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With Trump defeated, Georgia Democrats aim to keep voters fired up for Senate control

The party is working to ward off complacency and register new voters for what could be two Senate runoffs that could make or break President-elect Joe Biden's agenda.
Image: Jon Ossoff, Raphael G Warnock
Democratic Senate candidates Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff arrive at a get-out-the-vote event in Jonesboro, Ga., on Oct. 27.Brynn Anderson / AP

ATLANTA — Democrats know this year's election was as much about President Donald Trump as anything else, but without him on the ballot, they are working to find other ways to keep voters engaged.

In Georgia, party officials, labor leaders and progressive activists are mounting an aggressive campaign to keep their base mobilized and register new voters ahead of a Dec. 7 deadline before voters here return to the ballot box on Jan. 5.

This historically conservative state will host two runoffs for Senate seats on Jan. 5, NBC News projects. Republican Kelly Loeffler will face Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock. David Perdue, the other GOP incumbent, will Democrat Jon Ossoff.

Democrats are doing what they can to stoke enthusiasm in the hope of winning both races, which would give them control of the chamber.

They recognize they have an uphill climb in the high-stakes contests given their poor record in overtime elections here. Georgia's last Senate runoff was in 2008, and the Republican candidate, Saxby Chambliss, won by 15 percentage points.

"This is a very different state than 2008. We've been working really hard. We have registered hundreds of thousands of voters in the state," Warnock, a preacher at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, told reporters Thursday. "With record turnout this time around, I think that people understand what's at stake. They're going to rise up one more time."'

Democrats are emphasizing the need for Senate control as a way to give President-elect Joe Biden's agenda a chance and prevent a Republican blockade. Warnock and Ossoff have held health care-themed events about protecting coverage under the Affordable Care Act, which their Republican rivals oppose. They say it's time to elect a government that will get Covid-19 under control.

"This election with Donald Trump has awakened people," said Tracey Thornhill, the president of Local 1644 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Atlanta. "Where would we be in another four years? With the help of Perdue and Loeffler, he would send us straight back to slave ships."

'We can't be complacent'

Many credit Stacey Abrams — the former state House minority leader who fell short of winning the governorship in 2018 and founded the voting rights group Fair Fight — with putting Democrats on the brink of victory.

An Ossoff official said that after the general election, his campaign's volunteers have made more than 70,000 calls to Georgia voters, with 60,000 hours of shifts among 21,900 volunteers scheduled for the next two weeks. The official said that Ossoff's campaign has brought in a new team to register voters before the deadline and that it is reaching out to thousands of young Georgians who became eligible after the Nov. 3 contest.

Warnock was flanked by labor leaders, who are providing the ground organization for Democrats and vowed to redouble their efforts to deliver the state for Warnock and Ossoff as Biden leads by about 14,000 votes ahead of a recount.

"We're going to be contacting every union member in the state of Georgia. It's going to be nonstop until January," said James Williams, the president of the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council. "Our members are going to be tired of us contacting them, but complacency isn't an issue for us. We're going to get them out."

Unions are advocating for Biden-backed ideas like raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and adding a public insurance option to the Affordable Care Act exchanges. The proposals and others would have a chance in a Democratic-led Congress, but they could be dead on arrival in a Senate controlled by Republicans.

Republicans, for their part, warn that a Democratic Senate would pave the way for "socialism," hoping to capitalize on anger over losing the presidency.

"There are very influential politicians and figures in the Democratic Party whose ideas are far outside the mainstream of what our country wants," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told reporters Wednesday after he co-hosted a campaign event with Loeffler in a suburb of Atlanta. "And if they control the Senate, they'll be in a position to influence some of those."

Control of the Senate was a theme Tuesday of a rally for Ossoff in Atlanta, which boasts a booming metropolitan area that is home to about two-thirds of the state's population and has trended toward Democrats in recent years.

"We can't be complacent," said Jennifer Jordan, a state senator who represents Atlanta. "If we don't vote for Warnock and Ossoff, we're just going to have another situation where [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell is doing everything he can to make sure the president fails."