Grassroots organisers and black voters behind key wins for Democrats in Georgia senate races

Activists say Stacey Abrams and WNBA among those responsible for historic turnout that turned the southern state blue

Stacey Abrams speaks to the media about the U.S. Senate runoff elections outside St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., January 5, 2021.  REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
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Two new senators from the southern state of Georgia are heading to Washington – and both are Democrats.

A few months ago, the idea that Georgia would turn blue, not only in the presidential election but in both its Senate races, was unthinkable.

It has been more than 20 years since the state elected a Democratic senator.

On Wednesday, Raphael Warnock defeated Trump loyalist Kelly Loeffler to become the first African-American to represent the state in the upper chamber of the US Congress.

The other Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, also won his race, narrowly beating the Republican incumbent David Perdue.

Georgia, a state intertwined with America’s history of racism and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, has now helped to give the Democrats control of the Senate.

It is a big win for the party and president-elect Joe Biden.

The victory has been years in the making and activists say it is thanks, in large part, to the hard work of grassroots organisations such as the New Georgia Project.

It was started by Stacey Abrams, a former candidate for Georgia governor, to increase voter registration among the state’s African-American community.

Ms Abrams narrowly lost her race in 2018, but it was the first hint that Democrats could find success in the Peach State.

Ms Abrams has spent the past two years tirelessly laying the groundwork for these results.

Last night, she tweeted her thanks to “volunteers” and “organisers” for their hard work.

During the 2020 election, Ms Abrams told every presidential campaign about her strategy for winning Georgia and the country in 2020.

Activists believe her work has inspired a wave of civil engagement across the state.

“Over the last couple of months, the New Georgia Project Action Fund has knocked on millions of doors, called, texted and held in-depth conversations with voters across Georgia,” said Nse Ufot, the organisation’s chief executive.

“Organisers showed up and the voters decided. We know that our community is ready for change.”

Those efforts helped in what the organisation called a historic win for Mr Warnock and Mr Ossoff.

While overall turnout is still being tallied, early tracking shows an increased turnout among key communities, including black voters.

Ms Abrams’s work inspired not only African-Americans to turn up to the polls but other minority communities as well.

"Stacey has paved the way for all of us to do this work," Shafina Khabani, the executive director of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project, told The National.

“She’s been championing for black voters, for brown voters, minorities, people whose voices have historically been silenced and marginalised communities.

“Having a figure like her stand up for us and show us we can have a voice, we can stand up and we can really make a difference … it’s great to have a figure like her.”

The Georgia Muslim Voter Project is one of dozens of grassroots organisations that worked on encouraging Georgians to vote in the run-off race.

“We did an event earlier in the month where we had Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar and some prominent figures, but we brought on comedians, we brought in spoken-word artists, you know, kind of a conjuncture of activism and art,” Ms Khabani said.

“But we wanted to really try to reach out to different segments of our communities that we might not normally reach out to, especially the youth.”

Black voters help to solidify victory

While voter turnout is still being counted, activists are crediting increased participation by black voters for helping to secure the wins for the Democrats.

Early exit polls reported by CNN revealed that 93 per cent of black voters supported Mr Ossoff and Mr Warnock.

Black voters make up a third of Georgia’s electorate and were key to president-elect Joe Biden’s success in the 2020 general election.

“Twenty-two per cent of the population who had not voted, voted. That’s powerful,” said Mondale Robinson, founder of the Black Male Voter project.

Mr Robinson said the African-American vote was key to the Democrats’ success in the Senate run-off elections as well.

“We know that black people in the run-off voted at a higher rate than they did in the general election, so that’s the power of engaging communities about issues most important to them,” he said.

Issues of race have played an important role in the run-offs.

Ms Loeffler is the co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, a basketball team in the WNBA.

Over the summer, she came out as anti-Black Lives Matter and even tried to have the league make players wear American flags on their warm-ups.

In response, members of her own team wore the name “Warnock” on their jerseys and urged people to vote for the Democratic candidate rather than their team owner.

Their support had an immediate effect. According to The Score, Mr Warnock said he received $236,000 in campaign donations in the days after the show of support by Dream players. His poll numbers also soared.

Activists such as Mr Robinson hope the new senators will deliver a better future for their community.

“What we need from senator-elect Warnock is to go to Washington, DC, and to represent the needs and issues that are plaguing black men and black people in general in Georgia,” he said.