The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stacey Abrams showed that Democrats can match the GOP at state-level organizing

Democrats tend to focus on individual races. Republicans eye the long run.

Sen.-elect Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) waves to supporters at a drive-in rally Jan. 3, 2020. (Stephen B. Morton/AP)

Stacey Abrams, the founder of two key political organizations — one for registering voters, the other for fighting vote suppression — is getting a lot of justified credit for the Democratic victories in the two U.S. Senate races in Georgia this week. Former president Barack Obama was among those to call the results “a testament to the power of the tireless and often unheralded work of grass-roots organizing,” as well to the “resilient, visionary leadership” of the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives.

For a decade — well before she lost her 2018 bid to be Georgia’s governor — Abrams has been working (alongside other groups, many led by Black women) to build strong local party loyalty and to turn people out for state and national elections. The fruits of those labors are that Georgia turned blue for the 2020 presidential election and that Democrats will have control of the U.S. Senate.

Abrams is receiving praise in part because she succeeded in an area in which Republicans have long had a clear advantage: effective, year-round state-level organizing. Democrats have fared reasonably well at the presidential level and are prodigious fundraisers. Are they finally learning how to build strong local operations in the states? Or will Georgia remain an outlier?

Biden loves the Senate. It won’t love him back.

The Republican Party’s advantage at the state level has been much-discussed; Democrats have long aspired, with little success, to build similar political machinery. The American Legislative Exchange Council (better known as ALEC) — heavily backed by the Koch family — fosters networking between conservative lawmakers up for election and donors. It also supplies model legislation that Republicans use to pursue desired policies at the state level. For example, a strict draft voter ID law shared by ALEC in 2011 was used as a model for more than 30 bills in that year’s state legislative sessions. Overall, more than 600 ALEC bills became state law from 2010 through 2018.

Republicans also benefit from the year-round efforts of Americans for Prosperity, which has offices across the country (and also benefits from Koch largesse): It promotes conservative causes (such as fighting the expansion of Medicare), provides staff for elections and endorses candidates. Americans for Prosperity has, as well, strong outreach programs targeting the youth vote (Generation Opportunity), military veterans (Concerned Veterans for America) and Latinos (the LIBRE Initiative). These groups are active on the ground years ahead of major elections, building relationships and gaining members.

All of this helps to explain why Republicans control three-fifths of the 98 partisan legislative bodies in the states.

Democrats have struggled to build comparable organizations — and often failed to engage crucial voters. While Black voter turnout was up in 2008 and 2012, when Barack Obama ran for office and reelection, Democrats lost seats at state and locals level during his administration. When Obama took office, Democrats controlled 29 governor’s offices and 59 percent of state legislatures; as he left, Democrats controlled only 16 governorships and only 31 percent of state legislatures, having lost 816 state legislative seats. (“The lowest percentage for the party since the turn of the 20th century,” observed

Black turnout dipped enough in 2016 to cost Democrats the White House. Less consequential was that Trump gained ground in 2020 with Black and Latino voters relative to 2016. Even as Biden took the White House, Democrats lost seats in the House — and will only narrowly control Congress.

The fault here does not lie with the Biden campaign alone or with the Obama administration alone. It has to do with the failure of the party to put sufficient resources into long-term organizing. While Democrats are able to raise large amounts for specific elections and in the lead-up to close elections — and record-breaking sums poured into Georgia for Sens.-elect Jon Ossoff ($140 million, the most ever raised by a U.S. Senate candidate) and the Rev. Raphael Warnock ($125 million) — there is less evidence of long-term investment in year-round organizing. (In our own experience working with local organizations, often led by Black women hoping to build community networks, we find that they struggle to meet their fundraising goals. Democratic donors want to write checks for specific contests and make a difference now; they are less interested in party-building and voter engagement.)

Abrams followed a different strategy. After losing her 2018 bid for the Georgia governorship, she redoubled the efforts that had brought her so close. Her decade-old New Georgia Project worked to register new voters, while her newer group, Fair Fight, founded after that unsuccessful campaign, sought to push back against the very voter suppression tactics, such as purging voter rolls, that had denied her the governor’s seat. (Many such tactics were promoted by ALEC.)

A cynical ploy like Hawley and Cruz’s looks harmless. Until it isn’t.

Abrams wasn’t seeking votes for herself — or, until the 2020 elections, for any specific candidate. She was organizing communities to empower themselves. Abrams and other organizations led by Black women used community connections to address issues that mattered to Black voters in Georgia: discrimination, racial justice, the economy and jobs, mutual-aid funds education and food security. Groups registered voters and encouraged turnout while distributing free food and marching for racial justice. They encouraged Black voters to turn out to improve their lives.

From 2016 to 2020, 520,000 new voters were registered in Georgia; of these, 130,000 were Black and 95,000 were White, though Blacks make up about 32 percent of Georgia’s population. Latinos and Asian Americans also registered at significantly higher rates than Whites.

Naturally, other factors beyond mobilization of the non-White electorate were at play in the Georgia elections last November and this week. College-educated White voters in the suburbs were less supportive of Republicans, mirroring similar trends in other states. Turnout was weaker among Republicans and non-college-educated White voters compared with Democrats and Black voters — possibly because of the mixed messages President Trump sent about the merits of voting in a system he called “rigged.”

The Democratic victories in Georgia show that consistent and authentic engagement with the voters on the issues that matter is key. It is not enough simply to knock on doors, send emails and ask for money only when there is an election on the horizon. Abrams provides a model — and a record of success — that might just be enough to unlock Democratic big-money investment in local community organizations in other red areas of the country. If Georgia can go blue, which other states can be put into play?

Civic engagement the Abrams way means empowering communities, not (only) electing individual leaders. It means being there for a community all year, not just in the few months before a presidential election, and not only in the predictable battleground states. Community organizers such as Abrams have been advocating this strategy for years. Given the news this week, maybe Democrats will finally listen. Republicans with support from Koch-funded groups like ALEC and Americans for Prosperity have a significant head start. Democrats just made a leap forward, but whether they will take to heart the true lessons of the Georgia runoffs remains an open question.