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Election Reflection, Part III: Georgia the Jungle

Note: this is the third of a series of Toteboard post-election reflections.

It’s fair to say that a couple of months ago, no one really imagined that Georgia would suddenly find itself occupying the center of the political universe. The democrats were supposed to do their Senate-flipping in a crucible of five blue or purple states – Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina – with Georgia (among a few others) providing something of a fantasy afterthought in a best-case scenario. But the democrats under-performed down-ballot, bungling all of the quasi-tossups, and it looked like the Senate would be hopelessly lost for at least another two years, until Georgia’s numbers unexpectedly turned during the third extraordinary day of ballot-counting. And so here we are: weak and weary from Trump’s feverish (and relentless) assault on democracy, yet buoyed by Monday’s drama-free electoral college voting, and nervously entering the final three-week run-up to the twin runoff elections that will determine control of the Senate . . . and possibly the fate of the country.

So what’s going to happen? What outcomes can we expect? Well, if history is any guide, it’s a good-news bad-news story, but it really isn’t clear on which hyphen the punchline will hinge.

The Historical Record

In terms of the last generation or so, the democrats have had little cause for optimism. As was the case in other southern states, the remaining yellow-dog democrats who survived the Civil Rights Act all gradually retired, lost reelection, switched parties, or developed dementia, giving rise to a complete republican takeover of statewide offices. The Georgia democrats mainly imploded during a depressing ten or twelve year stretch, when their dwindling base could only watch helplessly as though awaiting an approaching asteroid or radiation from creeping nuclear fallout. In 1992, the incumbent senator Wyche Fowler was upset by Paul Coverdell (in a runoff), and exactly ten years later, the decorated war veteran (and triple-amputee) Max Cleland was defeated by Saxby Chambliss after the latter ballsily ran ads questioning Cleland’s patriotism. The democrat justifiably felt blindsided by his opponent’s gutter insinuations and betrayed by the people of his state for buying that shit, but this was simply the new reality for Georgia (and the old reality for the way republicans do business). That same year, incumbent governor Roy Barnes also got the boot, mainly for trying to get the confederate emblem removed from the state flag. The dems had caught a slight reprieve when Coverdell died and Barnes appointed the well-liked former governor Zell Miller (a popular college scholarship program bears his name to this day) to finish his term, but that all went south (so to speak) pretty quickly when Miller, much like the narrator of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” made public his bizarre descent into madness. And when Miller’s term was up in 2004, that was pretty much it for any statewide democratic power in Georgia, and the party grew increasingly demoralized with each successive loss. Yes, bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed canvassers would show up at the door every two years, each time proclaiming that the democrats were back and ready to fight, but it was clear that they were either putting on a bold front for a moribund party or simply as delusional as Zell Miller was, as the results turned out pretty much the same from election to election. The democrats thought they were on the cusp of a breakthrough in 2014, when they ran two political legacies for the top spots – Points of Light CEO Michelle Nunn (former senator Sam Nunn’s daughter) and state senator Jason Carter (Jimmy’s grandson) for senator and governor respectively – but both turned in goose-eggs, losing by 7 or 8 points in what was admittedly not a good year nationally for democrats. With this history in the backdrop, it was hard not to be cynical when political newcomer Jon Ossoff ran for an open House seat in the high-profile (and high expense) 2017 special election, or when Stacey Abrams ran for governor in 2018. Alas, both lost by narrow margins. Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

The other historical precedent that doesn’t look particularly encouraging is Georgia’s runoff rule, which boasts unambiguously racist roots. In the early 20th century, Georgia adopted an arcane “county-unit system” for most state and local offices that crudely mirrored the national electoral college, with the express intent of undercutting urban influence, amplifying rural power, and (of course) disenfranchising Black voters. Earl Warren’s Supreme Court eventually found such chicanery unconstitutional, but segregationist forces countered in the mid-1960s with the runoff system, announcing on the floor of the Georgia House that “the Negroes and the pressure groups and special interests are going to manipulate this state and take charge if we don’t go for the majority vote.” To the Pollyannaish contemporary eye, this seems so blatantly discriminatory and undemocratic, that one may wonder how it could have ever happened in America and how it can continue without being called out for what it is. But if BLM taught us anything over the last year, it’s that American history and culture are saturated with corrosive, systemically racist structures that were devised and are perpetuated by people with malevolent interests, and that remain invisible to far too many who are not directly hurt by them (or who passively benefit from them). In any event, while this scheme was originally weaponized to disadvantage Blacks (who admittedly have not always turned out in high numbers for the runoffs), it also naturally disadvantaged the parties with which they historically affiliated, i.e., first the republican challengers to the yellow-dog democrats, and lately the democratic challengers to the new republican hegemony. Ever since Fowler’s 1992 senate loss more or less initiated the Georgia “republican era,” democrats have not won a single runoff in a partisan race. Taken together, these two historical markers don’t bode well for Georgia democrats. It seems like the numbers are against them, and even when they aren’t, well, they still are.

