By Joseph Ax and Rich McKay
ATLANTA (Reuters) - With hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into twin Jan. 5 Georgia runoff elections to determine control of the U.S. Senate, Democrats and a constellation of allies are waging an all-out campaign to mobilize as many Black voters as possible.
The success of their efforts - targeted advertising, virtual events and even door-to-door canvassing despite the coronavirus pandemic - will likely decide the outcome, analysts said.
"High Black voter turnout is essential to a Democratic victory," said Andra Gillespie, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "If their turnout rate is lower than it is for other groups ... that'll help dig a hole that Democrats won't be able to dig out of."
If either or both Republican incumbents, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, win, their party would retain a Senate majority – and the power to thwart Democratic President-elect Joe Biden's legislative agenda on everything from the economy to climate change and race relations.
Even as Biden was scoring a surprise victory over President Donald Trump in Georgia in the Nov. 3 election, Perdue finished ahead of Jon Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker, falling just short of the 50% needed to avoid a runoff. The Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, a historic Black church, and Loeffler led a large multi-candidate field in the other race.
In outperforming Trump, Perdue benefited from Republican-leaning voters who disliked Trump but were not willing to vote for down-ballot Democrats.
"Those are going to be difficult voters for Democrats to win over," Terrance Woodbury, a pollster, said. "They're very likely voters, and very unlikely to vote for Democrats."
Democrats need Black turnout as a counterbalance. State data show just over 27% of voters identified as Black in November, versus 28% in 2016.
Another wild card is what effect Trump's absence from the ticket, and his baseless attacks on the November election, will have on turnout. An informal Reuters survey this month of 50 Georgia Republicans found that all 50 planned to vote even though almost all believed Trump's attacks.
Early vote totals suggest record turnout for a runoff, and polls show voter engagement remains high amid unprecedented levels of advertising. Total ad spending exceeds $450 million, according to the tracking firm AdImpact.
Woodbury said Black voters were energized but lacked details on the unusual elections. A poll he conducted of Georgia Black women found almost all planned to vote - but a majority did not know the date.
"They don't have to be convinced to vote, but they do need to be educated on the process – how to vote, where to vote and when to vote," Woodbury said.
Several aides who oversaw Biden's Georgia victory are advising the Democrats' coordinated campaign, which has bought advertising on Black radio stations and media outlets. As in November, the coronavirus and healthcare are core messages.
Kamala Harris, the first Black vice president-elect, campaigned alongside Ossoff and Warnock on Monday. The nation's first Black president, Barack Obama, headlined a virtual rally this month but has not yet visited in person, as Biden did last week.
Dozens of third-party groups have entered the fray. An initiative called #WinBothSeats – whose founders include former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang – is raising money for organizers targeting voters of color.
Several have emphasized rural voters, such as Black Voters Matter, whose regional efforts include 10 heavily Black counties in southwest Georgia, co-founder Cliff Albright said.
"When you take those 10 counties collectively, you've basically got a major city," he said.
Some are concentrating on specific segments of the electorate, such as newly eligible or infrequent voters.
The voting advocacy group New Georgia Project, founded by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, registered 7,000 voters for the runoffs, Chief Executive Nse Ufot said, part of a surge of 75,000 statewide registrations. The group is operating a fleet of vans to ferry hundreds of voters without cars to the polls.
On Tuesday morning, Karli Swift, a Black attorney in Atlanta's Edgewood neighborhood, hitched a ride to her local voting site.
"It's important to vote, especially for me as a Black woman," the 38-year-old Democrat said. "We've been ignored and neglected for too long."
The Black Male Voter Project is targeting Georgia's 460,000 registered Black men who have not voted for years, founder Mondale Robinson said. More than 80,000 who did not vote in 2016 or 2018 cast ballots in November, he added.
Campaigns rarely spend time investing in such voters, who just need to understand the impact an election can have on their concerns, Robinson said. Someone opposed to excessive sentencing, for instance, might not realize the Senate confirms federal judges.
"Antipathy is different than apathy," he said. "If we engage Black men as though they are apathetic, we're already losing."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey, and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)