My mother was 23 when she accidentally got pregnant with me. It was 1982 and she was a student living in Atlanta, Georgia. She came from a privileged background and my dad was on a full academic scholarship; they decided to continue the pregnancy and were married six weeks later. But had she been less fortunate, or just wanted to take a different path in life, she would have had access to more abortion and family-planning services in Georgia then, nearly four decades ago, than I would if I faced a similar situation here today.
That’s the result of decades of Republican dominance in this Bible-belt state, where GOP lawmakers have pursued an ultra-conservative agenda: rejecting the expansion of Medicaid, blocking efforts to advance racial and social justice, restricting women’s ability to get family-planning services and much more.
Having grown up in London, and visiting (White, mainly Republican-supporting) relatives over the years, I’ve long regarded Georgia as a deeply conservative place. But since Joe Biden became the first presidential candidate to win both Georgia and the presidency itself since 1992, I’ve been re-learning what I thought I knew about the ‘peach state’. And now, back here for the critical Senate run-off election on Tuesday , I’m seeing how years of grassroots organising, combined with fast-changing demographics, are changing the game – and could deliver the US Congress to the Democrats.
The stakes could not be higher. If the Democrats win both Senate seats up for grabs on Tuesday, President Biden will be able to pass laws on climate change, racial justice and much more without Republican obstruction. If they lose, Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who has previously called himself “the Grim Reaper”, promises to be just that: an implacable block on badly needed COVID relief, as the pandemic continues to claim thousands of American lives daily.
With the polls predicting a dead heat, unprecedented sums of cash are piling into Georgia: a record-breaking half-a-billion dollars will have been spent by the end of this race. The airwaves are filled with political ads; residents are getting bombarded daily, sometimes hourly, with campaign text messages and phone calls. Both Trump and Biden will stage big-ticket events in Georgia in the final hours before polling day.
But the money and the pricey political set-pieces are only a small part of the story. What’s really been happening here, and was happening for many years before most in the Democratic Party establishment ever took the possibility of Georgia going blue seriously, is a massive, grassroots voter-engagement effort.
It’s been run predominantly by Black women such as Nsé Ufot of the New Georgia Project (in the film above), Helen Butler of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda and, most famously, Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her bid to become Georgia’s governor back in 2018.
Together with organizations such as Mijente, which calls itself “a political home for Latinx and Chicanx people who seek racial, economic, gender and climate justice”, these women and their movements have waged court battles against voter suppression and mobilised the state’s fast-growing Black, Latinx, Asian American and other minority communities to register to vote and make their voices heard.
The results have been dramatic. In 2016, 20% of the eligible voting population in Georgia was not registered. In 2020, that figure was just 2%.
But organizers on the ground say they are still up against a system notorious for dirty tricks – like last-minute changes to the location of polling stations. In Gwinnett county yesterday, a suburb of Atlanta which has been an intensive focus for progressive campaigners, my colleague Aaron White and I watched newly signed-up canvassing volunteers get training on how to overcome such obstacles.
These new canvassers came from all over the country: places as far-flung as New York, Delaware and San Francisco. Many offered up familiar progressive talking points, such as climate change, as the reasons that motivated them to get involved. But for many it was also personal.
“My dad actually got COVID a couple of weeks ago, and I know that if my family had been getting these monthly stimulus checks, like places like South Korea and other countries are getting, he wouldn't have had to go into work,” Chris, a first-time canvasser from Delaware, told us.
“My family's working class, and my dad had to go in and he had to pay the bills to pay the mortgage. And it was that choice between being able to afford to live in our house and put food on the table or potentially get COVID.
“I know that every vote that I can get out in these coming four days is one step closer to $2,000 checks rather than $600 checks,” he added, referring to the current Senate standoff over COVID relief, “and that's why I'm out here”.
Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, has been organising in this state for more than twenty years. Speaking to me a few weeks ago, she underlined how COVID has changed the game in Georgia, helping people see the connection between voting and their livelihoods. “If you need tax dollars to come back to your business, you’ve got to have an elected official who will do the right thing.”
The same, she said, applies to criminal justice. “The police killings of Ahmaud Arbery [in Georgia], Breonna Taylor [in Kentucky] and George Floyd [in Minnesota] really showed people that it’s important to have elected officials that will make laws that are just for everyone.
“We were always on the ground, talking about this, so we have trusted messengers to tell people: now do you see why this is important? Why we need to elect good sheriffs, police chiefs, mayors? Now they see it more than ever. It’s all connected.”
Nsé Ufot’s New Georgia Project has done extensive polling over the last ten months, amassing a mountain of data about voter preferences and issues such as COVID relief, racial justice and much more. But, as she told us on our recent podcast: “Honestly, I don't think that there's anything that we could have done or said that has been more impactful than having young voters see the state flip blue as a result of them turning out and as a result of them showing up.
“In real time, they've gotten to see the impact of their vote, and why their votes actually matter.”
Whether or not this will be sufficient remains to be seen. One Atlanta-based lawyer I spoke to refused to vote for Trump but, like many others, says he’ll be voting Republican for the Senate.
“I'd rather have a government that has to work with each other than a blue or red suite,” he said. “I mean, everybody else in the world has to go to work. And they have to work with other people who have differing opinions, and they have to compromise to get things done. So I don't see why the government should be any different.
“I think, from all the exit polls and from talking with most people I know, most people are in the middle on most issues. They agree with Republicans sometimes on the fiscal side, and they agree with Democrats sometimes on the personal rights side. And so I think some form of split government is more representative of the country.”
Alex Kaufman, general counsel of the Fulton County Republican Party who also features in our podcast, insists that Georgia remains a Republican state. “Every single one of our constitution officers are Republicans, from the attorney general, the governor, the lieutenant governor, the agriculture commissioner, everyone – the Democrats don't control a single constitutional office. They don't control our state legislature, either in the House or the Senate. So that's one thing that I think people need to clear up. This is a Republican state and has been for almost twenty years.”
He’s not wrong about the past two decades. But it’s clear that Georgia is now entering a period of “heavy contestation”, as Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, calls it (you can listen to the full interview here).
By 2028, it's projected that most people in the state will not be White – and while Republicans campaigners continue to campaign hard on issues such as abortion to fire up their base, the numbers are moving against them. Only 43% of Georgia voters now think abortion should be illegal, and for a number of swing voters I’ve spoken to, Republican obstructionism on this issue was a key factor that pushed them towards Democrats.
My cousin Dylan Cooke is a progressive organiser, fresh from the successful campaign to flip Arizona blue in November. She was honest about her reservations: “Before coming to Georgia, I was really nervous about this election. I thought: it doesn't look good for the Democrats, can we really eke out a win here?”
But she says, it’s been an “honour” to come to Georgia and support the work that grassroots movements have been doing on the ground for so long. “These organisations, mostly led by Black women, have just done this amazing job,” she said.
“I do think it's going to be close. But being here, I'm so much more confident that it's possible."