But, and it’s a huge but, the presidential election may have changed the electoral calculus. During the dark times, pundits and demographers alike have been prophesying an eventual blue-ward turn for Georgia, built on an emergent coalition of educated urban transplants (largely in Metro Atlanta), suburbanites wary of reactionary republican social policy, and newly motivated voters from communities of color, though it always seemed like that was all something for the eschatological future. But six weeks ago, Biden proved that it can be done, and the present suddenly became that future! No, he didn’t quite hit 50% of the vote (the libertarian candidate drew over sixty thousand votes), and there’s no guarantee this wasn’t a one-time anomaly (we’ll find out soon enough), but Biden’s stunning victory moves a blue Georgia from the realm of fantasy to that of possibility, and it is indeed an exciting time to have a front-row seat for witnessing this potential transformation. A lot of tumblers had to fall into place for this to happen, not the least of which were recent demographic shifts and widespread alienation from Trump’s gargoyles taking over the republican cathedral, but the Toteboard is convinced that most of the credit goes squarely to Stacey Abrams, who has truly made it her mission to democratize voting in Georgia (and elsewhere), and to normalize registration and turnout among Black (and other) communities as a vehicle for making their collective voice heard.

And so, the upcoming runoffs are enacting in real time a near-mythic confrontation between the irresistible force of Stacey’s (and Biden’s) new democratic coalition and the immovable object of the entrenched Georgia illiterati. And the Toteboard would not dare hazard a guess as to how it’s going to turn out, but it can identify the unique features of the races individually, and collectively.

The Regular Election:

Although most maps penciled Georgia red for this race, it should have been clear from the beginning that one-term incumbent David Perdue was at least theoretically vulnerable. He doesn’t have deep political connections in the state beyond having a former-governor cousin, his 2014 “mandate” was a less than meteoric 52.9% during a big republican year, and his face looks like it will break every time he attempts to turn the corners of his mouth slightly upward into what his handlers tepidly inform the Toteboard is a “smile.” Or, as we reported more than thirteen months ago (!) when we first identified him as a possible target, “Perdue has that kind of arrogant redneck quality that fits in so well down here,” but also that “he’s not the most likeable jerk in the world.” And while he bettered his opponent by a point or two in the general election, his inability to win outright indicates that he lacks a solid constituency, and suggests that maybe attaching himself to Trump’s hip (and maybe some other body parts) wasn’t such a great idea after all. The democratic candidate Jon Ossoff, who easily cleared the democratic primary through a combination of name recognition and residual Metro support from the 2017 special election, didn’t initially look like the most promising challenger. He came off as a bit wonky, a bit programmed, and a bit stiff, and the Toteboard wondered if he might be Georgia’s version of Beto O’Rourke, i.e., photogenic but over-rehearsed and over-exposed, in the spotlight more because of the circumstances of his high-stakes race than any intrinsic quality as a candidate. One indicator of his sudden (and incidental) celebrity came when FiveThirtyEight analysts jokingly commented back in 2017 that Ossoff was a frontrunner for the 2020 presidential nomination, or that maybe he was the “O” Trump kept trashing in his tweets. But to his credit, Ossoff has demonstrated that he’s ready for prime time, and is willing to go toe-to-toe with Perdue, without either backing down or losing his cool. He has called out Perdue on his anti-Semitic dog-whistling, and hammered him on his public indifference and private stock improprieties in response to covid, even to the point of calling him a “crook” to his face, so rattling the republican that he refused to debate again before the runoff. For Perdue’s part, he’s following the standard republican script, painting Ossoff as a socialist and a rubber stamp for Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, and distorting whatever tidbit he can dredge up from the past to put him in bed with every dictator from Hugo Chavez to Xi Jinping. Oy vey.

The Special Election:

