Democrats look to Georgia model ahead of 2022 Senate races

Photo illustration of Stacey Abrams
Getty Images/Madeline Monroe

Democrats are seeking to replicate the aggressive voter registration and mobilization program that propelled their recent wins in Georgia, seeing such an effort as their best hope for competing in a handful of Republican-leaning states next year.

Their efforts are built off of the work of Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia state House minority leader and gubernatorial candidate who spent years building out a vast Democratic political infrastructure in her state. Abrams is widely credited with hastening Georgia’s shift toward battleground status after decades as a GOP stronghold.

In Iowa, state and local Democratic leaders are rolling out the New Iowa Project — named after Abrams’s New Georgia Project — a group that will focus on voter registration, turnout and education efforts. In Missouri, where Democrats are gunning for retiring Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) open seat, activists have founded a similar initiative inspired by Abrams’s work in Georgia.

“Everybody is looking at the Stacey Abrams model,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Democratic Party in Polk County, Iowa, adding that while the specific strategies vary by state, “the one constant is that no matter what state you look at, everyone’s trying to do some version of what Stacey did.”

Democrats have seen few statewide successes in Iowa over the past decade. Republicans now control the governor’s mansion and both of the state’s Senate seats. Bagniewski said that part of his party’s problem in Iowa is that it largely gave up on voter registration and mobilization in favor of the kind of data-heavy campaigns that helped deliver former President Obama the state in both 2008 and 2012.

“When I started in Iowa politics in 2008, there were 100,000 more registered Democrats in Iowa than Republicans,” Bagniewski said. “Obama won twice. We were coming off of Tom Vilsack’s two terms as governor. [Former Gov.] Chet Culver was in office.”

“How did we lose so much so quickly?” he continued. “The answer comes back to voter registration and turnout. It’s the Stacey Abrams model.”

Democrats’ ultranarrow Senate majority means that they can’t afford to cede any ground to Republicans in next year’s midterm elections; Republicans need to gain only one seat to recapture control of the upper chamber.

But Republicans are also defending 20 Senate seats to Democrats’ 14 and are contending with retirements in a handful of states, including Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio and Missouri. Both parties are also watching Iowa and Wisconsin closely, as Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) consider whether to seek reelection in 2022.

While Pennsylvania and North Carolina are perennial battlegrounds with recent histories of close statewide races, states like Missouri, Ohio and Iowa are likely to pose a greater challenge for Democrats in the midterms given their collective lurch to the right in recent years.

Democrats see Georgia as a success story worth replicating. After years of GOP dominance, Democrats swept the top races there in 2020.

President Biden became the first Democratic White House hopeful to carry Georgia since 1992, while Sens. Jon Ossoff (D) and Raphael Warnock (D) successfully flipped both of the state’s Republican-held Senate seats in two Jan. 5 runoff elections. Those wins were driven by a wave of Democratic turnout that party operatives see as the culmination of Abrams’s years-long voter registration and mobilization efforts.

In particular, Abrams’s efforts focused on the “New American Majority,” including people of color, young voters and women. If Democrats in other states can register and turn out those same voters, the argument goes, they could effectively make up for the party’s losses among older and more rural voters.

But some Democrats expressed at least some skepticism about the so-called Stacey Abrams model, noting that it’s difficult to compare a fast-growing battleground like Georgia to states such as Ohio and Missouri, which have seen their population growth slow — or even decline — in recent years.

“With all due respect to Stacey, I think that model only goes so far,” one Democratic strategist who works on Senate campaigns said. “Georgia is growing. It has a long history of voter suppression, so there’s a clear issue to address. In a lot of these other states, the shifting to the right is more organic.”

“Of course you do voter registration and [get out the vote],” the strategist added. “But a one-size-fits-all approach to this stuff isn’t going to cut it.”

And while Democrats almost universally credit Abrams and her allies for helping to boost voter turnout in Georgia, Republicans say the GOP was hurt in the runoffs by former President Trump, who spent the weeks leading up to the Jan. 5 elections attacking state GOP leaders and spreading baseless claims that Georgia’s voting system was rigged.

That rhetoric, Republicans say, prompted many Republican voters to stay home on Jan. 5.

“Telling people that the system is rigged and ‘Oh, your vote won’t count anyway’ isn’t how you get your voters to show up,” one Republican strategist said. “Look, Georgia’s not a blue state, but Democrats and Stacey Abrams organized. Trump owns that loss.”

An analysis of voting records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published last month found that more than 752,000 voters who cast ballots in November did not show up to vote in the runoffs.

Georgia does not register voters by party affiliation. But more than half of those who skipped the runoffs after voting in the general election were white and many lived in rural areas, suggesting that the no-shows may have hurt Republicans more than Democrats.

Guy Cecil, the chairman of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, warned in a conference call last week that voter mobilization could not come at the expense of aggressive persuasion campaigns aimed at maintaining the support of voters who cast their ballots for Democrats in 2020, especially when it comes to Black and Latino voters.

“At the heart of it, Democrats for too long have viewed Black and Latino voters as voters for mobilization purposes,” Cecil said. “We need to understand that Black and Latino voters are voters that should be persuaded and mobilized.”

Cecil said that a failure to put one strategy before the other could prove catastrophic for Democrats next year.

“Debating persuasion vs. mobilization is the fastest way for Democrats to lose,” he said. “If we do not do both in 2022, we will lose.”

Tags Chuck Grassley Donald Trump Joe Biden Jon Ossoff Raphael Warnock Ron Johnson Roy Blunt stacey abrams georgia democrats model 2022 senate race strategy voters appeal new generation people of color women young voters Tom Vilsack

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