ATLANTA — Three days after he finished behind Republican Sen. David Perdue in Georgia’s November election, Jon Ossoff and his top campaign staff gathered on a call to study their near-defeat — and figure out a way to reverse it in just two months.
Perdue had outpaced him by two percentage points, and Ossoff had ground to make up. But the conversation wasn’t about flipping Perdue’s voters to his side. Instead, Ossoff told staffers the campaign needed to focus on outreach to Black and young voters and bet the Senate majority on mobilizing the Democratic base.
“If every Black voter who voted in November turns out, we will win,” Ossoff said, according to multiple people familiar with the conversation.
The other Democratic Senate candidate, Rev. Raphael Warnock, was making a bet of his own. He had skated through the fall without facing many attacks as Republicans battled among themselves, but the Black preacher-turned-politician could foresee attacks painting him as a radical. In late October, two weeks before those attacks started and before he even knew the identity of his GOP opponent, Warnock readied a humanizing TV commercial to deflect the attacks, featuring a barking beagle and a narrator deadpanning that the Democrat “hates puppies."
Both bets paid off in full two months later, as Warnock and Ossoff mobilized massive turnout among Black voters and other reliably Democratic groups and won enough white suburbanites to flip both of Georgia’s Senate seats this week, giving Democrats control of the Senate by the narrowest of margins — a 50-50 Senate with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.
It likely couldn’t have happened without the quick-turn tactical shifts that followed a disappointing November for Democrats, when the party lost Senate races in states like Maine and North Carolina that were supposed to be riper targets. But Ossoff and Warnock ran up the score in counties and precincts with high Black populations, while President Donald Trump’s base did not match its November turnout levels.
This account of how Democrats managed to win two races, once seen as improbable long shots, is based on interviews with a dozen operatives and strategists involved in both contests, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy and deliberations.
Warnock faced a barrage of attacks right away, once the runoff campaign kicked off, from appointed GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Republican outside groups. Most of the early ads focused directly on his sermons, accusing him of being an anti-police, anti-military “radical,” and airing a host of other hits using his own words from the pulpit. An ad ran using police bodycam footage of an incident involving Warnock and his wife.
Warnock’s campaign responded in some ads. But the majority of his messaging stayed positive, focusing on his childhood in housing projects, his faith and his position at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church here. One Warnock aide summed up the strategy as “remaining the Reverend” and not getting knocked off his own message.
“We needed to, at least for the people who would be ever willing to vote for us, win that fight over him as a moral figure,” said a Warnock aide.
It tracked with a broader Democratic strategy of focusing on mobilizing their base with more affirmative messaging, including stressing the need for additional Covid-19 relief funding.
“We tested a lot of messages that were more negative and fear-based,” said Christie Roberts, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee senior adviser who, along with communications director Lauren Passalacqua, decamped to Georgia to aid the campaign effort.
"’They don’t want you to vote. They don’t count on you to vote. Trump’s trying to stop you from voting,’” Roberts said, offering examples of the negative attacks they considered. “And then we tested messages like, ‘You have the power to make change. Your vote could make change …’ It was the positive that was far more mobilizing to our base.”
As the campaigns absorbed Republican attacks, they also launched a major coordinated field program, abandoning the party’s mid-election moratorium on door-knocking, a crucial tool for Democrats that was put on hold in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Jonae Wartel, the Georgia runoff director who came aboard to run the coordinated campaign in early November, said in an interview it was a “gargantuan task” to build an operation that quickly, though it was clear immediately that they needed a robust voter contact program.
“That was a bit of the departure from the general election, where a lot of the work was remote organizing,” Wartel said. “We had to scale extremely quickly.”
The coordinated campaign ultimately made 25 million voter contact attempts, with more than 40,000 volunteers engaged. They knocked on a million doors in just the final four days of the race.
“There was no one walking around who didn’t know there was a runoff election,” Wartel said.
Ossoff himself played an unusually involved role in directing his campaign’s strategy — from its digital operation to the ground game — and he expressed a desire early on in the runoff campaign to focus heavily on driving up turnout among African-Americans, according to people familiar with the conversations
Running as a ticket with Warnock, who will be only the 11th Black senator in history, would help significantly with Black turnout. But the Ossoff campaign spearheaded additional outreach efforts of its own in the state’s rural, “Black Belt” counties, which saw strong turnout among African-Americans. Ossoff ran TV ads featuring Black voters talking about the importance of their vote. Warnock’s campaign ran several ads highlighting his bus tour to remote corners of the state.