This race should have caught everyone’s eye the minute Johnny Isakson announced he was retiring mid-term for health reasons, and Georgia’s incompetent (yet surprisingly) independent governor appointed the equally incompetent Kelly Loeffler to replace him, but this contest was even slower to find its way onto the punditry radar. Georgia law required that Loeffler couldn’t simply serve the remainder of Isakson’s term – the state would have to conduct a non-partisan election, i.e., a “jungle primary” (though not technically a primary), coinciding with the regular election. If republicans expected that the newly anointed incumbent would simply breeze to reelection in the reliably red state, they were in for a few rude surprises, some of which were right under their noses. First off, Trump henchman Doug Collins lusted after the position himself and, egged on by Trump, entered the contest with a vengeance. In a truly bizarre spectacle, Loeffler and Collins each tried to out-reactionary the other – Loeffler even claimed in an ad to be more conservative than Attila the Hun – and each ran on a true Trumpian platform of promising to exercise no independent thought if elected. And as they spent the last several months beating out what passes for each other’s brains, it was like watching a bad-guy versus bad-guy wrestling match, or a battle between nazis and vampires, where you honestly didn’t know which force of evil to root the hardest against. As Loeffler and Collins took their republican cannibal act on tour throughout the state, no fewer than 18 other candidates – 8 democrats, 4 republicans, 4 independents, 1 green, and 1 libertarian decided that they wanted into the show as well, and the jungle primary was on. At the beginning, no other candidate registered in the double digits, and not a few analysts who read the polls but didn’t really know the state or understand the dynamics of the race wondered aloud if the two high-profile republicans would both end up making the runoff. But democratic leadership quietly recruited Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor and social justice activist Raphael Warnock, and rolled out his campaign slowly, anticipating (correctly) that the Black vote and a sizeable portion of democratic white vote would eventually coalesce around him. This seems to have been a smart move. Despite his relatively late impact in the polls, Warnock actually came away with a plurality on election night (most candidates failed to reach even 1%), and he’s been continuing to burnish his image as an earnest, truth-telling advocate for the voiceless, with a sense of humor to boot. He’s still a little fidgety and unpolished as a debater (surprising, for such a good orator who thinks quickly on his feet), but all he had to do was show up for their first one-on-one to come off better than Loeffler, who appeared almost cartoonishly robotic, braying monotonously about “radical liberal Raphael Warnock” as though she were heavily medicated . . . or needed to be. She also has her own stock improprieties to explain away, and comes off as kind of mean-spirited and entitled, which reminds the Toteboard of a highly un-PC joke that is unprintable in this enlightened day and age – actually, it was pretty unprintable 35 years ago too. (Feel free to contact the Toteboard privately if you still want to hear it).

The Twin Runoffs and the Runoff Twins

Although the two runoffs are technically separate races, they might as well simply be one race, i.e., the race for control of the senate, and everyone knows about that embedded subplot. As a result, Ossoff and Warnock have essentially started presenting themselves as a team, and the Toteboard finds it totally cool that their public partnership recalls the sense of mission once shared among American Jews and African-Americans during the early days of the civil rights movement (Ossoff even vaguely resembles Andrew Goodman). Of course, the two communities had, and still have, their tensions as well – we’ve all seen “Driving Miss Daisy,” right? – which is what makes it especially hopeful and inspiring to see the candidates genuinely working together well and watching each other’s backs. When Loeffler dredged up some tenuous connection between Warnock and Jeremiah Wright (remember him?) and tried to paint the former as some raging anti-Israel anti-Semite, Ossoff (in tandem with the Temple’s head rabbi and other community leaders) quickly rushed to embrace him as a longtime friend of Atlanta Jews, the kind of man who has delivered sermons at the Temple, invites rabbis to speak at Ebenezer Baptist, and was the first clergy-person to call with condolences after the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings. And while Ossoff has not had to fend off any accusations (yet?) of racism, Warnock has made a point to emphasize Ossoff’s sensitivity to how covid has disproportionately ravaged communities of color and his public commitment to working for both medical and financial relief to those communities. And to tell you the truth, it would just make such a profound statement, and just feel so right if Georgia, the state that has Leo Frank’s murder and numerous KKK lynchings baked into its history, flipped the Senate by electing a Jewish Atlantan and an African-American social justice advocate. In fact, the Toteboard would turn absolutely giddy if the campaigns would coordinate with each other to distribute yard signs that say “We’re For the Jew and the Black Guy!” though certainly not everyone would appreciate the delicious irony.

Of course, the down-side of dwelling in the center of the political universe is the endless spew of toxic campaign ads that are being dumped into the Georgia airwaves like so much political sewage. If you turn on the tube any time of day, to any program pitched to any demographic, it’s pretty much the rule that you’ll be inundated with non-stop campaign ads, some sponsored by the candidates themselves or their respective party committees, but far too many originating from sketchy PACs and marginal special interest groups. The republican stuff is pretty much swill, falling only a hair short of branding Warnock and Ossoff as latter-day incarnations of Willie Horton and a crazed bomb-throwing Zionist socialist respectively, but it’s what you’d expect from a pair of political snakes who’ve called for their fellow republican secretary of state to resign because he had the balls to uphold a free and fair election. Ossoff’s ads have been pointed but calm, casting himself as competent, compassionate, and more than willing to hold Perdue’s hypocritical feet to the fire. Warnock has also lobbed some shrapnel Kelly Loeffler’s way, but he’s getting in his best blows with a pair of ads that paint her and her strategists as pathological liars and himself as accessible and trustworthy. The more the Toteboard sees of this guy, the more it really likes him.

Nate Silver’s polling composite shows both democrats are currently leading their respective races by nearly identical statistically insignificant margins. In other words, this one may go to the wire, just as the presidential race did. Let’s hope that in three weeks’ time, there will again be joyous, spontaneous parades through the streets of bright-blue Decatur.

PS: The Toetboard would still like to hear from you! Here is your chance to get into the prognostication game. Who do YOU think will be the democratic and republican nominees for president in 2024? Of course, the Toteboard has its own ideas, but it might be fun to hear what everyone else is thinking. Send your predictions to the Toteboard sometime between now and Biden’s inauguration, and we’ll announce the results shortly thereafter. And by the way, whoever gets it correct will win the prize of Lifetime Gratification.

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