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Democrats see Georgia as model for success across South

Democrats see Georgia as model for success across South

Democrats are looking to their stunning success in Georgia as they aim to make further inroads in the Deep South, a region where they've long been shunned.

The victories of President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenEx-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' News leaders deal with the post-Trump era MORE and Sens.-elect Jon OssoffJon OssoffStacey Abrams calls on young voters of color to support election reform bill MLB calls lawsuit over All-Star Game 'political theatrics' Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock MORE and Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockWhy the Democrats need Joe Manchin Bipartisan senators introduce bill to protect small businesses from cyberattacks MLB calls lawsuit over All-Star Game 'political theatrics' MORE were the product of years of on-the-ground organizing in Georgia, with a particular focus on turning out suburban and Black voters. Now Democrats are eyeing possible opportunities to replicate that model in states like North and South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana in future election cycles.

“The story of Georgia is the story of a changing South. That is the truth,” said one North Carolina Democratic operative who’s worked on down-ballot races there. “In a changing South where a lot of races are very close, the strategy that was put into place in Georgia can make a big difference just about anywhere, I think.”

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Democrats have long whispered about the Deep South as a region where they can one day be competitive given the growing Black populations and burgeoning suburbs in several states. Yet the party has been locked out of power there for decades except for scattered victories like Doug Jones’s three-year stint as an Alabama senator and John Bel Edwards’s victories in the 2015 and 2019 Louisiana gubernatorial races.

The trio of wins in Georgia marked the most significant triumphs for Democrats in the Deep South in years and followed over a decade of exhaustive voter registration and outreach drives that were virtually unprecedented in the region’s modern history.

However, it remains to be seen whether the playbook that won Georgia can be employed in states across the region.

While similar — albeit nascent — organizing efforts are underway in other southern states, Georgia Democrats benefited from having a massive metropolitan center in Atlanta.

On top of that, the Deep South remains among the most conservative areas of the country, one in which Republicans have formed deep roots.

Still, Democrats are optimistic that the Georgia strategy, with tweaks to address local differences, could lead to further victories in the region.

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“There are parts of strategy that are applicable and there are parts that aren't. I mean, we're not going to have an Atlanta anytime soon, right? We've got a Birmingham, we've got Mobile, we've got Montgomery, we've got Huntsville, but we don't have the tremendous urban concentration that they have over there,” said Alabama Democratic Party Executive Director Wade Perry.

“The focus on voter registration and the focus on building coalitions of consensus with like-minded organizations I think is applicable. You've got environmental groups out there, you've got social justice groups out there, and to the extent that we can get those groups all pulling in the same direction with progressives, with Democrats, that's how you start to build power.”

Democrats and organizers point chiefly to the region’s substantial Black population for their optimism. Mississippi has the highest percentage of African Americans in the country at 38 percent, and nearly all who are registered vote Democrat. More than a quarter of the populations of Alabama and South Carolina are Black, and more than 22 percent of North Carolinians are Black.

Nowhere was Black Americans’ voting power more on display than in the Georgia races, where strong African American turnout was credited with producing all three Democratic statewide wins. Activists suggest the path to success in the South is not trying to persuade fabled swing voters to move their way but to ensure that those who already lean toward Democrats make their way to the polls.

Nsé Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project, said the Democratic victories should disabuse “the party and the candidates … of this notion that there's some moderate white unicorn, that you are going to craft the perfect argument, and he will then abandon the party of Trump to come back and vote for Democrats.”

“Being very clear about who it is that you're trying to move to vote I think is really important,” she told The Hill.

But the national party has struggled for years to formulate a message that drives African Americans to the polls.

Organizers told The Hill they think the party has too often leaned on outside consultants who struggle to connect with voters’ concerns instead of working to tap into local talent who can more easily relate with the people the party is trying to reach.

“Because we want to play bank politics, meaning we want the white consultants from D.C. to come with their supposedly expert ideas to organizers on the ground, and never listening to organizers on the ground, we have so many losses in places and spaces we should never lose,”said Mondale Robinson, the founder of Black Male Voter Project, which helps facilitate conversations between Black male voters and organizers across the South, and was funded by #WinBothSeats during the Georgia runoffs. 

Still, even with perfect organizing efforts, Democrats face an uphill climb in the Deep South.

Due to a lack of Atlanta-sized hubs in other southern states, campaigns will be forced to boost their support with Black voters in rural expanses where the party’s ranks have been decimated.

Ufot noted that organizing efforts in Georgia expanded well beyond Atlanta and could provide a roadmap for organizers in other states. New Georgia Project has a staff of 100 people in eight offices who knocked on 405,000 doors ahead of the November elections and 1.7 million doors in the nine weeks heading into the runoffs.

“You cannot win statewide if you just win Atlanta. You can't win statewide if you just win Jackson or Raleigh or Charlotte, or New Orleans,” she said. “I can tell you, down to the county, what it takes to win statewide in Georgia, what the win margin needs to be and what the vote total needs to be in all 159 of Georgia’s counties. Developing that level of understanding…is going to be really important.”

In many states where organizing is still in an early stage, campaigns and parties will have to fill the void — and they say they can’t do it without outside help.

“We're gonna have to have real investment from outside of the South to do the things that need doing. Voter registration costs money. Voter contact costs money,” said Perry of the Alabama Democratic Party. “We have to have to get people from outside of Alabama to invest and that's part of our challenge in the state party that we're working on now.”

There were flashes of coordination between state campaigns and parties and national Democratic organs in 2020. Yet even in the most competitive campaigns, Democrats couldn’t overcome the Deep South’s staunch conservatism and muscular Republican apparatuses.

South Carolina’s Jaime HarrisonJaime HarrisonNevada governor signs law making state first presidential primary DNC chair on Manchin and voting rights: 'Do what Americans want' The Memo: Biden says democracies work; the US is not helping his case MORE and Mississippi’s Mike Espy raised millions of dollars in their high-profile bids to unseat Republican incumbents and were showered with support from Washington establishment figures. North Carolina’s Cal Cunningham ran in one of the most expensive Senate races in history to oust Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisInfighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms Lara Trump lost her best opportunity — if she ever really wanted it 9 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022 MORE (R) in a purple state. Polls showed all three races were tight, and Democrats wondered if 2020 was finally their year in the South.

Harrison and Espy still ended up losing by 10 points, and Cunningham lost a nail-biter after his campaign was derailed by reports of an extramarital affair.

But with Georgia offering a glimpse of what’s possible, southern Democrats hope the national party will focus a brighter spotlight on the Deep South than in the past.

“I definitely think you'll see a new wave of flirtation in the South about the need to have a stronger relationship with the South because of Georgia,” Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based strategist, said. “There are real pockets of possibility everywhere, and I think that gives people a glimmer of hope about the future of these places.”