Even if you lived through it, Georgia’s tumultuous 2020 elections felt like something of a fever dream. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and thunderous racial justice protests, five painstaking days of mail-in ballot-counting ultimately tilted the presidential race to Joe Biden, while the historic double runoff that followed resulted in two Democratic senators. Georgia officially emerged as a battleground state.
If you’re still wrapping your head around what happened, you’re in luck: Atlanta Journal-Constitution political reporter Greg Bluestein was there for it all, and his new book lays out how it went down. Flipped: How Georgia Turned Purple and Broke the Monopoly on Republican Power, released on March 22, details the dovetailing of strategy and circumstance that helped Democrats upend a generation of GOP control. Georgia’s blue shift, Bluestein writes, is a testament to the transformational vision of new party leaders like Stacey Abrams, and the methodical groundwork they laid in the lead-up to the election. But it also reflects the extraordinary political circumstances that threw out the status quo and took Republicans along with it, from an economy-busting pandemic to a president more concerned with his own loss than the fate of his party’s beleaguered incumbents.
Bluestein draws on decades of experience covering Georgia’s politicians—he reported on Brian Kemp’s first campaign back in 2002, writing for the UGA student newspaper—to transform the dry mechanics of politicking into an operatic human drama, painting intimate portraits of the candidates, their families, and the droves of dedicated staff and volunteers who powered their campaigns.
We caught up with Bluestein last week to chat about the book and his experience reporting from the center of the political universe.
Your front-page news chops run deep. How did the idea for a book come about?
I’ve thought about writing a book for a long time, but not necessarily on politics. But after the November 2020 elections—I was still in the middle of (reporting on) the runoffs—a book agent cold-called me and said, Hey, I really think there’s a book here. I said, Wow, okay, but what the hell do I do? He said, I’ll walk you through it. So, I checked with my wife first, and some friends who had written books, and my bosses, and everyone said, Go for it!
I would go cover a campaign event or debate, and after hours, I worked on the book proposal. I wanted it to publishers by January 1st, because the runoff was January 5th. And of course we had no idea what January 6th would be, but we did know that this [runoff] was going to be a major moment.
Georgia became the center of the political universe. What was it like to cover state politics with the whole world tuned in?
It’s been this evolution: there would be events where it was me and a couple of TV cameras, even at major events in 2018. There were times where Stacey Abrams would be at a campaign event, making an endorsement or something, and I’d be the only reporter there and she’d joke, We could have had this at your office!
Of course, that changed pretty dramatically. We’ve had to shift our focus at the AJC because in 2016, the story was not Georgia—the story was Trump. He didn’t come to Georgia at all during the campaign, and neither did Hillary Clinton, so my job was to go to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and all these other states to write the story of how the presidential election was affecting Georgia.
And then in 2017, it shifted here, and suddenly I go from having to hop a flight to Des Moines to being able to literally walk to all these campaign events. I was covering the 6th District race (when Democratic newcomer Jon Ossoff came close to beating veteran Republican Karen Handel), and [my family and I] live in the heart of the 6th. That became the most-watched congressional election in the nation. The owner of the jewelry store a mile from my house was running for Congress; Ossoff held one of his first big events at the synagogue where I went to preschool. Going from traveling the nation to having everything in our backyard—that was the first step where we knew, We’re now the center of attention, and we’re going to stay that way.
Did you talk to . . . everyone in Georgia politics? Walk us through the interviewing process for this book.
Part of it is just having known these candidates for years. There are clips from The Red & Black (UGA’s independent student newspaper) of me quoting Kemp at debates. I’ve covered Abrams since she was a little-known backbench state lawmaker, and David Perdue since 2013, when he jumped into the Senate race, and everyone knew his cousin (former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue) but no one knew who he was. I first met Ossoff when he called me out of the blue in 2017 and said, Hey, I’m this Democratic activist, I’m running for the U.S. House, and I’ve got John Lewis’s and Hank Johnson’s endorsements. Do you think this is a news story? And I said, Yes, but I could never have imagined he’d be the U.S. Senator not that long later!
