I’ve been privileged to know a lot of smart people in my time, including a few MacArthur Genius grant winners. (They’re always huddling together and doing something with their secret decoder rings.)
But Bill Pilon might well be the smartest person I’ve ever known.
Born in Martin Army Hospital at Ft. Benning, Bill is a lifelong Georgian. Formerly a senior marketing research analyst for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he is currently in that role for a media conglomerate that shall go unnamed, and as such has his finger on the pulse of the state’s politics, demographics, and zeitgeist in a way that not many folks can match. He’s like Steve Kornacki, if Steve Kornacki had a huge wad of Red Man leaf tobacco in his cheek.
That is of special note at the moment, as all eyes are on the Peach State for the next 22 days for a pair of twin runoffs that will determine control of the United States Senate for—at a minimum—the first two years of the Biden administration. Are the stakes high? You bet your sweet bippy. (Early in-person voting in that runoff opens today, Monday December 14.)
I lived in Georgia myself for about a third of my first 22 years, off and on, all told. We lived on the Alabama side, at and around Ft. Benning and Columbus, and on the East Coast, in Hinesville (pop. 32,872), near Ft. Stewart, where Bill and I went to high school. My parents continued to live in Columbus for another five years after my father retired. So what’s happening down there right now is especially close to the bone for us.
Of course, even beyond Georgia, there is a lot going on in American politics right now, including—sitting down?—a lawsuit from the Texas Attorney General joined by 17 red states and the White House asking the Supreme Court simply to throw out the whole vote and give Trump a second term. More than half of the Republican representatives in the House (126 out of 196) signed a letter endorsing that suit. I say again: MORE. THAN. HALF.
So much for the idea that they were just humoring Don while the clock ran out. When the wonks at the Transition Integrity Project ran their tabletop scenarios last year wargaming a contested election, even they did not foresee something so blatant and outrageous as the GOP calling outright for the election to be awarded to Trump on no grounds whatsoever.
It matters not that the SCOTUS, even with a 6-3 right wing majority including three Trump appointees, dismissed the suit almost before it dropped over the transom. The fact that the center of gravity in the Republican Party is totally onboard with full-blown fascism is in itself sufficiently blood-boiling—and terrifying.
So as Christian Vanderbrouk recently wrote in The Bulwark, “Remember. Their. Names.” Because it won’t be long before they want us to act like they’re reasonable politicians and not autocracy fanboys who would destroy American democracy for a few pieces of silver.
But I digress.
The Senate runoffs in Georgia belong to a different planet, one where some semblance of reason still reigns, but they still represent yet another front in the ongoing battle for the soul of our democracy. I can’t think of anybody who can give us the inside skinny on that like Pilon. We spoke by Zoom last week.
THE KING’S NECKTIE: OK Bill. Gimme the inside dope.
BILL PILON: The first thing you really need to know is that there are about five Georgias.
There’s Metro Atlanta, which is literally half the population of the state, concentrated in about eight of 159 counties. That half is extremely liberal by Georgia standards and a little left of center by national standards. Atlanta and its environs are probably as liberal as any other major metro area in the country, and that causes huge problems in the state legislature. Metro Atlanta does really well in the state House, but the state Senate is county-based, and the other 151 counties of Georgia dominate the Senate.
But Atlanta is the economic engine of the state, and its liberality goes way back. There’s a reason Henry Grady advertised the New South in Atlanta in the 1880s and 1890s; Atlanta kind of dragged Georgia kicking and screaming into the 20th century.
In the Fifties, when Atlanta decided to become the City Too Busy to Hate, it was because Bob Woodruff, the longtime president of Coca-Cola, decided it was going to be. When Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize, nobody in Atlanta was going to do anything, and Woodruff said, “I’m going to host a dinner, and if you ever want to see any philanthropy from Coca-Cola ever again, you will buy tickets and you will attend.”
So one half of Georgia is Atlanta. Very liberal, very rich, well off.
