With the Senate majority hanging in the balance and coronavirus cases spiking, Georgia Democrats have resurrected a hallmark of their pre-pandemic campaigning: knocking on voters' doors.
Democrats largely halted the practice earlier this year, but the party's candidates this week returned to in-person canvassing in the Peach State as they seek to juice turnout in two critical runoff elections on Jan. 5. The new efforts are being coordinated between the two Democratic campaigns and follow strict health guidelines created in consultation with an epidemiologist.
The transition back to door-to-door canvassing comes after a November election marked by asymmetrical tactics: Democratic candidates generally moved their mobilization efforts online and over the phone, while many Republican campaigns still worked the doors to contact voters.
Both sides recognize that turning out their bases in Georgia will be paramount, and as a result their efforts are focused less on persuading undecided voters and more on getting supporters to the polls or to return absentee ballots. It’s why the two Democratic candidates — Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock — and a litany of outside groups are set to resurrect door-knocking despite the health concerns.
Miryam Lipper, a spokesperson for Ossoff, and Terrence Clark, a spokesperson for Warnock, said in a joint statement the campaigns would pivot and knock on doors over the next six weeks because the stakes of turning out voters “could not be higher.”
“In close consultation with public health experts and an epidemiologist, we’ve created an in-person voter contact program with strict protocols that will allow organizers and volunteers to safely register new voters and knock doors across the state,” Lipper and Clark said. “This work is especially important for ensuring voters in communities of color, who have been left behind in the past, have the information they need to vote.”
The move underscores how critical turnout will be for the two runoffs: After the November elections, Republicans have captured 50 seats in the Senate to Democrats' 48, and Democrats would control the majority if they win both races, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking ties once she is inaugurated. The result will have a major impact on President-elect Joe Biden’s first two years in office.
Some liberal activists questioned the decision to leave in-person voter contact in the run-up to November mostly to Republicans, who outperformed expectations downballot, even as President Donald Trump was defeated in the presidential race. But now Democrats say they can canvass safely, even as Covid-19 cases surge across Georgia and nationwide.
The Ossoff and Warnock campaigns require volunteers to wear masks at all times, to step six feet back from doors before anyone answers, to use hand sanitizer after touching any surfaces and to affirm that they are free of any symptoms and have not been in contact with anyone suspected or confirmed of being positive for Covid-19 before their shifts.
The campaigns' epidemiologist trained the field staff leadership on the safety guidelines, according to the coordinated campaign. The campaigns also have a full-time staffer ensuring safety protocols are followed.
The campaigns aren’t alone in their efforts. Some progressive organizations, including the Working Families Party, returned to in-person canvassing in the state this weekend. And the Georgia state Democratic Party this week is launching in-person canvassing specifically for ballot curing, an effort to help voters with any issues with absentee ballots, which are being mailed as early as this week. That program will run through the days following the Jan. 5 runoffs.
Door-knocking protocols were in flux for a number of grassroots groups, which weighed the merits of potentially putting canvassers at risk while finding ways to mobilize the hard-to-reach voters Democrats need to win in January.
“It’s a heightened awareness that we need to do everything that we can to keep ourselves safe, keep voters safe, but also to not lose credibility,” said Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project. Ufot said her organization has had to be even more mindful of the risks involved with in-person outreach as Black voters, who make up roughly 30 percent of the Georgia electorate and typically account for half of Democrats' supporters, are among the most disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
“No one knows the risk more than we do,” Ufot continued. “And we also understand how important it is to make sure that voters show up in this moment.”
Earlier this month, Ossoff told POLITICO that his campaign was still exploring how to stand up a safe field operation, but he emphasized the campaign’s phone-banking efforts and other ways to reach voters that don’t involve in-person contact.
“The team is still working through all the health implications and making sure our volunteers and our workers, and most of all voters, are kept safe and healthy by whatever we’re doing,” Ossoff said.
Democrats’ new effort comes as multiple Republican groups have already begun canvassing voters. The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and Women Speak Out PAC, which is affiliated with anti-abortion group SBA List, are running door-knocking programs in the state. The National Republican Senatorial Committee announced a massive field program for the two runoffs including 21 regional directors and 1,000 field staff across the state.
Democrats have been organizing on the ground, but most groups halted their door-knocking programs after the outbreak of the pandemic. Other groups adjusted their protocols to deal with the new environment.
“It actually took months for us to get to the place where we developed careful and substantive precautions where risks were low,” said Liz Cattaneo, a spokesperson for For Our Future, a grassroots political action group that led in-person field operations in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida.
According to Cattaneo, the group didn’t just emphasize the use of personal protective equipment; they hired a full-time, in-house health director who spearheaded mandatory health training sessions for all organizers. Cattaneo said none of its organizers this year contracted the coronavirus.
Britney Whaley, a senior political strategist at the Working Families Party in Georgia, said the group’s goal was to knock on 750,000 doors. She said their protocols include canvassers wearing masks and bringing additional masks with them for the voters in their homes, and leaving literature if the voter doesn’t want to put on a mask.
“It's always felt important to meet people where they are, which is in their homes and in their communities,” Whaley said. “We wanted to make sure that we talked to our people and communicate with them the best way we know how, while keeping them safe.”
Warnock’s opponent in the special election, appointed GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler, was self-isolating after testing positive for Covid-19 over the weekend, though the senator has since revealed that she tested negative two days in a row and plans to return to the campaign trail. Loeffler on Friday campaigned alongside Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), her counterpart in the runoffs, and Vice President Mike Pence, heightening concerns about possibly spreading the virus.
In the wake of Loeffler’s Covid-19 exposure, Ossoff called on both Loeffler and Perdue to require masks to be worn at their campaign events. Both senators have held several indoor events where attendees are largely mask-less, a practice that health officials say accelerates the spread of the virus. The campaigns provided masks but did not require them at their kickoff rallies in the state earlier this month.
On Monday, Perdue appeared alongside just-reelected Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) in an open field, with attendees mostly spaced out, according to photos from the event.