Maya King, Politico, December 5, 2020
Georgia’s campaign ads tell a tale of two states: Raphael Warnock’s ads are bright and sunny, featuring the pastor expounding on health care policy, telling his family story and walking a puppy. But the majority of Kelly Loeffler’s spots take a grimmer tone, attacking Warnock as “the most dangerous, radical candidate in America.” In one ad, the camera pans across a photo of Warnock, who is Black, darkened and superimposed over footage of riots. “Saving the Senate,” the narrator intones, “is about saving America … from that.”
It could work. But with Georgia’s demographics shifting, Loeffler’s approach — a familiar playbook tailored to older, whiter voters who skew Republican — is just as likely to prove out of step with a changing electorate. It’s pitting the politics of the Old South, often characterized by thinly-veiled racist rhetoric and maintenance of the predominantly white status quo, against the New South’s increasingly young and racially diverse constituency. This fundamental tension is shaping the contours of the messaging wars in the Senate race — and could reverberate in the broader region for decades to come.
Republicans remain confident that their strategy is effective, one that appeals to both their predominantly white voting base and communities of color.
“Democrats have painted themselves as radicals,” said David Shafer, chair of the Georgia Republican Party. “There’s no demographic that’s in favor of defunding the police. I think concern for personal safety is an issue that transcends ethnic lines.”
Donald Trump and Mike Pence’s visit to Georgia on Saturday gives the state GOP an opportunity to shore up enough voter support to maintain control of the Senate. But Georgia’s voters are changing. The state has seen an influx of young people of color and college educated voters of all races, which has boosted the population by nearly 10% over the last decade, according to census data. Immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Jamaica also account for these changes. The immigrant population jumped 84 percent between 2010 and 2018, putting Georgia on the fast track to become majority-minority by 2030. Black, Latino and Asian voters in the once-Republican Atlanta suburbs helped deliver the state for Joe Biden in November. In the Peach State — and soon, strategists argue, the rest of the South — demography is becoming destiny.
Republicans, meanwhile, have focused on wooing the denizens of the old Georgia. That approach was effective in 2001, when a debate over the Confederate emblem from the state flag helped cinch Republican political dominance in Georgia for more than 15 years. And it aided Brian Kemp’s gubernatorial campaign as recently as 2018, when he boasted of “rounding up criminal illegals” in his pickup truck. Now, Republicans are hoping that their vilification of Warnock as a radical, dangerous figure will be enough to sink his campaign.
It’s a sentiment, ultimately, rooted in a universal driver of votes: fear.
And it’s one of the greatest turnout methods, said Brian Robinson, a Republican consultant and former spokesperson for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. “The fear of Democrat control of every elected lever of power, the fear of that extremism, is real. And it’s effective.”
With two Senate seats up for grabs in the January 5 runoffs, Democrats see an opportunity to push through new, more ambitious policies that Republicans decry as “radical” and “socialist.” And Republicans are trying to motivate Georgia voters to “hold the line” by reelecting Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue, who is facing off against Jon Ossoff, a Democrat from Atlanta. But the policy concerns conservatives have outlined are quickly being conflated with racial ones.
“There’s a third rail of politics in the South. And it’s race,” said Roy Barnes, Georgia’s last Democratic governor. In 2001, he led the effort to remove the Confederate Battle Flag design from the state flag, which contributed in part to his unsuccessful bid for reelection in 2002. He lost to Sonny Perdue, whose campaign promise to hold a referendum to change the flag again helped him consolidate support among rural white voters.
Georgia Democrats understood as early as 2013 that the state’s fast-changing demographics made it ripe for a leftward shift, particularly as the film industry set up camp in Atlanta. Virginia, whose increased population of young people, college graduates and people of color helped turn it blue in 2016 and 2020, is further proof to liberals that the South is still in play; they have eyed Texas, North Carolina and Florida as viable targets. As these populations grow, demographers predict they will continue to shift blue.
“The younger generation is going to continue to be more likely to be people of color, and even the white populations … will tend to be more college educated whites than it was in the past,” said Bill Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The reason Georgia has stayed Republican all these years, even though they had a large Black population, is because whites voted so dramatically Republican that it countered the demography that was going on with the rest of the population.”