What Brought About the Historic Sea Change in Georgia?

Credit goes to the Black women who have been organizing for years.

Most of the major media outlets have now projected that Democrat Raphael Warnock will win one of the two Senate seats involved in Tuesdays run-off elections in Georgia. While Democrat Jon Ossoff is likely to face a recount, it appears that he has won as well. This is a truly historic moment. Warnock will be Georgia’s first African American senator, while Ossoff will be the first Jewish senator from the state. 

As the Democratic victory unfolded on Tuesday, we were reminded of some important history.

Adam Serwer, staff writer at The Atlantic, reacted to the news from Georgia by tweeting that “A Black man and a Jew winning election to the US Senate in the deep south is evocative of the old civil rights alliance in a way I find … emotionally resonant.”

More recent history also points to an historic sea change. The last Democrat to represent Georgia in the Senate was Zell Miller, who was elected in 2000. Four years later, he not only endorsed Republican George W. Bush in the presidential race, but was a featured speaker at the GOP convention. Bush went on to beat Democrat John Kerry in Georgia by 16 points.

President-elect Joe Biden won Georgia by less than one percent, and current margins for Warnock and Ossoff are similarly tight. That is why, rather than suggesting that the Peach state has flipped from red to blue, it might be more accurate to describe Georgia as purple. In other words, the state is in transition—something that is underway in several formerly Confederate states. For example, Virginia has now completed the transition from red to blue, while North Carolina is beginning to swing. Even Texas is getting close. For Democrats to take advantage of these opportunities, it is helpful to understand what happened in Georgia, as well as how the lessons might be transferable to some states, but not others. 

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that what happened in Georgia is something that has been underway for more than a decade. As Deborah Scott, the founder of Georgia Stand up, told Astead W. Herndon of the New York Times,  “We weren’t surprised that Georgia turned blue, because we’ve been working on it for over 15 years.” Herndon was reporting on the Black women who laid the groundwork for these Democratic victories, including Stacey Abrams. 

No single group delivered the state to Mr. Biden or can take credit for turnout there. In a presidential race decided by a razor-thin margin in Georgia, every piece mattered…In the organizers’ telling, the story of how Georgia voted does not start with Mr. Trump’s election in 2016 or Mr. Biden’s campaign investment this year. It begins a decade earlier, when a new generation of Black female leaders decided to create their own structures, fed up with a state party dominated by conservative “Dixiecrats” and a moderate establishment that presumed the electorate could not change.

In 2018, native Georgian Ed Kilgore explained that Stacey Abrams represented a new Democratic coalition in the south.

African-Americans in the South have struggled to construct two-way biracial coalitions within the Democratic Party, and when they could it often required conspicuously nonprogressive messages. As the parties have continued to polarize, that path has become less viable than ever. There just aren’t that many white swing voters to whom to “reach out,” as the saying goes…

But the very different strategy pursued by Stacey Abrams looks like the future of biracial Democratic politics in the South: a strongly progressive (though not abrasively so) African-American who can expand turnout among a rising minority population while still appealing to increasingly liberal white Democratic and independent voters as well.

Abrams has been branded a radical by Republicans, while some on the far left criticized her as too centrist. Of course, all of that completely missed what this new Democratic coalition in the South is all about. 

On the one hand, Abrams revelled in talking about race. She once told Cosmopolitan that being a Black woman “is a strength. Because I could not be where I am had I not overcome so many other barriers. Which means you know I’m relentless, you know I’m persistent, and you know I’m smart.” On the other hand, she said that “we are writing the next chapter of Georgia’s history where no one is unseen, no one is unheard and no one is uninspired. We are writing a history of Georgia where we prosper together…For the journey that lies ahead, we need every voice in our party and every independent thinker in the state of Georgia.”

What made Abrams’ approach stand out is that, as Kilgore explained, she rejected the idea that the way for Democrats to win in the south was to reach out to white swing voters with a centrist “Dixiecrat” message. Instead, she recognized the untapped potential of over a million people of color who didn’t vote in the 2016 election. Over the years, she and the other Black women Herndon wrote about have focused on engaging those voters.

We witnessed the success of those efforts both in November and in the run-off election on Tuesday. It is what the new Democratic coalition will look like in the old south. As Herndon notes, similar efforts are currently underway in Virginia, Texas, and North Carolina. 

But is that the recipe for Democratic success in other parts of the country? Probably not. In places where the electorate is dominated by rural white voters (as is the case with much of red America) a different strategy will be required. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, Democrats must listen to organizers on the ground and support their efforts. As the long-term process of political realignment continues, that is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from the historic nature of what just happened in Georgia.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION