With the Senate majority up for grabs, supporters of Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock are embracing a strategy in the January runoffs that Democrats largely avoided during the general election due to the coronavirus pandemic: door-knocking.
The stakes couldn’t be any higher in Georgia. After losing competitive races in Maine, Iowa, and the Carolinas, Democrats need to win both seats in the state to clinch a working majority in a 50-50 Senate with Vice President–elect Kamala Harris serving as a tiebreaker. Then, and only then, will they have even a chance at passing the kind of legislation needed to achieve President-elect Joe Biden’s plans for tackling racial inequality, revving up the pandemic-struck economy, slashing climate pollution, and more.
Democrats are optimistic after Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia since 1992. But they know it’s going to take a lot of work because they did not secure down-ballot victories for Ossoff and Warnock the first time around. Moreover, Republicans have historically fared better in the state’s runoff elections, where there’s a dropoff in the number of voters who participate compared to general elections.
So a growing number of progressive organizers are masking up to register new eligible voters and motivate people to go back to the polls despite surging coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.
More than 250,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, hospitalizations nationwide are at an all-time high, and the next weeks will likely be brutal. And while new cases are currently not as high in Georgia as they were in July, infections are on the rise.
“I think we’re still trying to figure out exactly what the right formula is,” said Brionté McCorkle, executive director of the environmental group Georgia Conservation Voters. “There’s a lot of digital engagement in response to COVID-19, but I think that folks are seeing that there was a loss by not being at the doors.”
The revived strategy in Georgia is markedly different than the Democratic Party’s approach to canvassing during the general election. While the pandemic spread across the country in the lead up to Nov. 3, Democrats steered away from in-person canvassing and relied heavily on digital field programs like phone-banking and texting to turn out their voters. Some national Democrats, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have pointed to sparse field programs in post-election analyses of why the party underperformed expectations in House and Senate races.
“The decision to stop knocking doors is one people need to grapple with and analyze,” she tweeted in the days after the election.
Evan Weber, the political director and cofounder of the Sunrise Movement, echoed Ocasio-Cortez’s analysis.
“Democrats, somewhat wisely in line with public health standards, didn’t invest heavily in field operations in the middle of a pandemic,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I think there were some decisions made by party operatives where we could’ve done some of that in a safe way; there was major field handicap that hurt Democrats of all political ideologies.”
The push for in-person campaigning is not coming directly from either of the Democratic Senate campaigns, at least not publicly.
“Rising COVID cases are a huge consideration here and how can we do this safely,” an Ossoff campaign spokesperson told BuzzFeed News about door-knocking. “That’s going to be a decision we’ll have to make down the road.”
Warnock’s campaign has largely focused its volunteers on phone-banking and dropping off literature at voters’ doors. “Georgians’ safety comes first, and we try to have a hyperawareness around the precautions we’re taking related to the virus,” a spokesperson for Warnock’s campaign told BuzzFeed News.
The two Democratic challengers have opted for drive-in rallies and outdoor events, sometimes together, where masking and social distancing is enforced.
Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, the Republican incumbents, are going all in on in-person campaigning, often without basic COVID-19 precautions. At a “Save Our Majority” rally last week featuring Loeffler, for example, many maskless supporters gathered in a windowless room.
Starting this week, Vice President Mike Pence is joining Perdue and Loeffler on a bus tour around the state. Neither of the Republican Senate campaigns responded to requests for comment.
Door-knocking has always been a core part of campaigning for former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’ New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan group that has registered thousands of new voters across the state. The mesh of in-person and digital efforts was a resounding success, with the group getting much of the credit for helping spur record turnout among Black communities statewide. The organization has around 100 organizers on the ground and plans to scale up its field program during the runoffs.
“It’s about having high-quality face-to-face conversations, and we tend to be able to do that by knocking on people’s doors,” executive director Nsé Ufot told BuzzFeed News. “We try to have high-quality conversations where people get to be reflective and talk about the fears and the hopes that they have. That’s our central tactic, and sometimes that’s in one-on-one conversations at doors; sometimes that’s at small group meetings in church basements, or housing projects, or cafés with a number of community leaders.”
New Georgia Project has already identified over 100,000 new eligible Georgian voters to register to vote ahead of the Dec. 7 deadline.
For many other groups though, the focus on in-person get-out-the-vote efforts is a shift from the general election. In some cases, New Georgia Project is helping make this possible.
“We’ve largely relied on larger groups like New Georgia Project to be able to do that door-to-door work,” said McCorkle of Georgia Conservation Voters.
“We are actually introducing COVID-safe canvassing because what we’ve seen in the South is door-to-door contact is still one of the more successful ways to engage voters,” Shanté Wolfe, coordinated campaigns director at the Sunrise Movement, told BuzzFeed News. “In this case, it will be doorstep to doorstep to do social distancing.”
And the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced last week that it was committing to a multimillion-dollar field effort that would include on-the-ground field organizers to help turnout and voter registration efforts.
In one of House Democrats’ only pickups of the election, Rep.-elect Carolyn Bourdeaux’s suburban Atlanta campaign fully switched its voter outreach programs to digital as the pandemic spread. Now, as Bourdeaux’s team focuses on assisting Ossoff and Warnock, her campaign manager, Shelbi Dantic, told BuzzFeed News that it’s open to the possibility of in-person campaigning.
“Moving forward, and as we’re thinking about how Carolyn’s campaign and our field teams plug into the runoff, I think there’s an opportunity to feel really good about if we are knocking doors to get people engaged in a runoff election, which I think is going to take an extra step or two to get them to go out to the polls,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Dantic added that the campaign would follow the Senate campaigns’ direction, but that they weren’t completely opposed to canvassing in person.
But the uptick in coronavirus cases is an ever-present worry. To stay safe, organizers are donning personal protective equipment, such as masks and face shields, and trying to meet outdoors.
“We’re going to be having our first full runoff hub meeting in a park on Sunday,” Wolfe said. “We’re doing it rain or shine because we understand the urgency of this moment and we’re not afraid of a little rain.”
The pandemic is also a big reason some local organizers are telling people from out of state to stay home and leave the ground efforts to them.
“We’re not encouraging anyone to come here from out of state. We know that our medical infrastructure in south Georgia isn’t up to par, and we understand that rates of the virus are increasing. So we’re encouraging people from out of state to text with us, and that robust program is moving,” said Britney Whaley, a political strategist with the Working Families Party.
“If people are from here and they want to get involved and canvass,” she said, “that program is happening, and we’ve padded our staff to make sure that our folks are safe.”
The organization is dedicating certain staffers as “safety captains” who will take the temperatures of canvassers and distribute literature to members to avoid big gatherings; it is also planning some outdoor meetings.
“We’re giving out additional PPE to canvassers. This may sound extra, but if people answer the doors with no mask, we’re asking them to close the door so we can leave them some so that they can put on the mask and then we can engage with them from 6 feet away,” Whaley said. “If they don’t want to because they’re at home, then we just move on to the next door. There’s no pressure for our canvassers to be in someone’s face or engage.”
National progressive groups are now focusing their attention on the Georgia races even without sending in staffers and volunteers.
At the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Action Fund, executive director Kevin Curtis is encouraging donors and members to give money. “Give money to the candidates, give money to Stacey Abrams’ group, give money to the Georgia Democratic Party, all of which is going to be focused on getting people to turn out to vote,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Donating to Ossoff, Warnock, and the Georgia Senate Victory Fund all currently feature prominently on the online GiveGreen platform, a collaboration between the environmental groups NRDC, billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen America, and the League of Conservation Voters. ●