SAVANNAH, Ga. — Sen. Jon Ossoff isn’t on the ballot this year. But he’s leaping into Georgia’s midterm campaigns, restarting the organizing machine that helped turn the state blue as Democrats scramble for every tool to prevent Georgia — and the Senate — from flipping back.
Ossoff, who was elected alongside fellow Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in Jan. 2021 runoffs, is revving up a field organization that tested innovative ways to get unlikely-to-vote citizens to turn out two years ago. The methods helped mobilize Democratic voters in enough numbers to flip the Senate.
The stakes are just as high now. Recent public polling shows this year’s race between Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker remains a dead heat, even amid revelations of numerous scandals around Walker. The state could once again determine the balance of power in the 50-50 Senate. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was caught on a hot mic Thursday telling President Joe Biden that the race was “going downhill.”
But Ossoff believes that a strong field operation can change the electorate, and he’s spending six-figures from his own leadership PAC account to try, according to his campaign aides.
“We’ve demonstrated since 2017 that continually investing in organizing, especially young voters, is so important, and so I’m using the organization that I’ve built and putting it back to work,” Ossoff said in an interview with POLITICO, after launching a canvass effort in a strip mall parking lot alongside Warnock, Democratic House candidate Wade Herring and Savannah Mayor Van R. Johnson.
Ossoff’s efforts join a sprawling network of field operations in the state, spearheaded by Warnock and Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor. A number of get-out-the-vote nonprofits are also involved, as Democrats look for a way to close strong after several weeks of public polling gains by GOP Senate candidates, including Walker.
The network of field organizers is racing to turn out every possible voter for Nov. 8 — and then may have to turn around and do it again four weeks later, if the Warnock-Walker race goes to a runoff because no one got a majority of the vote.
But notably, some of the outside groups knocking on doors ahead of the midterms have raised serious concerns that they’re not as well-funded as they have been in the past, severely limiting the scope of their turnout efforts in 2022.
“I expected [the funding] to be different because it was not a presidential year,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter. “But it’s not even on par, in terms of resources, compared to 2018.”
Brown noted Georgia’s new voting law implemented in 2021 by the Republican-controlled state legislature, which made significant changes to the runoff rules. The biggest one was shortening the runoff period from nine weeks to four weeks, but the new law also restricted early voting during a runoff and essentially eliminated the ability to register new voters during a runoff period, as the registration deadline is 29 days before an election.
That makes organizing ahead of a possible Dec. 6 runoff especially important.
“I think that the state GOP made changes to the runoff process that they believe benefited them electorally,” Ossoff said. “But this is the most battle-tested political organization in the country because all of our volunteers have been through the two biggest races in recent history.”
Ossoff has had a unique vantage point on Georgia’s recent evolution into a battleground state — and the organizing that went into it. His narrow loss in a 2017 House special election heralded the suburban revolt against then-President Donald Trump that flipped the House to Democrats a year later.
Before Ossoff’s special election, former state Sen. Jason Carter acknowledged that the Democratic infrastructure in Georgia was suffering from “extreme atrophy.” But Carter, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014, said that Trump’s election as president and the subsequent special election “super-charged the energy surrounding those organizational efforts.”
“Then, Abrams in 2018 continued to use that energy to build more of an organization on the ground and across the state, which came to fruition with Trump on the ballot in 2020,” Carter said. He added: “Now, what we’re looking at for this election is, how far does that organization take us when the super-charged Trump energy is lessened?”
Ossoff himself described his electoral history as “unusual,” noting that “having run in the biggest U.S. House race of all time, and then running in this, well, the biggest Senate race of all time, afforded [the campaign] an opportunity to innovate.”
A post-election analysis of Ossoff’s field program, conducted by former campaign aides in the spring of 2021, estimated that Ossoff’s “paid relational” organizing program, paired with a traditional volunteer field organization, boosted turnout by 3.8 percent among 160,000 voters targeted. Ossoff and Warnock won their 2021 runoffs by 55,232 votes and 93,550 votes respectively.
The idea behind paid relational organizing is this: Ossoff campaign hired 2,800 Georgians, particularly those with little or no voting history themselves, to become “community mobilizers” — a term Ossoff coined for their role. The campaign suspected that those organizers would be well-positioned to influence irregular voters or nonvoters in their own personal networks to get involved.
They could spend millions of dollars to pilot this program because “the circumstances were so extraordinary [and] the resources were vast,” Ossoff said, so the campaign could try “these innovative organizing techniques, at a statewide scale.”
“We have been able to significantly increase turnout and participation by young voters and voters who are typically ignored and written off,” Ossoff continued.
This time, though, Democrats’ organizing machine is going up against a Republican base fired up to remove them from power, instead of drafting off anti-Trump energy when he was in the White House.
Meanwhile, even the most dedicated Georgia Democrats are showing some wear and tear after a nonstop succession of must-win races in their state.
Michelle DeHaven, a 63-year-old semi-retired veterinarian who attended Warnock’s campaign rally in Brunswick, Ga., last week, said that in 2020 and 2021, she was “volunteering five days a week, canvassing every spare minute” she had. “I have not pulled my share this time,” she added.
“It just seems like, getting back out there, knocking on the same doors again,” DeHaven said with a big sigh. “Yeah, I’m tired, but I’m also scared.”
Bob Byrd, a 63-year-old former communications executive who also volunteers with the Glynn County Democratic Party, said he’s worried that voters don’t know there’s yet another election to vote in.
“I have gone up to people to talk about the election and had them look me in the eye and say, ‘No, I already voted for these people,’” he said. “Then, we have to explain to people, ‘Yeah, we had a primary, then we had a primary runoff and now you’ve got to go again.’”
“And you’ll probably have to go in December and do it one more time,” he added.