Next, there’s the Black Belt that runs all through central Georgia from just south of Macon to just north of say Reidsville or Glennville, and that’s a bunch of rural counties that are majority Black and very poor. They were all sharecroppers: they didn’t have any money then and they still don’t have any money now. But when the Civil Rights Act came in 1964, these counties began to dominate the state government because they were 60 or 70 or 80% of the electorate.
Then there’s north Georgia, which is pretty much everything north of Metro Atlanta. It’s the mountains and literally you can hear banjo music when you drive through there. They’re not in favor of Black people. Forsyth County, for example, used to be the border of it. Now it’s part of Metro Atlanta, but around the time I moved here in ‘86, there wasn’t a single Black family in Forsyth County according to the 1990 census. That changed during the ‘90s and the ‘00s; now it’s just a bedroom community of Atlanta, but that heritage is still there. But the population is so small and there’s so little industry, that today they don’t really have a big presence in the state government except for the state Senate.
Fourth is the coast, everything from Savannah to Brunswick, which is all tourist-driven, lots and lots of money, lots of cooperation between Blacks and Whites to get that money, and for political and governmental things that advance and exploit tourism.
The fifth Georgia is the Piedmont region, the area south of Atlanta to just south of Macon where cotton-growing—and hence slave population—didn’t dominate. Because of the racial demographics, which are majority White but not overwhelmingly so, it’s fairly moderate. Economically it’s not as rich as Atlanta, but not as poor as the rest of rural Georgia.
So the demographics of Georgia are changing, because of changes in those five sub-Georgias. The Black Belt is expanding. In 2010, non-Hispanic Whites made up 56% of the population. By 2019 that had fallen to 52%, according to the Census. Some counties are shifting even faster: Chatham, which is Savannah, and Clayton and Henry, which are Metro Atlanta, have all flipped. And as they do, the GOP prospects of maintaining control of the state legislature come under increasing pressure.
The whole state’s going to be majority-minority as early as 2028, although it’ll take a little bit longer for the electorate to reflect that.
To me, the thing Stacey Abrams has done that’s the most important is she’s really expanded the electorate, especially among minorities. She added about 1.5 million voters. That’s huge in a state where there’s 5 to 6 million votes cast in an election. She registered people who hadn’t registered and turned out people who hadn’t turned out. Probably two-thirds to three-quarters of that expansion was among Democrats and the rest of it was Republicans going, “Holy shit. If we let her do this, we’re going to get swamped.”
Georgia will be solidly blue in less than 10 years, and Trump has only accelerated that.
HANDICAPPING THE RACE
BP: So the senatorial runoff is going to be all about turnout. Who motivates their crowd to come out and vote.
TKN: And what’s your prediction?
BP: Could go either way, but if I HAVE to make a prediction, I think the Dems win both seats. Current polling from reliable pollsters has both Warnock and Ossoff in the lead, though both are inside the margin. Trafalgar, which has a C- at Fivethrityeight.com, even has Ossoff up by 1% over Perdue and SurveyUSA has Warnock at +7 over Loeffler. There’s a shitload of money being spent so there will be a lot more polling to come, and unlike other states and the national, the 2020 Georgia polls were fairly accurate. Also, the current COVID case/death trend will continue or worsen and the Democrats are prepared to use absentee ballots to maintain turnout. And some Trump supporters may boycott the election.
TKN: Let’s talk about the individual candidates. In November we were looking at South Carolina having possibly two Black senators, which would have been remarkable, even though it didn’t happen. Georgia has never had a Black senator, which isn’t surprising when you realize there have only ever been ten Black US Senators period….and five of those are since Obama represented Illinois.
So what is the general feeling in Georgia toward Rev. Warnock? Could he be the state’s first?
BP: For probably 70 or 80% of the voters, Reverend Warnock is very much seen in the cast of Dr. King. He’s like Andrew Young would have been 20 or 30 years ago. He’s probably the most qualified and “positive imaged” leader from the Black community that could have run for Senate from the perspective of the White electorate, but at the same time he’s still “Black enough” for the Black electorate. I mean, he runs Ebeneezer Baptist Church, right?
TKN: And Ossoff?
