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‘Georgia is not New York’: Progressives adapt efforts for Senate runoffs

  • NEW YORK TIMES / NOVEMBER 19
                                Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff poses for a photograph with a supporter while campaigning in Jonesboro, Ga.

    NEW YORK TIMES / NOVEMBER 19

    Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff poses for a photograph with a supporter while campaigning in Jonesboro, Ga.

Neither Jon Ossoff nor the Rev. Raphael Warnock has endorsed the Green New Deal. But that has not stopped the Sunrise Movement, the activist climate group that champions the sweeping climate change plan, from mobilizing in force for the two Georgia Democrats in their high-stakes runoff races for Senate seats.

The group is aiming to help register 10,000 to 20,000 Georgians who will turn 18 by Jan. 5, the day of the elections. It has people on the ground canvassing and dropping off campaign literature. And while its appeals mention the threat from climate change, it does not present the issue as a litmus test.

“Right now, we’re focused on the bigger picture,” said Shanté Wolfe, who is leading the Sunrise Movement’s work in Georgia. “Our effort is in favor of the greater good.”

The furious efforts in Georgia by the Sunrise Movement and other progressive groups — on behalf of two candidates who do not share their most ambitious policy goals — reflect the urgency that is consuming the Democratic Party’s left flank. Two victories in Georgia would produce a 50-50 tie in the Senate, giving Democrats control of the chamber because Kamala Harris would cast tie-breaking votes as vice president.

Without Democratic control, progressive lawmakers, activists and their grassroots supporters worry that they will not be able to achieve even a pared-down version of their policy wish list for the country.

But they also understand that for decades Georgia has been a Republican stronghold with a large number of conservative voters, and their efforts there need to be modulated. President-elect Joe Biden won the state, many Democrats point out, with a moderate agenda that tempered the rhetoric and policy goals of the left. Biden, Warnock and Ossoff do not support “Medicare for All,” another priority of the party’s left wing.

Wolfe said the Sunrise Movement had tried to adjust its messaging for a state like Georgia by “making sure that we localize the Green New Deal in a way that resonates with Southerners.” For instance, canvassers are emphasizing how climate change affects the air that Georgians breathe, she said.

Other groups are also pouring money and resources into the state.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee has raised $386,000 for the two Democratic candidates. MoveOn, a progressive group, hopes to mobilize many of its 250,000 members in Georgia, and more nationwide, to canvass and phone bank in the state. Our Revolution, the political organization that spun out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, is contacting its 50,000 member households in the state to encourage them to request mail ballots.

“We are moving heaven and earth and pointing all of our resources as much as we can to help us win those two seats in Georgia,” said Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat who will be sworn into the next Congress.

Bowman said he spoke recently with Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the Georgia governor’s race in 2018 and is widely credited with voter turnout initiatives that helped flip Georgia blue this year, to see how he could support her efforts. And he said that he and other progressives in the House — including “the Squad,” a now-growing group that began with four congresswomen of color — were strategizing about how to help in Georgia.

“Georgia is not New York. It’s not California. It has its own culture,” Bowman said. “But it’s a culture rooted in justice for all, and we just want to make sure we support that initiative as much as we can, as representatives from other parts of the country.”

Amid deepening ideological fault lines among Democrats over messaging and electoral strategy — divisions that have burst into the open as the party takes stock of its painful losses down the ballot — the two Senate runoff elections will also be a test case for whether progressives can balance their broad calls for change with the realities of campaigning in a once reliably Republican state.

Defeating two Republican incumbents, Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, will be no easy task for Ossoff and Warnock. Still, the competitiveness of the races, and the progressive focus on Georgia, underscores the political evolution occurring in the state.

Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since Bill Clinton in 1992. And although Georgia does not have a reputation now as a hotbed of liberalism, some organizers and strategists inside and outside Georgia contend that it is becoming increasingly receptive to left-leaning ideas.

Biden beat President Donald Trump in Georgia by making significant gains among affluent, college-educated and older voters in the suburbs around Atlanta, according to a New York Times Upshot analysis of the results; at the same time, the Black share of the electorate fell to its lowest point since 2006.

Those findings indicate that Democrats must still depend on the support of traditionally conservative voters to win statewide — rather than turning out a progressive majority led by young voters and nonwhite voters.

In a fundraising email last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts hailed Biden’s success as proof that “the path to victory in Georgia is clearer than ever.”

Then she issued a call to arms: “Democrats can win these two Senate races too — and we must.”

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