Since 2020, Democratic strategists and activists have fixated on how to expand their gains in Georgia, once a Republican stronghold and now a true battleground.
But some of the state’s most prominent grass-roots organizers — those responsible for engineering President Biden’s victory in 2020 and that of two Democratic U.S. senators in 2021 — are growing concerned that efforts and attention are waning four years later.
The national money that once flowed freely from Democratic groups to help win pivotal Senate contests in Georgia has been slow in coming. Leading organizers, just over a month from the anticipated start of their initiatives to mobilize voters for the presidential election, say they are confronting a deep sense of apathy among key constituencies that will take even more resources to contend with.
And small but potentially pivotal shifts in strategy — cost-conscious measures like delaying large-scale voter engagement programs to later in the cycle or relying more on volunteers than paid canvassers — have privately stoked fears among some organizers about their ability to replicate their successes. More, it has led them to question how seriously Democratic donors and party leaders will take the state in 2024, even as Mr. Biden’s campaign has indicated that a repeat victory in Georgia is part of his strategy.
“What we’re hearing is, it’s not, like, first tier,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund, which has been one of the leading organizations on the ground in Georgia since 2020. “So that’s a little disappointing but we don’t know exactly yet what that means. But some early indications are that it’s not going to get top-level prioritization.”
Unlike 2020 or 2022, Georgia will not have a major statewide race in 2024, elevating the urgency for progressives in building both a robust digital operation and on-the-ground organizing.
Interviews with more than a dozen Georgia-based organizers and political strategists, as well as a review of financial disclosure forms for the state’s most engaged grass-roots organizing groups, revealed smaller fund-raising totals and slower spending in 2023 — a slowdown that is not unusual for a year without a major election, but has brought into focus concerns about the resources needed for the presidential race in the state.
“It’s no secret across the ecosystem that fund-raising has been a challenge in 2023 going into 2024,” said Jonae Wartel, a Democratic political strategist who helped lead Raphael Warnock’s 2020 U.S. Senate campaign. “I don’t think that, in this moment, the resourcing is where it needs to be but I really think it’s about engaging and appealing to the donor community to really make early investments.”
A number of organizers in Georgia have met with national donors over the last several months. During a gathering of liberal donors and national organizing groups in Washington last week, organizers from Georgia were among those assured that their work would remain funded, though some left with the impression that the campaigns in other states may eclipse Georgia’s importance in the eyes of some supporters.
Mr. Albright, who attended the Washington gathering, said donors and party leaders had been weighing heavier investments in swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. North Carolina, a Southern state facing a highly competitive governor race in 2024, is also likely to receive increased attention.
A similar concern is mounting among donors who were early to the Georgia cause in 2020 and who are growing exasperated at the slow trickle of money into the state.
“For some inexplicable reason, a lot of people are leaving Georgia out of the top tier of states to focus on next year,” said Steve Phillips, an early supporter of Stacey Abrams and a progressive Democratic donor from San Francisco. Mr. Phillips said he had been “hearing from top donors, different advisers to billionaires” that “they have a top tier of five states and Georgia is not in it.”
Mr. Phillips also laid the blame on some Democratic leaders. “If the donors are not hearing from the top campaign operatives that we can and should win Georgia,” he said, “then the donors are not going to be enthusiastic about it.”
Leading organizers in Georgia maintain that more money and manpower will pour into the state as the general election nears, and they anticipate that a more visible Donald J. Trump, should he earn the Republican nomination, will motivate progressive donors and reluctant voters off the sidelines. But the current lag, combined with plummeting support for Mr. Biden among young and Black voters, demonstrates the challenge Democrats will face.
And though grass-roots groups plan to start their organizing initiatives for the presidential election this January, it will be a few months before Mr. Biden’s campaign is expected to establish its own organizing infrastructure there. The Georgia presidential primary is March 12.
In a sense, the groups are operating in a similar environment to the early days of the 2020 election. Megadonors weren’t paying close attention to Georgia until a few months before November, when polls showed Democrats’ strength.
The groups quickly ballooned in size and scope after Democrats went on to win two Senate runoff elections in 2021 — developments that gave the once-fledgling organizations staying power and proved a belief long held among veteran state organizers that the South could be in play for the party through proper investments.
“Building a winning movement requires year-round support and investment,” Craig Walters, director of organizing for Fair Fight Action, said in a statement. “And the time for that investment is now.”
This month’s elections in Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Mississippi offered an early look at the political landscape for next year. Issues like abortion access and erosion of democratic norms have galvanized Democratic voters, yet enthusiasm for Mr. Biden’s re-election sits at record lows among key portions of the base.
A New York Times/Siena College poll released this month found a striking drift among Black voters toward Mr. Trump. Pessimism was also pronounced among young voters, who said in interviews that they were turned off by both parties.
The groups say this only underlines the importance of their work.
“When we think about investing in these elections, you have to think about these organizations who support and talk to voters year-round,” said Hillary Holley, executive director of Care in Action, an organization that supports domestic workers. “Because at the end of the day, we’re going to be some of the best messengers because we have the most trust with these voters who are not considering the vote for Trump, but more considering to sit this out.”
Some groups are also navigating internal challenges. The New Georgia Project recently completed an internal investigation of its finances following claims that the organization had mishandled funds it raised in 2020 and 2021, developments first reported by Politico.
Kendra Davenport Cotton, the chief executive of the New Georgia Project, said that the internal review “found the misstep” and that her organization remained on “sound financial footing.” She added that she had set a fund-raising goal of roughly $18 million for 2024 — close to what the group raised in 2020.
In an email to supporters on Wednesday previewing its 2024 organizing campaign, the New Georgia Project framed its plans as a solution to what it called the “messaging problem” of Mr. Biden’s campaign.
Black voters, Ms. Davenport Cotton said in an interview, are “not hearing enough about what he’s done for them, which according to our research is how they understand their political power and feel motivated to turn out again.”
Many voters, she said, feel compelled to blame the White House for issues that state or local leaders are responsible for. Her group and others like it plan to underline the difference.
“It’s incumbent upon groups like us to be very intentional in that messaging,” she said.