BP: Ossoff is less positive. In the first place, he’s Jewish, and there’s a small streak of anti-Semitism that’s hurting him. You saw Perdue play to it when he Photoshopped Ossoff’s picture to give him a bigger nose. You know, a hundred years ago we lynched Leo Frank for exactly the same reason, for just being Jewish. That’s not all gone, but it’s not as big as it used to be.
In the second place, Ossoff was a protégé of John Lewis, and that buys him a lot of credibility, but it also hurts him a little bit. Some view him as kind of John Lewis’s pet. He is not nearly as strong a candidate as Warnock, but he’s got a lot more money behind him than Warnock does. A huge amount of it is from out of state, though, and that’s really an issue. There’s still a vestige of the idea that “we don’t want Yankee carpetbaggers coming down here telling us what to do.” The Ossoff Facebook groups and strategy groups are saying, “Look, we gotta be really careful.” They do not want people coming from out of state to knock on doors.
TKN: Yeah. I even heard Stacey Abrams say that. She was like, “You want to help? There’s a lot you can do from where you are. Don’t come here.”
BP: Right. The last thing they need is somebody from Boston coming here to tell people to vote for Ossoff.
BP: Kelly Loeffler was almost unknown before she was elevated to the Senate. The few people that were aware of her mainly knew her through her WNBA team.
BP: That’s one of the reasons Kemp was able to “sell” her as Senator: she was a kind of blank page upon which people could project what they wanted. Since then she’s been steadily driven right—or perhaps pro-Trump is a better description—during the election and is probably as polarizing as Trump himself at this point.
TKN: Where do the Collins voters go?
BP: They are gonna go to Loeffler. They don’t have a choice.
TKN: That’s what I figured. When I saw the numbers on November 3rd, I said there’s no way that the Democrats can win because when you add Loeffler and Collins, that’s the majority.
BP: But it’s not actually. I’ve got a spreadsheet; let me pull it up….
If you look at Loeffler, she was 1.27 million, and then you add all the other Republican candidates and you have another 1.15, so total GOP was about 2.4 million. Warnock actually beat Loeffler, and at the end of the day when you add the other Dems, you’re at 2.38. So it’s close. Again, it’s going to be about turnout, and where do the four people who voted for the Liberals and the five people who voted for the Green Party and the Libertarians, where are they going to wind up?
With the Ossoff/Perdue thing, again, about the same. There were 115,000 Libertarian votes in that race. In my experience, a lot of those voters stay home in the runoffs, ‘cause they’re voting Libertarian to make a point. It’s not like they think their guy is going to get elected, right? Some stay home and some are actually Republicans who were pretending to be Libertarians.
TKN: What do you think the odds are of a split decision?
BP: If there’s a split decision, I think Warnock wins and Ossoff loses. I can’t quite get a handle on the odds. Maybe 1 in 3?
HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING
BP: It’s really interesting to see the runoff ads. Loeffler and Perdue are extremely negative, especially Perdue. The GOP ads to date have done nothing but try to scare their base into voting against Warnock and Ossoff, rather than for their own candidates.
On the other side, Ossoff’s kind of fighting off the negativity and going a little negative himself, hammering Perdue on corruption and insider trading and his lies about the severity of COVID.
Warnock‘s ads are just really interesting. They’re very calm, very measured. Last night he had one with a tracking shot of him walking his dog, and telling us, “You know, Kelly Loeffler says this and that, but I think Georgia voters are smart enough to know what Kelly’s actually up to”……just as he drops a little bag of dog crap in the trashcan. (Laughs.)
TKN: Do Georgians think the vote will be fair? Or did the GOP self-sabotage by telling its own voters that the November election was rigged, so now they think “Why bother?”
BP: Kemp has inspired people that they’ll get a fair vote by virtue of the fact that he and Raffensperger are kind of hanging in there against Trump. The Republican stuff on Facebook is saying, “Hey, look, if we go vote, the votes are actually going to get counted.” Even my dad, who’s a rabidly dyed-in-the-wool Trump guy, doesn’t believe the election was fraudulent because of Kemp and Raffensperger.
