At the same time, I know the “old” Georgia — with its bitter legacy of racism and inequality — endures. It didn’t die just because the state elected Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. As I spoke to voters in the suburbs around Atlanta this week, I encountered energy and enthusiasm — but also an unsettling mix of distrust, misguidedness and anger.
Some of my fellow Georgians genuinely believe our new senators to be hate-filled radicals bent on destroying their way of life. They see the two Democrats as allies of the Black Lives Matter movement and, therefore, guilty of fomenting violence. Warnock, head of the church Martin Luther King Jr. once pastored and the first Black Democratic senator from the former Confederacy, is the primary target of their contempt. Voters I spoke with criticized him for “damning America” — confusing Warnock, who never uttered the phrase, with another Black pastor who alarmed many Whites, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
At the McDonough Road Baptist Church polling station in mostly Republican Fayette County, I listened as two older White voters railed against Democrats, Black Lives Matter and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. James Mills said he thought Abrams should be “charged” for her efforts to increase voter turnout among African Americans. This was just after he stormed out of the church because poll workers asked for identification — ironically, a Georgia voting requirement used to suppress Black turnout, especially in Abrams’s 2018 loss against Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.
Joanie West represents some of the internal contradictions, as well as the pain and animus, plaguing the Peach State’s political metamorphosis. She grew up a Democrat but said the “mean-spirited” social unrest of the past year prompted her to mark her runoff ballot “straight red.” Her vote, however, was more a protest against Democrats and BLM than an embrace of the Republican agenda: Even though she voted for President Trump, she thinks he “is a jerk. He would not be my friend.”
Meanwhile, it has been worrying to see how desperately some voters cling to the illusion of the old, reliably red Georgia. They are calling for Kemp’s head, along with that of Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, for declining to overturn the state’s presidential election results. As far as these voters are concerned, Kemp and Raffensperger are traitors. Some even applaud Trump’s Jan. 2 phone call to Raffensperger, in which the president urged the Georgia election czar to “find” enough votes to help him triumph over President-elect Joe Biden.
“President Trump didn’t say anything in that phone call that 50 percent of the Georgia voters wouldn’t have said to Raffensperger personally,” Steve Brown, a former Fayette County commissioner and former mayor of Peachtree City, told me on Monday.
These comments point to another reason not to write off red Georgia: Trump himself. If there is anger and resentment on the Republican side, it is more than matched among Democrats, whose ire is focused on the president. “Trump pisses off people on the Democratic side and really inspires them to come out and vote,” Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling told CNN Wednesday.
One of them was Sansanee Sermprungsuk, a 47-year-old research librarian from Atlanta, who was “floored” by Trump’s call to Raffensperger and furious that he’d try to sabotage Georgia’s election process. “This feels like voter suppression,” she said. “I’ve had enough.” Numbers from Tuesday indicate Sermprungsuk was hardly alone, as unusually high Democratic turnout put Warnock and Ossoff over the top.
Will Georgia Democratic candidates generate similar passion long after Trump is gone? It’s anyone’s guess. But Democrats can’t afford complacency. Biden won Georgia in November by only 11,779 votes. And both runoff races appear to have been settled by narrow margins. It’s not difficult to imagine how fortunes might have been different with more palatable GOP leadership — or without half a billion dollars’ worth of campaign ads pumped into the state.
None of which is to say that optimism about the Peach State is completely unwarranted. When I spoke with first-time voter Jaleiyah Johnson, an 18-year-old high school senior from Hampton, Ga., I was impressed by her motivations in voting for Warnock and Ossoff. The “main focus” of Republican ads, she said, was “to bad-mouth the Democrats. The Democrats’ ads showed what they would do to help the country.”
It’s possible the constructive, policy-minded priorities of a rising generation of voters such as Johnson will eventually supplant the racial grievances I heard among older Georgians. And for now, I’m as excited about our state’s Democratic streak as anyone. But based on everything I’ve seen and heard over the past several days, it’s not time to pop the champagne corks over Georgia’s political transformation just yet.