Book Reviews

How Georgia Went Blue

It was a long time coming—and then it was sudden. But will it hold?

By Ed Kilgore

Tagged DemocratsGeorgiaGrassroots Politicspolitics

Flipped: How Georgia Turned Purple and Broke the Monopoly on Republican Power By Greg Bluestein • Viking • 2022 • 352 pages • $29

When the drama of the 2020 election cycle reached its frenzied climax on two days in January of 2021, my home state of Georgia was at the very center of the action. On January 5, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock—a 33-year-old Jewish liberal and a Black preacher holding Martin Luther King Jr.’s old pulpit—improbably won two U.S. Senate seats in general election runoffs, giving Democrats control of the Senate and a governing “trifecta” in Washington. The next day, after insurrectionists stormed the Capitol and temporarily disrupted the confirmation of Joe Biden’s electoral college victory over Donald Trump, just-defeated Georgia Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler abandoned a challenge to Georgia’s Biden electors, signaling the failure of Trump’s attempted election coup. Her surrender stranded Georgia Republican House members (including newly arriving extremists Marjorie Taylor Greene and Andrew Clyde) eager to keep fighting for Trump and underlined the poisonous intra-GOP divisions in Georgia that remain today.

When Atlanta Journal-Constitution political reporter Greg Bluestein (disclosure: he and I frequently exchange insights and intel about Georgia politics) signed on to write Flipped: How Georgia Turned Purple and Broke the Monopoly on Republican Power in November of 2020, he could not have known how the tale he was telling would end. But he understood that the battle for both Georgia’s electoral votes and the two Senate seats represented a turning point in the state’s political evolution.

Bluestein’s account begins with a Democratic Party in a perpetually subordinate position in Georgia, struggling to find a new formula for success after having tried and failed to regain its long-lost mojo. It’s certainly a familiar story for me, as a surviving relic of the old Democratic Party that was finally laid to rest in 2018 when Stacey Abrams became its unquestioned leader.

I grew up in Jim Crow Georgia, when it was the one state that had never voted for a Republican President until segregationists stampeded into Barry Goldwater’s anti-civil-rights Republican ticket of 1964. I came of age during the long period in which Democrats clung to power by repudiating overt racism but expecting Black voters to support conservative white Democrats (like my bosses Governors George Busbee, Joe Frank Harris, and Zell Miller, along with Senator Sam Nunn) in a non-reciprocal coalition aimed at keeping increasingly reactionary Republicans at bay. It all went to hell in 2002, when Republicans won the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat in huge upsets and soon seized control of the legislature.

By the time Bluestein went to work for the Journal-Constitution in 2012, Georgia Democrats were on a long losing streak characterized by attempts to resurrect the old formula of white moderate-to-conservative leaders and quiet Black followers. The low point came in the 2014 elections when Democrats nominated dynastic scions Jason Carter (Jimmy’s grandson) for governor and Michelle Nunn (Sam’s daughter) for senator—certainly more progressive than their forebears, but still ideologically defensive. They were both trounced.

The first indication that Georgia might finally change came when a traditionally Republican suburban Atlanta congressional district opened up early in 2017, and a 30-year-old investigative journalist and John Lewis protege named Jon Ossoff began attracting vast contributions from around the country to wage the first big contest within the state of the Trump Era. Ossoff and his opponent, the veteran GOP pol Karen Handel, broke every House fundraising and spending record en route to a special runoff that the Republican narrowly won.

In this and ensuing episodes Bluestein tells the parallel stories of both parties with first-hand reporting and fine interpretive skill. His quick introduction to oneof Joe Biden’s key staffers in Georgia shows his ability to explain the dramatic nature of the state’s “flip:”

Over half his lifetime in Georgia Democratic politics, TJ Copeland had grown distressingly accustomed to the familiar cycle of statewide campaigns: the delighted optimism at the start, the discomfiting polls, the defensive maneuvering, the depressing defeats . . . . [H]e watched his party’s hopes dashed time and time again from the front rows, including the crowded hotel ballroom where Jason Carter’s bid for governor was derailed in 2014. Losing political battles was basically all he ever knew.

The key inflection point of Flipped is Abrams’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign, which discarded the traditional Georgia Democratic statewide formula. While Abrams was no leftist by any reasonable definition, she insisted victory for Democrats depended on registering and motivating the vast ranks of nonparticipating “base” voters rather than endlessly chasing white conservatives who were fleeing into the arms of the far right.