Much of that groundwork in the state had already been laid by Democrat Stacey Abrams, who launched an unprecedented voter registration effort after losing the state’s gubernatorial race to Republican Brian Kemp in 2018. Groups like New Georgia Project and Fair Fight had been working for years to register new voters, laying a foundation for the 2020 election and the effort to get Black Georgians to the polls.
The Ossoff campaign quickly hired a team of 30 staffers for a voter registration team to build on that in the early days of the runoff before joining the field program after the Dec. 7 registration deadline, according to a senior campaign official. Ultimately, a campaign that initially had 25 people on staff ballooned to 200, not including more than 2,000 community organizers hired to do outreach on the ground. They even built an app that allowed those organizers to sync their contacts and robocall the ones who hadn’t yet voted.
Two prominent Democratic consultants, Cornell Belcher and Karen Finney, conducted an extensive poll of Black infrequent voters. The survey was paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and shared with both campaigns early in the runoffs to lay the groundwork for the mobilization efforts, according to multiple people familiar with the effort.
The campaigns also conducted in-depth polling of Asian and Latino voters, according to people familiar with the matter, knowing that they required high turnout and strong margins among different populations of voters that had helped deliver the state for Biden in November.
“All along, Jon Ossoff had the deep and steady conviction that we could defeat an entrenched incumbent like Perdue only by lifting up the voices of Georgians, especially Black Georgians and young people, building a movement from all the moments of pain and hope,” said Joshua Karp, a senior advisor to the campaign.
Remarkably, more than 100,000 people who voted in the runoff did not vote in the November elections — and the vast majority of them cast their ballots for Ossoff and Warnock, according to Democrats’ modeling. Even before that, Georgia Democrats viewed key events in 2020 — like the death of Rep. John Lewis and the killing of Ahmaud Arbery — as galvanizing moments for Black voters, whose share of the electorate in Georgia had already risen higher than that of any other battleground state.
A TV ad avalanche
Ossoff made his past work for Lewis central to his campaign. He called Lewis in August 2019 to ask for his endorsement for the Senate, according to an Ossoff adviser, and he announced his campaign two weeks later with Lewis’ backing, a critical boost in the multi-candidate primary. In the first week of this past December, Ossoff drove to Selma, Alabama, to film a TV ad on the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, invoking Lewis’ history as a civil rights leader and calling for a new Civil Rights Act. The ad debuted on TV later that month, during the first week of early voting.
The TV spending in the runoff quickly ballooned, with more than $500 million spent on advertising. But both parties actually invested heavily before November, too. While Warnock faced no attacks in the fall, GOP outside groups spent $45 million in the Ossoff race prior to November, according to data from AdImpact. Majority Forward, a Democratic nonprofit, went up on TV in July, weeks after Ossoff won his primary. Senate Majority PAC, Democrats’ top outside group, combined with affiliated nonprofits to invest more than $40 million before November, according to AdImpact, much of it aimed at attack ads against Perdue.
“It was just frankly better for Democratic candidates than many places on the map, and we needed to make it a priority,” said J.B. Poersch, the president of SMP. “It was a risk worth taking for us.”
While the Democrats were plotting for the runoffs, Republicans were shifting their focus, too. The candidates and GOP groups relentlessly attacked the Democrats both as socialists who would enable the most liberal Democrats, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), to enact their agenda.
Gabriel Sterling, the voting systems implementation manager for the state and a conservative Republican who has pushed back against Trump’s false claims of voter fraud, said on Wednesday that the large number of new voters was “a testament to hard work that was done when Republicans were busy attacking the governor and my boss,” referring to Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger.
Indeed, Republicans in Georgia and in Washington have blamed the Trump-stoked in-fighting for their twin losses in Georgia, particularly while Ossoff and Warnock were busy uniting their coalition. Because Perdue and Loeffler refused to acknowledge that Trump lost the election, it complicated the argument about how victories for Ossoff and Warnock would give Democrats’ full control of both the presidency and Congress. And Trump’s false attacks against the election, combined with his last-minute Twitter criticism of Senate GOP leaders, upended their closing arguments.
Democrats didn’t have too long to celebrate fully, given the chaos that unfolded the day after their election, when violent pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. But some staffers got moments to soak it in. On Tuesday night, before the race was called but after it appeared clear Warnock would win, Motown legend Stevie Wonder joined Warnock campaign staff on Zoom to congratulate them and celebrate the victory.
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