Part of the job of being a reporter is telling both sides. I think, and hope, that the book told the Republican perspective and the Democratic perspective, because throughout you’ve got the voices of Republican operatives, Democratic operatives, voters, activists, and people in between. It was amazing how many people had stories to tell, on the losing side and the winning side. Of course, the winners always want their stories to be told, but some of the people on the defeated side really wanted to make sure it was known that they did everything they could, and here’s the lengths they went to try to win, and it was not for lack of trying. It wasn’t that these campaigns collapsed: they were in it with well-funded operations to the very end.
The specter of “fake news” has delegitimatized mainstream media for many Americans. How do you (and the AJC) navigate that mistrust and build relationships on both sides of the political aisle?
From the perspective of distrust of the media, we can only do our jobs. It’s a systemic issue, and we still don’t know exactly the best way to handle misinformation. Does correcting it on Twitter help? Or does it just amplify the underlying mistruths? I don’t know the best answer to that. All I know is that we have to keep doing our jobs: reporting the truth and the motivations behind what’s happening.
For instance, right now, there’s another push to change election laws. We’re not treating this as if it’s in a vacuum, that the lawmakers just woke up and wanted to continue to change elections. It’s because of Trump’s lies about election fraud in Georgia. So [our job is] telling readers the whole story which is, Here’s what’s happening, and here’s why it’s happening. And telling the why of the story is more important than ever right now.
Part of that is being able to talk to [different] people; some of the people who are critics of the news media are also more than happy to talk behind-the-scenes about what was going on. Even candidates who say they hate the AJC and rail against us or the media in general, they’re still talking to reporters, because they want their stories out there, too.
Your coverage of Georgia’s colorful campaign stops is impeccable: pig farms and barn parties and rusted out train yards, oh my! What was it like crisscrossing the state following these politicians?
It was so weird, [because of the pandemic], the Trump rallies would be 20,000 people in some giant airport parking lot, and then the Biden rallies would be 12 people in socially distanced hula hoops. And you went through these drastic changes sometimes in a day: you’d have a Trump rally, and the next day you’d have [Barack Obama campaigning for Biden], and they’d be completely different.
I love to go to small towns. I’m not talking about just presidential rallies, I love going to small-town campaign stops. Going up to the North Georgia mountains, into little towns like Unadilla, Nashville, these really small places you’d never otherwise go to. One [campaign stop] I put in the book was on Pig Jig boulevard. I love talking to people at those events, getting the feel for what they care about. And it’s not always what we care about in Atlanta.
One of the takeaways from your book is simply how extraordinary the circumstances were in 2020-21 that led to a triple victory for Democrats. Do you think they could pull it off again?
We’ll find out! Democrats can’t count on huge numbers of mail-in votes anymore—they had very different campaign strategies because of the pandemic. And Trump is not on the ballot: he’s still a spectre, but he’s not going to be on the ballot in November, so Democrats don’t have him as the motivating tool they used to.
But at the same time, one of the biggest differences is there’s not going to be a nine-week runoff anymore (the elections bill passed by the Georgia Assembly last year reduced the runoff period from nine to four weeks). Georgia could still determine the fate of the U.S. Senate, but we won’t have this epic campaign that stretches into January anymore.
Republicans might think that it’s just a fluke, that it took all these extraordinary circumstances, plus the Trump in-fighting, for all this to happen. Democrats say demographics aren’t necessarily destiny, but it sure helps. You have a younger and more diverse population in Georgia. 1.2 million voters were added to the rolls since Abrams’s defeat; many of them are young, many of them are voters of color, and those voters tend to help Democrats as long as you have the right message to energize them. And Abrams and Raphael Warnock hope they have it this year.
You’re not a psychic, but curious minds want (desperately) to know: what’s in store for Georgia politics?
I think we’re in for a long time of seesaw races. We are the most divided state in the nation: our elections were decided by 11,000 votes in the presidential race, in a state of 11 million plus people—and this was record turnout. We are the premier battleground state, I think, for the next decade. I can confidently say we’re the biggest test of Trump’s influence in 2022. And it sets the stage for 2024.
And what’s next for you?
Well, we have our hands full with this 2022 election. And we’re right in the thick of it now—I just came back from a Trump rally a few days ago.
Georgia is going to continue to be the national battleground state, and we’re going to have the opportunity to tell the story of Georgia, to talk to a national audience about what matters here, and how this all happened—and that’s what I hope this book does. I would love to write a sequel, but I don’t know what that will be yet. We’ll find out in November . . . or maybe December.