, seems to be making more of a dent in Georgia than Ossoff is — can pull this off is a self-defense mechanism or bitter, hard-won wisdom. I can’t help but wonder if Biden’s win in Georgia has truly sunk in with everyone here. Most Republicans don’t believe it at all, of course, to their and democracy’s eventual peril. But even Democrats are still a little stunned Biden pulled it off. It remains a surprise, even surreal. There’s too much scarring from the disappointments of the past.

But Abrams, who has been putting all this into place for years, would argue that this is all just the product of hard work and math, that the November 2020 breakthrough can be replicated in January 2021 simply by following the numbers. The demographic changes in Georgia that brought the state to this point are still there as are the infrastructures that Fair Fight and others have built. If this is truly the dawn of a new blue Georgia, then these Senate runoffs, with their weak Republican candidates, fired-up electorates, and sky-high stakes, should secure it — should set it all in stone. It’s not just the Senate itself at stake: It’s the progression of Georgia politics itself. If Loeffler and Perdue, with all their deficiencies and chaos in their party, can still win, Georgia will have taken a step back from just one month ago. But if Ossoff and Warnock can pull this off, Democrats in Georgia will, at last, believe.

Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of five books, including “How Lucky,” in bookstores now.

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