ATLANTA — While Atlanta’s suburbs made headlines for delivering Georgia for President Joe Biden, rural voters helped narrow crucial GOP margins statewide and Democrats are hoping they’ll do it again.
The 2020 election in Georgia made major impacts at the federal level with U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock securing the upper chamber for the Democrats. Republicans still handily won their majority in the General Assembly and kept continued control of state politics, but with the changing electorate across the state, pundits suspect margins of victory will continue to be narrow.
Progressive organizers are optimistic the decade-plus work that led to Biden’s victory will continue shaving off percentage points in rural areas for a better shot at statewide seats in 2022.
“We didn’t flip Georgia overnight,” said Abigail Collazo, a Democratic strategist. "This is the result of organizing work that's been done on the ground for decades, led by people like Stacey Abrams, who have been been traveling to these rural areas for years.”
Such impact can be seen in Georgia's Black Belt, where left-leaning voters of Muscogee County backed Biden last November by nearly 3.5% more than Hillary Clinton in 2016 — while former President Donald Trump lost nearly 2% of votes since his first election.
Albany native Manswell Peterson, a Democrat running for Secretary of State in 2022, said the recognition of the role of rural areas in politics is long overdue.
“Rural Georgia, for the first time in a long time, we're saying, 'Hey, we want to stand up and be seen, too,’” he said.
Grassroots voter mobilizers gained praise for their work in turning out Black rural voters who took to the polls in record numbers and sent a strong message of their power to Georgia and the nation.
Cliff Albright, the co-founder and executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund, said if the weight of change is falling only on urban areas, it’s always going to come up short.
“You've got to involve folks in these rural counties,” he said. “Which collectively, they make up a big city.”
Black Voters Matter conducts extensive voter outreach efforts nationally, to build political power of Black voters within their communities and statewide.
“When you empower people around their local policies or elected officials in their county,” Albright said. “When you do that in county after county, rural area of the rural area, that adds up to the point where you can also impact state policy."
The long game
For Democrats in Georgia, the wins of the 2020 election were a measurable success following years of on-the-ground organizing and voter mobilization efforts — much to the credit of Abrams' organizations that have poured time and resources into mobilizing voters.
That long game helped Democrats register thousands of new voters, particularly in communities of color. Democratic operatives are confident the results will be seen again next election cycle in rural areas with progressive voters shaving off points from GOP margins in statewide races.
“If we continue to turn out the votes, we continue to put time money, resources and talent — to lift up talent and energy in these areas — that absolutely will have that positive impact,” Collazo said. "If you look back at 2020 at a lot of the Statehouse seats in particular that we did not pick up, most of them came very, very close.”
Candidates are already lining up for consequential seats up for grabs and, according to political operatives, seeking advice on how to win over rural voters.
“Candidates are taking more interest in rural areas,” said Laura Register, a Democratic strategist based in South Georgia. “We’ve shown in the last races that we’re important.”
Seeing statewide candidates make visits to rural areas of the state helps push wary Democrats to get out to vote, she said. Those votes are crucial to closing the gap on the GOP stronghold outside of metro areas.
"I think we're going to see a lot of the margins get closer,” Register said. "I don't think it'll get tight but I think we will continue to bring in percentage points that help push statewide Democrats over the line.”
Nationally, Democrats are using the victories in Georgia as an example to other states about what is possible when you play the long game with political organizing.
"Georgia can be an example of what long-term planning and power building can bring about,” said Kelly Dietrich, founder and CEO of the National Democratic Training Committee. "The results of 2020 didn't happen because people got motivated and involved that January, it's a result of dedication and commitment over years of time … that’s not easy to do."
Peterson, who will run in the primary against other Democratic contenders such as Atlanta Democrat State Rep. Bee Nguyen, said rural voters often feel ostracized from politics when candidates make quick appearances during their campaign rounds. But he’s hopeful that the close margins of the presidential race drove home the point that every rural vote counts.
“If you take away 15,000 Democratic votes from rural Georgia, Biden doesn’t win Georgia,” he said.
It's a game of inches, organizers say, where rural areas hold more power than some think.
"If they just keep the other side from running up the vote in some of these rural areas," Albright, with Black Voters Matter, said. "Then it makes it easier for the bigger cities to do what they can do."