Before sunrise this morning, thousands of Georgians will have dispersed across the state, unfolding tables and postering parking lots as the low January fog of a mild winter burns off. From a few stretches of poll watching, I can tell you it’s quiet work, until the line materializes and the day begins to thrum. For two months leading up to this day, no commercial break was saved from the ads. By the second week of intensive campaigning following the Presidential election, one could identify any candidate by their chosen font, color, and temp track.
What’s interesting is how short a time it takes to celebritize otherwise obscure people. Ossoff, Perdue, Loeffler, and Warnock all share a precipitous rise to national fame, emerging from respective niches or entirely invisible corners of Georgia political life. Excitement had to be manufactured around these candidates, and each party took half-baked, opposing approaches. The younger Democratic candidates appealed to older, moderate, affluent professionals–generally conservative– and the older Republican candidates targeted young, college-age voters–of course, generally liberal. The generational divide is never more obvious than when the candidates market to their base. Reaching young people is relatively inexpensive, if not free. Jon Ossof’s Tik Tok has gained thousands of followers and is run by a modestly paid intern from Georgia State University. It works. The first time you see a politician’s fancam, it’s contrived; the tenth time, it’s brand awareness. But for older Georgians, traditional Hearts and Minds must still be won, so canvassers knock on doors, ads run after Tucker Carlson and House Hunters, celebrities lodge endorsements from around the country. Key to all four candidates’ messaging is a calculated proportion of historical piggybacking and an eye for encroaching trends.
Understanding Georgia politics requires knowing the names that built it. The story of Atlanta could be told by tracking where these families directed their money over the years, be it stadiums, malls, housing, or the arts. Two corporations shaped Atlanta, and thus, all of Georgia, in the 20th Century: Coca Cola and Home Depot. The men, and they are all men, attached to each company are inescapable. Coke founders and executives Carlos, Woodruff, Goizueta, and Candler collectively poured billions into the city, and their names are affixed to buildings and spaces on every university and private high school campus in the city. Two blocks to the north of my house is the Carlos Museum and the Goizueta Business School, and less than a mile west is Candler Park. Home Depot enriched Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus, one of Trump’s largest private donors. Blank owns the Falcons and is typically the entire “private” side of large public-private partnerships in Atlanta. It comes as no surprise that the families most benefitting from Georgia as it is today would seek to maintain the status quo. Marcus donated a few million dollars to the Senate Leadership Fund, the GOP super PAC heading up advertising in Georgia. Appeals to this camp involve pro-business policy and generous tax breaks for development, the results of which have bolstered massive gentrification in Atlanta’s Westside and Old Fourth Ward, two traditionally Black neighborhoods. The response is just beginning to be heard.
I have been able to witness the formation of a multiethnic, class-inclusive Democratic coalition in Georgia with unusual intimacy. I’ve lived in Atlanta my entire life, growing up part of a Republican family. My parents voted McCain, then Romney, then Trump. Four years after that, my parents voted blue for the first time in my life, along with thousands of other registered Republicans. They were joined by record Black turnout and a decidedly blue suburban women vote. This coalition tested the waters in the 2018 gubernatorial race, when Stacy Abrams nearly upset Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Now, Abrams’ Fair Fight PAC has registered more than 60,000 Black voters and donated millions of dollars to the Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic entity. Demographics are rapidly shifting, with several hundred thousand Hispanic voters coming of age in this and coming elections, as well as a robust and growing East Asian community in the Atlanta suburbs. These new voters seek renewed healthcare policy, law enforcement reform, and social programs unpalatable to classic Georgia conservatives. Whether or not these come to pass is another question.
A blue Georgia has not gone unpunished. Not a week ago, I crossed the street in Buckhead, the wealthiest part of Atlanta, to see a white man lambast a younger Hispanic man for wearing a mask while driving his car, shouting “he probably stole that vehicle!” The three city councilmembers from Buckhead have personally donated $100,000 to establish a private police force in already heavily-policed retail areas. Taken from their statement, they believe it is “essential to protect our commercial interests” in Buckhead. While they retain control, landed white Georgians are taking matters into their own hands.
Ossoff, Warnock, Loeffler, and Perdue are the four most logical candidates for this moment. Ossoff is from Atlanta, private school educated, relating to newly Democratic white families, and just charismatic enough to ignore criticism that he has little relevant experience. Warnock emerges from the church that spawned the civil rights movement in Atlanta—Ebenezer Baptist— and meets religion and Democratic liberalism somewhere in the middle. Loeffler and Perdue both represent the business class attempting to maintain control of the state. Perdue was the CEO of both Reebok and Dollar General before serving in the Senate, and Loeffler simply appeared after former Senator Johnny Isakson relinquished office. She’s married to the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange—making her the wealthiest member of Congress— and she’s a woman just feminine enough to feel timely but not abrasive to conservatives in the state.
New names are entering the Georgia canon, finally uniting the pantheon of Civil Rights leaders with the line of politicians traditionally opposing them. Of course, a split Senate could only accomplish so much, and Ossoff and Warnock are not going to launch Georgia into stratospheric ascent, but enough symbolic victories, in the right places, make for the perfect conditions for real change. The work of every Democratic voter here is to create that space, and then to elbow it wider and wider until the vote is met with material returns: healthcare, COVID relief, housing assistance and job programs. Aside from a flipped Senate, a blue Georgia would codify the work of countless activists and imbue silenced communities with lasting power. We cannot forget who has put in the hours, who is at the greatest risk, who really knows the stakes. My whole life this very opportunity was used as hyperbole. Red was the color of the clay. Once as a joke, my sixth grade teacher told me he’d quit when Georgia goes blue. He’d better be collecting his things.