President-elect Joe Biden’s decision to campaign in Georgia for two Democratic Senate candidates facing runoff elections next month is a bigger deal than you might think. Consider what another president-elect chose not to do 12 years ago.
Barack Obama did a radio ad and recorded some robocalls, but that was about it. And when the runoff came, Chambliss swept to victory, 57 percent to 43 percent. Between the general election and the runoff, turnout plummeted, from 3.75 million votes to just under 2.14 million.
True, Biden’s visit this week on behalf of the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff reflected differences in the stakes involved. Democrats already enjoyed a solid majority in the Senate after the election 12 years ago. This year, they need to win both Georgia races to get to 50 seats and control the Senate, thanks to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote.
But by campaigning, Biden is also signaling that however strong his affection might be for an older, less polarized politics, he understands that it’s not the 1970s — or 2008 — anymore. The radicalization of the Republican Party is a fact he is coming to accept.
Thus, he pulled no punches in his tough attack Monday on the efforts of President Trump and his GOP allies to discredit this year’s election outcome. He called it “an unprecedented assault on our democracy” that “refused to respect the will of the people, refused to respect the rule of law and refused to honor our Constitution.”
Biden stayed on this theme during his Tuesday campaign swing, noting the support of incumbent Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue for Texas’s radical and risible lawsuit seeking to invalidate the electoral outcome in four states Biden carried, including Georgia.
The senators, he said, “fully embraced nullifying nearly five million Georgia votes.” He added: “Maybe they think they represent Texas. Well, if you want to do the bidding of Texas, you should be running in Texas, not in Georgia.”
The GOP’s election denialism is terrible for the country and for democracy. But the early signs are that it could backfire on Republicans by turning Biden, bipartisanship’s best friend, into a tough realist about what he’s up against. And the longer Trump’s antics keep him in the forefront, the easier it will be for Biden to hold Democrats together. No wonder Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) finally told his party on Tuesday that it’s time to move on.
If Obama passed on Georgia 12 years ago, it was in part because the risks to his political standing were higher. Chambliss was the overwhelming favorite and, as the results showed, Democrats had a history of low turnout in runoffs. Warnock and Ossoff, on the other hand, have a real chance to prevail. This is thanks to Democrats’ organizational prowess and registration efforts, led by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (“Stacey, if we had 10 of you, we could rule the whole world,” Biden said Tuesday).
Demographic change, particularly the increasing diversity of Atlanta’s suburban counties, also matters.
Consider: In 2008, Chambliss won 64 percent of the runoff vote in Cobb County and 62 percent in Gwinnett County. This year, those two counties were key to Biden’s statewide victory. Biden carried Cobb by 14 points, and Ossoff won it by 11. In Gwinnett, Biden was up by 18, Ossoff by 16.
In an excellent analysis of the 2020 vote in Georgia for FiveThirtyEight, Perry Bacon Jr. noted that Gwinnett is now only 35 percent non-Hispanic White, Cobb 51 percent. They are no longer, Bacon noted, “suburbs in the coded way the political media often invokes them as a synonym for ‘areas slightly outside of the city limits of major cities where lots of middle-class white people live.’ ”
The transformation of Georgia has increased the burden on Loeffler and Perdue to deliver more to their state’s voters than just blind loyalty to Trump. They’ve been under attack from Warnock and Ossoff for doing little about the economy and will no doubt tout the $900 billion rescue package taking shape in Congress. But McConnell’s opposition to a large stimulus until the pressure for it became irresistible will only underscore how much Biden needs a friendly Senate to continue the rescue operation next year.
In paying close attention to how Trump and McConnell approach politics, Biden seems to have learned something important: Hitting back is the only way to get the current Republican Party’s attention. Asking nicely won’t cut it in 2021.