2020 was an election year that saw record turnout by men and women from both parties. But the women’s vote was decisive in helping Joe Biden capture the White House and in pushing Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to victory in the tight Senate runoffs. And it’s not just the ballot box where women are making their mark in Georgia politics. More women, and women of color, are also running for statewide office. This week in Georgia Today, we look at what's driving this trend with Patricia Murphy, a political reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy. 2020 was an election year that saw record turnout by men and women from both parties, but census data show more women eligible to vote did. They turned out in greater numbers nationwide than men did last year. And the women's vote was decisive in helping Joe Biden capture the White House, and in pushing Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock over the finish line in the tight Senate runoffs. Former gubernatorial candidate turned voting-rights activist Stacey Abrams claims credit for helping to boost Black voter turnout across the state.

Stacey Abrams: "My dad was arrested at the age of 14 for registering Black people to vote during Jim Crow. Fighting for the right to vote is in my bones because I know that voting is how we get the change we need."

Steve Fennessy: And it's not just the ballot box where women are making their mark in state politics. More women and women of color also running for statewide office. The latest to announce her candidacy is state Rep. Bee Nguyen, who's running to replace Republican Brad Raffensperger as Secretary of State. What's driving more women to participate in politics in Georgia? We'll get into all of that and more with Patricia Murphy, a political reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Welcome, Patricia.

Patricia Murphy: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Steve Fennessy: Thanks for being here. So, Patricia, this week we have Bee Nguyen, she threw her hat in the ring for the Secretary of State race. And now she joins Jen  Jorden, another Democratic state lawmaker who is running for state Attorney General. And, of course, it's widely expected Stacey Abrams is gearing up for a rematch against Brian Kemp for governor next year. So now, we've had women running for state offices before in Georgia. That's nothing new. But if all three of these candidates are successful in the primaries, the names at the top of the Democratic ticket this year are going to all be names of women for the three most important statewide offices there are in Georgia. How significant is this?

Patricia Murphy: Well, I think it's very, very significant here in Georgia, we've not seen this number of really viable women running for statewide office before. I think it speaks to a couple of different dynamics that are going on. We have seen a number of women get involved in Democratic politics, in particular at the — either the legislative level, particularly with Bee Nguyen and Jen Jordan, state senator, state rep — they really were a part of rebuilding the Democratic bench. So the bench that the Democrats are drawing from has more women than it used to. Women in Georgia right now are, largely, Democratic voters. That's a national trend that we've seen. So women voters just tend to be more Democratic. So it makes sense that Democrats would be drawing women from their ranks. And then in Georgia in particular, women really provided the margin for Democrats to win statewide in 2020. I think, especially once you see a woman like Stacey Abrams have success at the statewide level, you basically need the first proof of success and then the donors and the voters will follow. If voters think that their candidate doesn't have a chance to win, it just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They don't think it can be done and they don't want to “waste their vote,” quote-unquote, on a candidate who's not going to win or make a difference. The more that voters can see women’s success statewide, I think that will really be kind of the breaking of the dam, if you will. These are really incredibly tough demands on your family, demands on your children. And it's a tough time to be in politics. But that does not — that's not dissuading women from running. And I think that's the important part. Women have really been the — sort of the beating heart of this party for the last several years. Certainly, Stacey Abrams proved that she could be a real threat as a statewide candidate in 2018 and I think that's why we're seeing this number of women on the ballot this year.

Steve Fennessy: And the 2018 race you're referring to is the Stacey Abrams - Brian Kemp race?

Patricia Murphy: The Stacey Abrams - Brian Kemp race, also Jen Jordan ran for a special election and then also one in 2018 as well. And then Bee Nguyen won in 2018 also. So these are new faces on the scene for Democrats. They've been really successful, very high profile in the state legislature; they've really been, I guess you would call — the breakout stars for Democrats, are these women. And so to see them running statewide is not a surprise to Democrats and it's not a surprise to Republicans, who have noticed very clearly that these women were, in many cases, not the loudest voices, but the most strategic voices among Democrats in the state capitol. And they've been expecting —particularly Jen Jordan and Bee Nguyen — they've been expecting statewide races from them almost since they came on the scene.

Steve Fennessy: Did that tactical approach predate Stacey Abrams' bid for office in 2018 or is that something that came about as a result of her  showing in that race?

Patricia Murphy: Stacey Abrams has been a force in Democratic politics since well before 2018. She was the leader for the Democrats in the state House. She was just sort of a towering force over the Democratic Party for many years. A big group that has to get some of the credit for that is the Georgia WIN List. That's a group that looks to nominate and really recruit and select pro-choice Democratic lawmakers. There's a group called Emily's List that does that nationwide and the Georgia WIN List does that here locally. And I spoke with the head of Georgia WIN List recently. She said that she started hearing from Democratic women and hearing from women interested in running for office around 2010, 2012, and they became really activated after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. So I would say the Trump victory in Georgia was a huge activating factor for a number of women that we're seeing now actually pull the trigger and get into some of these races and now we're seeing them on some statewide ballots as well.

Steve Fennessy: Is there a corollary on the Republican side?

Patricia Murphy: Gov. Brian Kemp is somebody who recognized, certainly after 2016, that Republicans need to do better with women. And that was a big part of why he chose Kelly Loeffler to — to nominate after Johnny Isakson decided to retire.

News tape GPB: She runs a financial services firm and has no political experience but wants Georgians to know this: 

Kelly Loeffler: "I'm a lifelong conservative: pro-Second Amendment, pro-Trump, pro-military and pro-wall."

Patricia Murphy: Because Kemp was well aware that Republicans, especially in the state of Georgia, have a very white, very male older population, not just of voters, but of leaders. And so he's been looking for ways to diversify the face that Republicans are seeing when they see Republican leaders. And Kelly Loeffler was probably his most important appointment so far. He chose her really to appeal to suburban women who had been voting Republican, had been reliable Republican voters, and really went for the Democrats in 2018 and got a surprise in 2020 when she didn't end up winning.

Steve Fennessy: Next, we look at how women could shape next year's statewide elections. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy.


Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy, I'm joined by longtime political reporter Patricia Murphy, who's also a columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. What lessons, if any, did Republicans take away after Donald Trump was elected and we started to see some Republican women maybe start to veer away from the Republican Party towards the Democrats? Was Kelly Loeffler a cautionary example for them?

Patricia Murphy: I think she's a cautionary example for — for all candidates in terms of just really welding yourself onto Donald Trump. The fact that Doug Collins ran against Kelly Loeffler in that special election primary and really pushed her very far to the right, I would say she went in as a sort of suburban-friendly woman who could pick up some of those female suburban voters. She came out of that Republican primary as a hard right, pro-Trump, extreme Republican candidate, extreme conservative and not even conservative, but just very, very pro-Trump.

News tape GPB News: In addition to convincing Georgia voters to keep her in the Senate in a special election next year, Loeffler will also have to win over members of her own party. President Trump and others wanted Gov. Brian Kemp to appoint Georgia congressman Doug Collins instead.

Patricia Murphy: And Republican women were rejecting the president. They were rejecting everybody who supported him and that included Kelly Loeffler, well above and beyond her identity as a woman, although it has to be said, women voters, female voters, don't tend to give women a lot of extra breaks when they're evaluating female candidates. The idea that you're going to nominate a woman and automatically win over women is a false assumption. But if you nominate a woman who can appeal to women and speak to those issues that matter to women, especially suburban women and their everyday lives, that can make a difference. But Kelly Loeffler really didn't make that appeal to suburban women at any point, really, in the primary.

Steve Fennessy: Where does Kelly Loeffler's defeat leave the GOP in terms of trying to recruit more female candidates? I mean, we have Marjorie Taylor Greene in northwest Georgia who is as right as they come in the Congress now. But in terms of statewide offices, where does that leave the Republicans?

Patricia Murphy: Certainly there's a conservative lane for conservative women, but to run statewide, you're just going to have to appeal to statewide voters and we don't hear a lot of Republican women putting themselves forward. That's just not the dynamic right now inside the Republican Party here in the state. But I think that if a Republican woman ran on issues that were popular with a majority of female voters, those female voters want to hear those messages. And those would be messages about education, small businesses, encouraging policies like paid family leave, child care. Those are going to be messages that will really resonate with that group.

Steve Fennessy: And there's also what's happening in Washington right now in the Biden administration. You mentioned education and small business and child care, you know, and these are all part of what President Biden is looking to address. So assuming those efforts bear any fruit for him, is that going to impact GOP chances when it comes to these statewide races?

Patricia Murphy: When you think about who are the voters up for grabs in the next election, I think they're the same people who were up for grabs in 2018 and 2020, and it's those suburban women who are moderate voters, have typically voted Republican in the past. And when Donald Trump was elected, it just really changed the dynamic there. And I'll point you to Jon Ossoff's first race when he ran in the special election in the 6th District. He did not win that election. But that was the first time that I saw the suburban women who had been Republicans before coming out canvasing for Jon Ossoff — who was running against a woman at the time, by the way, Karen Handel — canvasing for Jon Ossoff, knocking on doors. There was a group of women who, in order to find the time to volunteer for Jon Ossoff, rented a bounce house so that their kids could go play in the bounce house in the backyard while they came up with voter lists and strategies to reach out to get Jon Ossoff elected. It had very little to do with Jon Ossoff and it had everything to do with becoming an answer to Donald Trump.

TV political ad: Imagine a young girl looking in the mirror, searching for role models in the world to give her hope that one day she, too, can make a difference. Now imagine a different future for her, a future with a president who doesn't just value a female voice, but chooses one to be his right-hand woman.

Patricia Murphy: These are professional women. I met women who were scientists, doctors, lawyers, and had just had enough of the Republican brand once Donald Trump was elected. And very little has happened in the state, very little has happened in the nation to change the impression that the Republican Party is Donald Trump and Trump is the Republican Party. And I think Republicans are going to need to work outside of those lines to do better in the state with those voters, because I think those women are who will decide elections.

Steve Fennessy: We're starting to get early data from the 2020 census in the state of Georgia. Is anything we're seeing make you inclined to think that these demographic shifts might be changing things when it comes to the female vote? Or is it moving one way or another?

Patricia Murphy: A lot of that power is now concentrated in the suburbs and a lot of those are women moving into Georgia from out of state for jobs or for their families’ jobs. They're bringing with them more moderate politics, not necessarily as conservative. And so it's it's almost less a change of people's opinion than a change of people. And so in those areas, kind of Sandy Springs, Dunwoody, Gwinnett County, other parts of Cobb — it's really important to note that's where Jen Jordan is from — those are really the types of voters she's going to be able to appeal to. Even as a Democrat she'll have, I think, some — some crossover appeal. And so those census figures really confirm what all political reporters here in the state have been seeing, which is that the dynamics and that northern arc above Atlanta and also the southern suburban arc below Atlanta as well, is crucially important for Democrats. And if they can hold those gains there, they're going to continue to do well in the state.

Steve Fennessy: So Joe Biden famously turned Georgia blue, at least in the presidential race.

News tape CBS NEWS: Talk to us about how significant it is that Georgia has gone to a Democratic presidential candidate, something that the state has not done since 1992 when it went to Bill Clinton.

Sean Sullivan: So for them to win a presidential race is a hugely significant occurrence and one that party officials hope will begin a broader trend in the future of Sun Belt states trending toward Democrats.

Steve Fennessy: To what degree was that victory depending on the female vote in Georgia?

Patricia Murphy: Women were crucial to his victory here in Georgia. That turnout operation that we heard about that Stacey Abrams put into place, she has been able to deliver a very large share of women who were not showing up to the polls before. And so that is just where the on-the-ground dynamics and the people that the Democrats have reached out to to turn out made a really big difference for Joe Biden.

