It’s a sentiment, ultimately, rooted in a universal driver of votes: fear.
And it’s one of the greatest turnout methods, said Brian Robinson, a Republican consultant and former spokesperson for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. “The fear of Democrat control of every elected lever of power, the fear of that extremism, is real. And it’s effective.”
With two Senate seats up for grabs in the January 5 runoffs, Democrats see an opportunity to push through new, more ambitious policies that Republicans decry as “radical” and “socialist.” And Republicans are trying to motivate Georgia voters to “hold the line” by reelecting Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue, who is facing off against Jon Ossoff, a Democrat from Atlanta. But the policy concerns conservatives have outlined are quickly being conflated with racial ones.
“There’s a third rail of politics in the South. And it’s race,” said Roy Barnes, Georgia’s last Democratic governor. In 2001, he led the effort to remove the Confederate Battle Flag design from the state flag, which contributed in part to his unsuccessful bid for reelection in 2002. He lost to Sonny Perdue, whose campaign promise to hold a referendum to change the flag again helped him consolidate support among rural white voters.
Now, said Barnes, Republicans are using dog whistles at their own peril, particularly as the state’s racial makeup changes. And with heightened sensitivity towards issues of race in Georgia and the rest of the country, he said, that messaging is “dangerous for the country and for the state.”
“I think the personal attacks are wearing thin, very thin, and that very well could backfire,” Barnes said. “I just can’t imagine that appeals to anybody.”
Some Republicans, too, are wary of the strategy, arguing the state’s changing demographics present an opening for the GOP to expand its outreach to communities of color.
“You have to be careful in attacking an African American candidate in the South because it will have negative reverberations with independents in the suburbs,” said Heath Garrett, former campaign manager to former GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, whose seat Loeffler now occupies. “I think some of the attacks are helping motivate the base. But they have to walk a very fine line. Because otherwise they’re simply motivating Democratic voters.”
“We’re in such a time when propaganda dominates”
Back in 1970, when Andrew Young first ran for Congress, Republicans circulated pamphlets with a photo of Young, unshaven and in overalls, with a caption reading, “If Andrew Young is elected, the Black Panthers are going to get your daughter,” Young recalled. Those tactics are still in play today, he said.
“We’re in such a time when propaganda dominates,” said Young, who, after serving in Congress, was the mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations. “Most of the South still carries a burden of guilt and shame about race questions.”
But the South is morphing.