In the early hours of Friday morning, Joe Biden pulled ahead of Donald Trump in Georgia, which hasn’t gone blue since Bill Clinton’s first term, in 1993. For years, there’s been the tantalizing prospect that the changing demographics of Georgia would put the state back into the Democrats’ column, or at least make it competitive. That never quite proved true—until now. Stacey Abrams was absolutely right about Georgia being competitive, and she played a big part in proving it.
In 2018, after Abrams lost her Georgia gubernatorial run she sat down with her campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo and together, they made a plan. The loss to Brian Kemp (who, as secretary of state, conveniently oversaw the election) had been decided by a slim 54,723 votes. Forget some far-off date, Georgia would be competitive for Democrats now, they argued; forget chasing the much-mythologized swing voter, the state was increasingly diverse and could be won “by investing big and investing early in registration, organizing, and turnout” among voters of color and liberal whites. In Georgia, Democrats quite simply needed to put absolutely everything they had into getting every last Democratic-leaning voter to the polls, and they could win. They founded an organization dedicated to the purpose, Fair Fight, and Abrams used her national profile to raise millions.
Abrams made her case again and again through the 2020 presidential campaign, even as Fair Fight registered tens of thousands of voters. By the end of the race, polls were so tight that Joe Biden made a visit to the state the week before the election, when he visited Warm Springs, Georgia to evoke the ambition of FDR. Even former President Barack Obama visited, the day before the election.
And in the end, it all worked: while the final count isn’t official, Biden has pulled ahead of Trump, proving the point that Georgia was in play.
While Abrams deserves major, major plaudits for her work in Georgia, the lesson to be taken from this isn’t simply that she should be drafted to fix the entire Democratic Party; it’s not clear that she wants to be chair of the DNC, for one thing, which is a thankless job. The takeaway is about the importance of local organizing, ambition, and long-term vision. For one thing, Abrams didn’t do this singlehandedly: it’s also the work of grassroots organizations like the New Georgia Project, which was originally founded by Abrams in 2013 and is now run by the organizer Nse Ufot. Ufot and her team have dedicated themselves to the project of expanding the electorate in Georgia. On Twitter, as Biden pulled ahead of Trump in the county, Abrams shouted out multiple organizations and individuals, including the New Georgia Project and Ufot, like Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and Black Voters Matter. The victory represents the combined, sustained efforts of a great many determined people, many of them people of color.
There’s a strategic lesson, too. Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth about how to flip white Trump voters in the suburbs, what worked in Georgia was in many ways what has always worked: Pulling together every single Dem-leaning voter in the state and making sure they could and did vote. Abrams said it herself in the plan she wrote with Groh-Wargo. While they were “uniquely positioned for effectiveness,” Abrams wrote, “I am not the only candidate who can create a coalition and a strategy to win this state; and Georgia is not the only state poised to take advantage of demographic changes.” Arizona is another example of a likely victory built on dedicated work by local activists who should be supported, rather than ignored most of the time then talked over every election year. In an editorial at the Washington Post, journalist Fernanda Santos offered up her state as a model:
Arizona puts the lie to the notion that national political committees can swoop in every two or four years, cut some Spanish-language ads and claim Latinos as allies to their preferred candidates. Instead, our experience shows, they should follow the lead of local Latino grass-roots organizers — who here have seized on the issues that matter to their communities to build broad, winning political coalitions.
It’s worth remembering another illustrative example from the other side of the political spectrum, the New Right, arose and made its way into the center of American politics through dogged organizing—even at the height of the post-New Deal American political consensus, in an era of liberal dominance. The New Right was built through the 1960s, one coffee klatch and petition at a time. They didn’t fight for the next election; they fought for the longterm, and they fought to win, enlisting every conservative-leaning person they could find—evangelicals, cold warriors, businessmen, Catholics. Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court is the result of decades of work by conservative activists who were working on whatever clock it took.
If Georgia holds a similar roadmap for the future of the Democratic Party, officials will have a lot of time to mull it over during the next few months. Once a solidly red state, Georgia is now the last chance at Senate seats that would curtain Republican power in the chamber, with Senate races heading to a runoff scheduled for January 5. The state is in play now, and it’s gonna stay that way. It’s up to everyone else to turn attention to what Abrams has been saying all along.
This post originally misstated Brian Kemp’s position while running against Abrams for governor; he was secretary of state, not lt. governor.