What made Georgia fascinating politically in 2018 was that the gubernatorial contest between Abrams and Brian Kemp matched a rising Democratic coalition against a flagging Republican one led by politicians who understood the high stakes of the outcome and took no prisoners in maximizing their vote. Abrams easily disposed of the more traditionally minded white suburban legislator Stacey Evans in her 2018 primary. Evans instantly endorsed Abrams, though, and initiated a period of extraordinary Democratic unity that lasted throughout the trials of the 2020 cycle.

Republicans had a meaner and more competitive primary in which hardcore conservative Secretary of State Brian Kemp defeated veteran Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle in a runoff (Georgia requires majority votes for victory in both primaries and, unusually, in general elections as well), with some outside help he’d come to regret: a late endorsement from Donald Trump (as Bluestein points out, Kemp was on the road to victory anyway, despite Trump’s later complaint that “He would be nothing without me”).

In the hard-fought general election between two old political enemies (Kemp had charged Abrams with abetting voter fraud while Abrams accused Kemp of making “voter suppression a way of life”), Abrams’s expanded base, along with a swing-voter friendly moderate platform, brought her closer to victory than any Democrat since 1998. Kemp won in part by exploiting his position as state election chief to purge voters from the rolls, while wrongly accusing Democrats of voting machine manipulation. So angry was Abrams over Kemp’s tactics that while she suspended her campaign ten days after the election, she never formally conceded. Her “scathing remarks” on November 16, 2018, “would be lionized by liberals who saw Kemp as a voter-suppressing menace and condemned by conservatives anxious to paint her as a sore loser.”

As the 2020 election cycle began in Georgia, this suddenly very competitive state was soon beset, like others, by the COVID pandemic, necessitating emergency election procedures that Donald Trump quickly demonized as conducive to (never demonstrated) election fraud. What made Georgia distinctive, however, was that unlike other battleground states, the election machinery was entirely in the hands of Republicans, notably Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his boss and predecessor Governor Kemp. This ultimately produced an intraparty split that as much as any other factor cost Republicans their two Senate seats, and which still festers in 2022.

Bluestein speculates it might be difficult to repeat a 2020 performance that was like (quoting a Republican strategist) “winning the World Series—by pitching four perfect games.”

Initially, Georgia Republicans figured if they could prevail in the Democratic “wave” election of 2018 they should do even better in a presidential contest; they hadn’t lost one in nearly three decades. Early on, Joe Biden’s campaign considered Georgia a second-tier target. But as Bluestein explains, a band of Abrams-adjacent operatives built an infrastructure that sprang to life in September when polls convinced Team Biden that “flipping” Georgia (along with another previously red state, Arizona) was feasible.

What made Georgia such an intense battleground, though, was the combination of a close presidential contest and two competitive Senate races, thanks to the late-2019 resignation of veteran Republican Senator Johnny Isakson. Governor Kemp, troubled by Democratic gains in suburban Atlanta in 2018, brushed off Donald Trump’s insistent requests that his House impeachment wingman Doug Collins get the interim appointment to fill Isakson’s seat until a November 2020 special election was held. Instead, he opted for political neophyte Kelly Loeffler, an immensely wealthy Atlanta socialite and the very visible co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA franchise, who was also self-financing her campaign. Kemp figured she might appeal to suburban women more than the rough-hewn ideologue Collins.

It all made sense until Collins jumped into the non-partisan “jungle primary” race and pushed Loeffler into a year-long flight to the political fringe out of fear that Collins would outflank her to the right, or worse yet, win a Trump endorsement. Before long she was running ads calling herself “more conservative than Attila the Hun” and all but ignoring Warnock, the front-running Democratic candidate she would face in a January 2021 runoff if she held off Collins. As Loeffler struck right-wing paydirt with an endorsement from the already legendary extremist House candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, Warnock slowly built his campaign without any adverse attention from Republicans.

Meanwhile, the regularly scheduled Senate reelection contest for Republican David Perdue began heating up more conventionally when none other than Jon Ossoff handily won the Democratic nomination and began putting to use the fundraising and field organizing skills he had honed in 2017 when he was narrowly defeated by Representative Karen Handel for a seat in the House. He was also ruthlessly self-disciplined, and clearly got into the head of the thinskinned incumbent, who despised Ossoff for his insinuations that Perdue was a corrupt pol heavily engaging in insider stock trading (Loeffler also drew hostile scrutiny for her own stock trading; Ossoff called the two Republicans “the Bonnie and Clyde of political corruption”).