TKN: Incredibly ironic that Brian Kemp of all people can make people believe in the integrity of an election. Particularly—and another irony—when you’ve got these two GOP shitheels, Perdue and Loeffler, doing Trump’s bidding and complaining about an unfair election, in a state run by Republicans, whose governor is one of the most infamous vote suppressors in America.
So why is Kemp standing up to Trump now? It can’t be principle.
BP: Kemp desperately wants a second term as governor and he realizes he won his election by only 50,000 votes. He can’t afford to alienate both the Black vote and the suburban liberals and still win next time. Trumpers simply won’t be enough. He’s a smart guy. He’s way too conservative for me, but he’s smart.
TKN: What do you think the impact was of Trump’s visit over the weekend?
BP: Honestly? Other than spreading COVID? Nothing.
TKN: (laughs) So you don’t think he hurt the Republicans?
BP: I don’t think he hurt Loeffler or Perdue because both of them are already so tied to him. Nobody who went to that rally was going to vote for Ossoff or Warnock anyway, and none of them were going to stay home if they’re convinced that these two people are Trump acolytes who are going to be in there pitching for him.
TKN: Speaking of COVID, you wrote me a little bit about the impact of the virus and absentee voting. Is that still in play?
BP: Yeah. By Thanksgiving we had 700,000 requests for absentee ballots for the runoff, and I saw a thing today in the AJC that there were about 70,000 ballot applications from people who didn’t vote in the general. (Ed.: Now up to to 1.2 million absentee applications.) So people are planning on voting absentee again, and they’re very, very wired into how to do it. They’ve already got the applications; people on Facebook are checking with each other; there’s a Georgia My Voter page that actually lets you keep up with your application and your ballot status and everything.
The impact of the pandemic has been huge. If it weren’t for COVID and his active suppression of absentee balloting, Trump would probably have won here.
TKN: Such a shame he shot himself in the foot like that. Whoda thunk it?
BP: I’m not sure that Perdue and Loeffler have done themselves a lot of good either. Yesterday they both endorsed the Texas suit in SCOTUS to throw out the vote from the four swing states, including their own. I expect the ads to break Monday, saying, “Here’s how much Loeffler and Perdue want to help Georgia: they’re saying the Supreme Court should ignore Georgia voters.”
TKN: To me it’s crazy that Perdue and Loeffler are even in this race, with the insider trading and everything else. It’s just mind-boggling.
BP: I spend a lot of time yelling at the television. And the mind-boggling thing to me is that Loeffler and Perdue can run ads that claim they were completely exonerated and found innocent of all wrongdoing based on a report that said, “Yeah, they insider traded, but the insider trading laws don’t apply to Congress, so it’s not technically illegal.”
(bitter laughter from Bill and Bob both)
So yeah, they didn’t do anything illegal. It was wrong and it’s exactly what they were accused of, but they don’t have to abide by those laws. And their position is, “See? I didn’t do it.”
TKN: It never ceases to amaze me what Republicans get away with. Michelle Goldberg had a column in the Times this morning about the double standard when it comes to civility. She was saying, remember four years ago when people were up in arms because some restaurant owner in Virginia very politely asked Sarah Sanders to leave? And now you’ve got an armed Republican mob outside of the home of the Michigan secretary of state and somehow that’s OK.
BP: Yeah. After he comped her cheese plate. I mean, it’s just ludicrous.
STACEY CRUSHES IT
BP: I think, first of all, praise God. (laughs) I think Raffensperger wants to be the governor someday, and he knows that in ten years the electorate’s going to be a lot bluer than it is now, and he doesn’t want to be the guy that caved in to Trump.
Second of all, I think Georgia is very pragmatic and open to compromise, as I’ve said, and Stacey Abrams is almost a poster child for that.
Stacey Abrams is very well thought of here. There are very few people who have negative things to say about her, statewide. The Hope Scholarship is a good example.
The first thing that Stacey did when she got into the state legislature as minority leader was compromise with the Republicans to save that scholarship, because even though the vast majority of the benefits go to middle class White kids who would go to college anyway, enough go to underclass Black kids who have no hope of college without it. So Stacey Abrams helped save that program.
