On Tuesday, Georgia held its long-awaited Senate runoffs. The races were expected to be extremely close, and they were, but Democrats made clear gains since November, when Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in Georgia by two-tenths of a percentage point. The Reverend Raphael Warnock defeated the Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler by less than two percentage points, while the Democrat Jon Ossoff is likely to finish ahead of the Republican incumbent David Perdue by less than a point. If Ossoff wins, the Democrats will take control of the Senate, thanks to Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris’s role as a tiebreaker. The last days of the race largely focussed on President Trump, who has refused to concede his November defeat, and was recorded over the weekend pressuring Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” votes that would allow Trump to claim victory in the state.
On Tuesday night, I spoke by phone with Astead Herndon, a national politics reporter at the New York Times, who covered the runoffs in Georgia, as well as the general-election campaign there and all over the country. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why Republican attacks didn’t work as well as expected in Georgia, the dilemma that Trump presents for Republican politicians, and how disinformation about voter fraud has changed the G.O.P. electorate.
Did something happen on the ground in Georgia over the past two months, or did the national political environment change in some way, and it affected Georgia?
I think both. I think that the national political environment certainly affected Georgia. You had a Democratic electorate that was increasingly motivated by the message of getting the Biden agenda passed and stopping Mitch McConnell from doing the same type of obstructionism that occurred under President Obama. That Democratic electorate knows what that feels like, and there was real motivation for allowing Biden and Harris to enact an agenda, rather than simply removing Donald Trump. On the Republican side, it was a mess, where you had about thirty factors. You had a Republican President pressuring the Republican candidates in ways that made them feel very uncomfortable, and you had a Republican base that was more motivated by grievances around the President and claims of election fraud, rather than acknowledging what happened in November. And I think all of those things affected the outcome in the state.
But you also have a Georgia that is changing with every new election, and there are new people and communities that can get out there, and are being targeted, and every new election is one where we see those groups of people more actualized. So there are things occurring naturally on the ground.
Why did Warnock run ahead of Ossoff? And is that even the correct way to think about it? Was it more that Loeffler ran behind Perdue?
I think that there was always a sense on the ground that Warnock was driving the energy of the race. And I think that that was true among Democrats, who see him as someone who fits a Georgia tradition, as a historic figure who would be the first Black senator from the state. And he was a newer figure. Folks were familiar with Ossoff [who lost a closely watched race to fill a House seat in 2017], and Republicans had decided in this race that they were going to make Warnock the target, which caused some backlash. So it wasn’t that Ossoff wasn’t bringing people or carrying his weight. I just think this became wrapped up in what Warnock represented, and people knew about the attacks against him, which both drove Democratic turnout and Republican backlash. So it doesn’t surprise me that he ran ahead because he was the central figure.
And what about Loeffler running behind Perdue?
Operatives and folks looking at the race all agreed that Loeffler was the one who did not have the state brand like Perdue did. You had Sonny Perdue. [The secretary of agriculture and the former governor of Georgia is a first cousin of David Perdue’s.] You had a businessman brand, and it existed in the state before Donald Trump. [Perdue, who first won his seat in 2015, was previously the C.E.O. of Dollar General.] Kelly Loeffler did not have that, but, more importantly, she had never been elected to the seat before. Those were things that created the sense that in this race she was uniquely vulnerable, and up against the candidate driving the energy. And those things combined to make that race more difficult for Republicans.
I would meet people who would say they were sure they were voting for Perdue but weren’t sure they were for Loeffler. We didn’t think that was going to be enough to change the scope of the race, but it was definitely true on the ground. And that’s why I think you see some difference, but not enough to make one Democrat win and one Democrat lose.
How do you think the constant drumbeat about voter fraud manifested itself on the ground with Republicans, both in Georgia and around the country?
I can say that, as someone who has been talking to Republican voters consistently over the past three years, there has never been a time where they felt more motivated but also disconnected, and totally engulfed in the world of that information. I am someone who usually tries to keep up with it, and I usually know what to say to give a sense that I am someone they can talk to about that stuff because I have followed it. But, in the last three weeks, I have met person after person where I do not know what they are talking about. This is so far down that path that it has actually really deeply shocked me, and I think that speaks to how widespread this misinformation is, and how many of the kind of Trumpian outlets have gotten a foothold with the electorate. We are past what we think of with Fox News. These are deeper and further into it.
And so I can say that in this race, and at Trump rallies, or other places, you met Republican voters who were completely unconcerned with whether Perdue or Loeffler won the race. They were at the rally because they liked Donald Trump, and they were at the rally to pressure them to say more about Donald Trump. Whether those individual candidates won or lost was not their chief concern. I talked to a guy yesterday who said Loeffler and Perdue were going to lose because he only cared when Trump was on the ballot. That’s a real problem, and a real question going forward: Who can bring out the coalition that Donald Trump does? Whether they want to acknowledge it or not, November was a big wake-up call on that front, and this is an even bigger one.
These runoff elections felt to me a lot like the 2018 midterms, where you have an anti-Trump coalition, but you don’t have him on the ballot to help down-ballot Republicans.
I think that is definitely true. And you have Democrats running that same midterm playbook where they are talking about expanding health care and center-left issues, and staying away from the most extreme stuff, and letting the backlash fuel voter turnout and keep their coalition together. To me what is different about this compared to 2018 is that there was such an invincibility to Trump that still existed until he lost in November. In 2018, there was the type of voter who didn’t come out unless Trump was on the ballot. But in this election there were two fronts: there was that voter, but also the suburban conservative Republican who was upset they were going down this fraud road. And so that compounded Republican suburban problems. It got worse from November to January. In search of that MAGA vote, they have gone further down the road to mess up the suburban coalition. The kind of coalition they need to bring together and that they know they need to bring together—that equation hasn’t been solved yet, because, in this election at least, they went all in on one side.
What explains the excellent Black turnout? It had been up in 2020, but not more than among other groups, and Trump did better than expected.
There is an equation with Trump where even when he loses people, there is a type of person he gains. He gains them through his own celebrity, through his own brand. He can pull in people who might be totally disinterested in politics but like the way he goes about things. And, with him off the ballot, you lose that type of Black voter too, specifically men, whom Trump appealed to more than any other Republican. So that is true, but then also for the Democrats, obviously having a Black person on the ticket boosted their own relationship with Black voters. And then the share will increase because Republican turnout on its own didn’t do what we expected it to do. I can think of Ossoff events, too, where every time someone talked about voter suppression or even Trump’s attempts to subvert the election, he would say immediately that it was because Trump was upset about Black voters in November. And we know it wasn’t just Black voters who changed Georgia in November, and that wasn’t the biggest factor, but the message that was coming from Democrats was that every new thing the Republicans did was because they were scared of Black voters. And that was the intention of the message—to push the Black share up.
Were you surprised that the Republican attacks on Warnock did not register more? Georgia is still a state that, in November, was four percentage points to the right of the country. How do you understand it?