On November 3, 2020, it all came to a head. Trump and Perdue took early leads in Georgia that enthused their less knowledgeable supporters, but by late night it became apparent that mail ballots that took longer to count would give Biden the lead, and force Perdue into a January runoff on the same day as the long-expected Warnock-Loeffler special election runoff.

It’s in recounting the tense overtime segment of the 2020 election in Georgia that Bluestein really excels, simultaneously tracking the Trump campaign’s wild efforts to challenge the presidential results and the Senate runoff campaigns in which Trump became a millstone for his party. At first every handicapper figured Perdue and Loeffler would win, as Republicans had won every statewide partisan general election runoff in the past. But when Raffensperger certified Biden’s win on November 20 (a decision soon confirmed by Kemp), Trump went to war on his own party’s leadership, forcing the desperate Senate candidates to agree with his unsubstantiated claims of fraud even though they knew the claim the electoral machinery could not be trusted would discourage the maximum base turnout they needed. On two occasions the senators convinced Trump to personally campaign in conservative base areas of the state, only to watch him rage against Raffensperger and Kemp and Georgia’s “rigged” system. At the same time both parties poured endless resources into the state; the four Senate campaigns and outside groups backing them spent nearly a billion dollars overall. Democrats alone deployed 40,000 staff and volunteers, Bluestein tells us.

The two Democrats ran as a team, both deploying a moderate-to-liberal message similar to Biden’s, and much like Abrams’s in 2018. Ossoff excelled at aggressive attacks on his opponent; Warnock ran folksy good-humored ads mocking Loeffler’s attacks that portrayed him as a veteran-hating “radical liberal.” The two Republicans remained trapped to the end between the state party they relied on for organizing efforts and the President who undermined them at campaign events ostensibly on their behalf. No one paying attention was surprised when both Democrats won.

In the end, the 2020/2021 “flip” was the product of a combination of grassroots base voter mobilization (pioneered by Ossof as well as Abrams) and of demographic change based on a steadily increasing nonwhite population as well as the vast growth of Atlanta’s suburbs, which were becoming both more diverse and less connected to the Republican Party that had dominated them since the 1990s. The big goal for Democrats (as Bluestein reported) was known as “30-30”—winning 30 percent of the white vote (both Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter won 23 percent in 2014) while ensuring that Black voters comprised 30 percent of the electorate. Biden, Warnock, and Ossoff (the latter two candidates in the runoff ) nailed this formula, while also winning over 60 percent of the rapidly growing Asian and Hispanic populations (accounting for 7 percent of the electorate). All three candidates also won Cobb and Gwinnett Counties, ancestrally Republican north Atlanta suburban jurisdictions (both counties also elected Black women as chief county government officials in 2020 and helped elect two Democratic women to Congress).

Bluestein ends his book on the day marking Biden’s 100th day in office, when he visited the Atlanta suburbs that had helped give Democrats a trifecta. He briefly speculates about how difficult it might be for Democrats to repeat a 2020 performance that was like (quoting a Republican strategist) “winning the World Series—by pitching four perfect games.” Since then, of course, the picture for Democrats in Georgia and nationally has darkened, as it generally does in midterms when they hold the White House. The Republican-controlled legislature enacted an election “reform” bill clearly designed to hold down voting by mail and urban turnout; it also enacted a gerrymander forcing the two Atlanta suburban Democratic congresswomen who won in 2020 to face each other. Freshly minted Senator Warnock is facing football legend Herschel Walker in his bid for a full term.

The good news for Democrats is that Stacey Abrams, having passed up a 2020 Senate race and likely a high position in the Biden Administration, is running for governor again. Moreover, Donald Trump is again haunting Georgia’s Republicans, having lured former Senator David Perdue into a highly divisive primary challenge against Brian Kemp (along with challenges to Brad Raffensperger and other GOP incumbents who didn’t join his “stolen election” crusade).

Having “flipped,” Georgia will likely remain a competitive battleground for the foreseeable future—a surprising development for this Georgia boy.

Read more about DemocratsGeorgiaGrassroots Politicspolitics

Ed Kilgore is a native Georgian and a Political Columnist for New York Magazine

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