There was another time when Republicans wanted to decrease the income tax and increase the cable television tax. It was supposed to be revenue neutral, because it was going to take in less money in taxes from Ted Turner and Kelly Loeffler and more money from every other person in the state that had a cable TV subscription. And Stacey literally did the numbers and put a copy of the analysis on every single desk in the state legislature one morning before the session started. All these dudes went, (affects bigtime cracker accent): “Well, wait a minute now. Ah’m gonna save $15 on my income tax but my cable bill’s gonna go up $35? Why in the hell would I do that?” It would have been the biggest tax increase in the history of Georgia and she nipped it in the bud. It got crushed.
Like I said, she is very well thought of. There was a little bit of dogwhistling during the gubernatorial election, but she really didn’t get hammered with the socialist thing. I honestly think if Kemp had not been secretary of state in the four years leading up to that election, she would have won.
TKN: Well, a lot of people think that.
BP: But it didn’t really have anything to do with him not recusing, because by the time that the election came, the frame had been set. If Kemp were smart, he would have recused himself and said, “I don’t want there to be any doubt,” and the machinery he’d set up would still have proceeded and he wouldn’t have to deal with the allegation of putting his thumb on the scale, to the extent that he is dealing with it, which is really not a lot.
TKN: Though that’s exactly it. Not recusing—even though he’d already pre-built the machinery to assure his win, as you say—makes people rightly suspicious that he was continuing to meddle even during the race itself.
SUPPRESSION BY ANY OTHER NAME
TKN: It’s fascinating that suddenly in the last two weeks, Kemp has become…..I wouldn’t say a hero, but it’s odd that a guy with his horrendous record of voter suppression in who being vilified by his own party and by this president* for not doing more. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
BP: Historically Georgia has always been less extreme in its suppression of the Black vote. It never made it illegal for people to register or to vote, like Mississippi or Alabama; instead it used White primaries, poll taxes, and the county unit system to reduce Black voting power, though it couldn’t eliminate it altogether. “Suppress by finesse” they called it.
Georgia said, “Oh yeah, yeah, you can vote. You just can’t vote in the primary because of the right to free association guaranteed in the Constitution—if the party doesn’t want you in their club, there’s nothing we can do about that. But you can vote in the general election.” Well, 99% of the time there was only one candidate in the general election and that was the Democrat. So the Georgia political season really was in the spring because that’s when the party nominee was chosen.
In fact, the run-off requirement is an artifact of that history.
The county unit system was used for statewide races. 159 counties, four of them around Metro Atlanta were labeled “city counties” and each of those had four votes. There were another 15 or 20 counties labeled “town counties,” like Muscogee, where Columbus is, and Chatham, where Savannah is, and Augusta, and Macon. They got three votes each. The other hundred and something counties got two votes each. So all of Metro Atlanta, with half the population of the state, got to cast less than 20 of the 410 votes available.
When the county unit system was struck down by SCOTUS, the White power structure became concerned that a day would come where three or four White guys were running and one Black guy, and that Black guy got enough votes to win because the others split the vote. So they decided that they would go to a system where if you have less than a majority, you have to go to a runoff. And that gave the White people a chance to get their act together and pick one candidate.
So Warnock would have won if we didn’t have the runoff.
THE PARTY’S OVER
Hinesville, GA, where Bill and I went to high school, is about forty miles southwest of Savannah, not far from the even smaller town of Brunswick, where Ahmaud Arbery was murdered last February. It’s the kind of town where, in our day, there wasn’t much to do besides hang out in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen and follow the local high school football team. (Go Tigers.)
Our circle of friends back then were, frankly, a bunch of rednecks……very very smart rednecks who went on to do things like become nuclear submariners, but pickup truck-driving, tobacco-chewing, Willie Nelson-listening rednecks nonetheless. As an interloper from the North (in my friends’ view), my nickname was Yankee.
TKN: I’d like to wanted to ask you a little bit about your own political evolution, Bill. When you and I were in high school, we were all very conservative.
BP: You know “The Newsroom” on HBO? Well, I’m a Will McAvoy Republican.
TKN: I can’t believe you’re a Republican at all, based on the things I know you believe in and how hard you’ve fought against Trump.