Steve Fennessy: You talked about movements like the WIN List in Georgia. Are they continuing their work now? What are they doing to make this pipeline even bigger?

Patricia Murphy: Oh, they're absolutely continuing. And I think that they will continue to see recruiting successes. And so when I spoke with Melita Easters who runs the Georgia WIN List, she said really after 2016 is when she felt like the dynamic changed, women felt like they really had no choice anymore, they're like, “Maybe I'll win, maybe I won't, I'm getting in; I have to run.” And now that they've had that success, I think they will continue to have recruiting success. When women can look at that and say, “Oh, that's something I could do. I could be a lawyer and do that, I could be a teacher and do that. These are ways that I can envision myself succeeding because I'm seeing other women succeed as well.” I think Republicans will also recognize that they need to do more aggressive recruiting and really put forth their female leaders in a way that is relatable to women and women will see that and respond to that as well. And so it's a very dynamic time to be looking at the female voters and then also to have, for the first time, really viable female potential statewide candidates.

Steve Fennessy: What role has the pandemic played in how open women voters may be to — to changing their vote from one party to another?

Patricia Murphy: You know, I think that the pandemic has just been an incredibly challenging time for women in particular. Women in Georgia have fallen out of the work force at a greater rate than men. We know that women are the primary caregivers and a lot of homes and therefore have been the primary schoolteachers for their children during the pandemic. Women also tend to rely on kind of gig work and on small businesses, starting their own small businesses. Anybody who's living on the margin like that has just taken a hit during this pandemic in a way that I don't think we'll understand even for many years to come. I think that's going to make them really looking for leadership in 2022 elections. Whether it's Democratic leadership or Republican leadership, we just don't know the answer to that yet. But I think candidates are really going to have to have a message tailored to women who have really struggled during this pandemic. Much more has been asked of them during this pandemic, frankly, than men. Women have been at home doing home school. They've been trying to really keep it together and keep their jobs in any way that they can. But a certain point for a number of women, just something has to give in order to really be able to rebuild their lives, rebuild their families' lives, and especially get their children back physically into school, and also to make up for the learning losses that we know so many kids have had in Georgia. Candidates and leaders will be really well-advised to speak to those issues because Georgia women need to have answers to that. They're not looking for someone to solve those problems for them, but they're looking for leadership for the state to make those problems solvable.

Steve Fennessy: We thought 2020 was behind us, but it's very much still with us, isn't it?

Patricia Murphy: You know, not only is it with us, it really is now the DNA of politics in Georgia right now. And so the question of whether of who won the last election, was the last election fair, who should be allowed to vote in elections? All of that has really overtaken and infused itself into Georgia politics in a way that I think none of us could have imagined. None of us could have imagined that the conduct of the November race would actually become the primary discussion and the primary issue in the next election. And especially if Stacey Abrams gets into the race for governor, as we expect her to, this entire election will be about voting rights, who should vote, who should make these decisions? What role does Donald Trump play in all of those questions? What role will somebody like Raphael Warnock play in all of those questions. There are state level laws that have already been passed. Federal election laws are being considered as an answer to those statewide laws. So those 24 hours on Nov. 3 will have effects on years and years and years of politics to come.

Steve Fennessy: My thanks to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Patricia Murphy. While Stacey Abrams has yet to announce whether she'll run against Governor Brian Kemp again, the governor already faces challengers on the right. Among them, former CEO of DeKalb County Vernon Jones, who's announced he will primary the governor. And photos of former President Donald Trump with State Sen. Burt Jones — no relation to Vernon — are fueling speculation that Burt Jones may throw his hat into the ring to challenge Kemp.

News tape WRAL: State Sen. Burt Jones, a Republican from Jackson, has also been rumored as a possible candidate for various offices, including governor and in the senate.

Steve Fennessy: For more Georgia Today go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Don't forget to leave us a rating and interview on Apple. Jess Mador and Jahi Whitehead are Georgia Today’s producers. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger. Thank you for listening. We'll see you next week.