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Hundreds Of Thousands Of New Voters May Have Helped Flip Georgia's Runoff Elections

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's been a month since Democrats flipped Georgia's two Senate seats from red to blue. Strategists from both parties are still trying to figure out how that happened. One reason - a wave of new voters who turned out in January. But can Democrats keep winning? From member station WABE in Atlanta, here is Emma Hurt.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

JOHN KRASINSKI: (As sheriff) Hey there, Ms. Crystal.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: A week ago, Georgia's runoffs got the "Saturday Night Live" treatment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

KRASINSKI: (As sheriff) I just wanted to stop by so y'all could meet my cousin Lee from out of town.

AIDY BRYANT: (As Ms. Crystal) Well, look at you. Where are you coming from, Lee?

PETE DAVIDSON: (As Lee) New York City.

BRYANT: (As Ms. Crystal) New York City. Well, welcome. Good to see a fellow blue stater (ph). We're just like y'all.

HURT: 2020 produced what had been the unthinkable for Georgia Democrats - a presidential victory and two Senate wins.

JEREMY HALBERT-HARRIS: This wasn't by mistake.

HURT: Jeremy Halbert-Harris was in senior leadership for both the Biden-Harris and Senate runoff campaigns.

HALBERT-HARRIS: Our organizing was sincere, and we'll continue to organize in a very sincere and strategic manner. And this won't be the last you hear from Georgia.

HURT: Organizing - Georgia Democrats have been doing it for years to rebuild their party after losing control of the state decades ago. The latest example - the about 225,000 new voters who showed up in January. Jonae Wartel ran the coordinated Democratic Senate campaigns.

JONAE WARTEL: We built the largest organizing team in the state's history. We were able to make over 25 million voter contact attempts just in the runoff election alone.

HURT: The thesis has been that Georgia is a blue state. It's just that many of those voters have been ignored - minority voters, young voters. So groups like the New Georgia Project, founded by Stacey Abrams, began talking directly to them, and Georgia's electoral margins have narrowed. Here's New Georgia Project chief executive Nse Ufot.

NSE UFOT: If you want to win, these are the folks that you need to talk to. These are the folks that you need to inspire, and these are the folks who need to be a part of developing a governing agenda.

HURT: Fast-forward to the runoffs, where unprecedented attention and money flowed in and the strategy got a turbocharge. The campaigns and groups like the New Georgia Project looked around to figure out where the electorate could continue to grow from, even just between November and January.

UFOT: Yes, we sent over 4 million text messages. And we also had dozens of virtual Zoom birthday parties for people turning 18.

HURT: Another group, Battleground Georgia, specifically targeted several hundred thousand registered Black voters who didn't vote in November. And it paid off, says Tharon Johnson, a former Biden campaign adviser who worked with the group.

THARON JOHNSON: We can't miss this moment. We were able to increase African American turnout in the state by four percentage points. We went from 27% in 2018 to 31% in the runoff in 2021. And so that just didn't happen overnight.

HURT: A disproportionate number of the new runoff voters were people of color, says Bernard Fraga, a political scientist at Emory.

BERNARD FRAGA: That's just the math. If it wasn't for the relatively high mobilization of African Americans and other non-white voters in Georgia, Ossoff would have lost. Warnock might have lost. It would go to a recount. But Republicans would control the Senate.

HURT: And yet Georgia Republicans are saying, not so fast. Georgia isn't blue; it's purple. Jason Shepherd is chair of the Cobb County Republican Party.

JASON SHEPHERD: Republicans who firmly believed that the election was stolen and, if they went to vote, their vote wouldn't matter, and stayed home cost us the election.

HURT: He points out that the Republican distance from the chaos in the White House actually won the other runoff race in January for public service commissioner. But Governor Brian Kemp, who's up for reelection next year, isn't taking things for granted. Does he think there's anything Republicans can learn from Democrats?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN KEMP: Yeah, definitely. You know, one of the hardest things that I had to get across to people in 2018 is that the race was going to be very close 'cause a lot of people in certain parts of the state didn't believe that.

HURT: Going forward, he says Republicans need to do two things - get more low-propensity voters registered and reach out to minority communities. Sound familiar?

For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.