BP: What can I tell you? I’m an Eisenhower/Rockefeller guy.
BP: I’ll tell you when my final break happened. It was in ’08 when McCain selected Palin. I couldn’t vote for that ticket.
TKN: For me it was Iraq war. I had begun to move away before that, but that was the thing that ended it for me, once and for all.
BP: Yeah. I was a first term Bush guy but a second term Kerry guy because of Iraq. I wanted to go back to the GOP in 2008 with McCain, because I just think John McCain was the greatest thing since sliced bread, but then he picked Palin. If Lieberman had been his running mate, I would have voted for that ticket.
TKN: And they were buddies. But as much as I admired McCain as a man, like you, not his policies per se, I would still have voted for Barack. But the economy collapsing was the end of it. So it didn’t matter.
So how did you get to where you are now?
BP: The Internet did it. A PDF. And I can tell you exactly when it happened.
In the early ‘90s I was a huge listener to Rush. I thought Rush Limbaugh was the oracle on the hill, and these Clinton people were scum and they were going to destroy the country. Then the Starr report came out and Rush started talking about what was in it. So I downloaded it. It might be the first PDF I ever downloaded from the Internet. And I read the whole damn thing. And then Rush would talk about the Starr report and say things about it, and I’d be like, “Well, that’s not true.” And then Rush would say something else, and I’d look it up in the report, and it didn’t say that either. And I’m like, “Well, if he’s lying about that, what else is he lying about?”
So then I got in the habit of downloading and reading Supreme Court decisions. And sure enough the Supreme Court didn’t say the things Rush was claiming it said either. And the more I read of the primary source documents, the more the conservative positions didn’t hold water. They just didn’t work.
I read an analysis of federal revenue after the 1980 tax cut. The whole supply side thing was that if we cut taxes that will increase revenue. But it didn’t increase revenue. All it did was lower the tax base.
So one part of it was that the Internet gave me access to information that I didn’t have that wasn’t filtered by the right wing blogosphere or bubble. That was huge. The Internet has this unique ability to freeze stuff and make it available forever. So you can hear somebody like Grover Norquist say something when they said the exactly opposite six months before. Before the Internet you would never have known. But now you can Google it, and sure enough, there it is.
TKN: Bill, you must be the first human being ever who actually learned something accurate from the Internet. It’s really unfair of you to look for the facts. That destroys the whole right wing paradigm.
BP: (laughs) Well, it was Krugman who said that facts have a liberal bias.
The second part was that I kind of ran into this philosophical thing about positive freedom and negative freedom. And then the third thing, in a lot of cases, was media. “The West Wing“ had a huge part in it. “The Newsroom” had a huge part in it.
TKN: That Aaron Sorkin is good.
BP: Yeah he is.
TKN: I realize it’s kind of an unfair question to ask about “your” change, because if we characterize ourselves as Eisenhower Republicans, it wasn’t that we changed: the Republican Party changed around us.
BP: Yeah. I mean, look at Eisenhower’s platform from ’56. It’s almost the same as Biden’s platform now.
TKN: As many people have pointed out, Eisenhower could not be a Republican today. Nixon could not. Reagan could not. None of these icons could be; they’re all way too far left for the contemporary GOP….and they were not left wing at all! It’s tragic.
This is a whole ‘nother topic that we can talk about another day, but I wonder about the future of the Republican Party. David Jolly thinks there’s room for a third party, a truly conservative party, which would be healthy for the republic just in terms of variety. I dunno if he’s right about the practicality of it, but it’d be a good thing.
BP: I still consider myself as a Republican in philosophy, but can have no association with the party as its currently configured.
If you’re a resident of Georgia, please vote. Early in-person voting is open now. Remember to bring your ID, as Georgia is one of 36 states that require identification to vote.
Requests for a ballot by mail must be received by Friday January 1, 2021. If mailed in, ballots must be received by 7pm ET on Tuesday January 5, 2021 (Election Day). Ballots can also be submitted in person until that time.
For more on how to vote in the runoff, go to How to Vote.
Illustration: from the Allman Brothers’ album Eat a Peach (1972). Do you dare?