Battleground Georgia: Democrats see 2014 flip
Battleground Georgia: Democrats see 2014 flip
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
July 23, 2014 05:09 AM EDT
COLLEGE PARK, Georgia — Democrats have made a national cause of turning Texas blue, even though the chances that Wendy Davis will win the governor’s race this fall remain small — and the likelihood that Texas will be a true battleground any time before 2028 probably even smaller.
Georgia, on the other hand, is happening now.
Democrats here don’t have to wait for the demographic projections to come true. The state’s voting population is already much more African-American than even 10 years ago, Latinos are on the rise, and there’s a business community relocating to the Atlanta metro area at a pace that looks a lot like the migration to Northern Virginia and the North Carolina research triangle the past 15 years that turned both states into presidential battlegrounds.
Those shifts, together with the surprisingly competitive candidacies of Senate hopeful Michelle Nunn and gubernatorial contender Jason Carter, have convinced more than a few Democrats here that the Republican lock on the Peach State could be broken as soon as November.
It’s a tall task, no question: Nunn has her hands full against businessman David Perdue — who edged out Rep. Jack Kingston in the Republican Senate primary runoff Tuesday night — as does Carter in his bid to oust Republican Gov. Nathan Deal.
But a win by either Democrat would deliver a jolt so powerful that it could potentially reshape the national political landscape: Yes, Texas has its 38 electoral votes, but putting Georgia’s 16 votes in play could do just as much to complicate the GOP’s path to the White House.
“Georgia’s next in line as a national battleground state,” Carter said during a break at a campaign stop last week. “If you look at sheer numbers, people can dispute whether it’s red or blue, but everybody knows where it’s headed.”
The rumblings of change are happening, to the surprise of many, here at a Wal-Mart parking lot on the heavily African-American south side of Atlanta, where an older man nudges through a crowd to introduce his grandson to the Democrat running for governor. Jason Carter smiles — not the same toothy grin that became the unofficial logo of Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, just his top lip pulled back eagerly — as he poses for one cellphone photo after another.
“You know,” Carter says to the man, “I get introduced as a grandson all the time.”
That introduction was enough to help Carter win a state Senate seat four years ago, and enough to draw him more attention last year than most long shots against Deal would get just for entering the race.
No one was really expecting what happened next. Carter started pulling even and, according to some polls, ahead in the race. Meanwhile, in the open Senate race for Saxby Chambliss’s seat, where Republicans just finished a multi-month process of picking their nominee, Nunn has been up repeatedly over generic Republican challengers — and that, her supporters point out, is before she’s had the chance to really focus attacks on a GOP opponent.
Michael McNeely, vice chairman of the state Republican Party, scoffs at the idea that Georgia is at any risk of turning blue.
“We can agree that the demographics are changing,” McNeely said, noting state GOP efforts like rechartering the Morehouse College Republicans and hiring a minority outreach director. “However, the beliefs of people and the fact that this is a conservative state are not.”
And there’s a lot to support that view. Republicans control every partisan statewide office and have a supermajority in the state Legislature. The last Democrat to carry the state in a presidential race was Bill Clinton in 1992. President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign looked early on at trying to put the state in play, but the idea never made it beyond a whiteboard exercise.
Of states where Obama didn’t campaign or spend money, Georgia yielded the best results: 45.5 percent. The question that Obama campaign staffers had then and continue to ask is whether that’s a floor or a ceiling.
From a distance, the Democratic movement this year could look like a deliberate, long-laid plan from a state party that’s doing what state parties are supposed to do. First get Nunn, the daughter of beloved former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn and herself the former head of George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation, to run for the Senate seat in 2014. Maybe she wins, but if not, she sets herself up to run for what could be another open Senate seat with Johnny Isakson’s anticipated retirement in 2016, which just happens to a presidential year when Democrats are expecting another woman to be at the top of their ticket.
Then get Carter, heir to the other great Georgia Democratic name, to run up the tally as the gubernatorial candidate. Fill up a diverse slate of candidates running for all 10 statewide offices, and hope that their combined appeal lifts the entire ticket.
“To say someone sat down and drew this out, to say this was a master plan, is not what happened,” chuckled DuBose Porter, a former speaker pro tempore of the state House and 2010 gubernatorial candidate who’s the new state Democratic chairman. He acknowledges, however, that he was nudged along by conversations he had early on with Nunn and Carter, as well as promising signs in polling.
A year ago, there wasn’t anyone to draw a master plan. The last Democratic state chair had been forced to resign in May 2013 after being suspended by the Georgia Bar and reprimanded for ethical violations. The party communications director was the only staffer left on the payroll, the only one showing up for work every day at the headquarters in a large industrial loft space down by the Atlanta waterworks, where a visitor is more likely to find a gourmet ice cream shop and Anthropologie outpost than the miles of fast food-filled strip malls that line much of the city’s vast suburbs.
“A lot of us were banking on 2016, 2018, because that was when the numbers showed things changing,” said Rebecca DeHart, now the Georgia Democrats’ executive director. “But then Michelle Nunn got into the race.”
At party headquarters, DeHart has dubbed her office the “Max Cleland Suite” — after the one-term Democratic senator from the state who lost reelection in 2002 — while Porter’s is the “Jimmy Carter Suite.” The big meeting table is in their “Situation Room,” where, as it happens, the red chairs tend to collapse when they’re sat on but the blue chairs are more reliable. But most of the action happens in the open area at the far end of the office where they’ve been training canvassers every Thursday and Friday, trying to rebuild 159 different county parties, one door knocker at a time.
Democratic insiders say it’s not that Carter is running so much better than they expected — though he is one of only two gubernatorial challengers in the country to outraise the incumbent during the last fundraising quarter — but that Deal is running worse. That’s a consequence of the 2 inches of snow that managed to paralyze metro Atlanta at the end of January and a scandal around fundraising for his 2010 campaign that have hurt his poll numbers. In a sign of how seriously the GOP is taking Carter, the Republican Governors Association spent a reported half-million dollars last month on an attack ad against the Democratic nominee.
Nunn, meanwhile, is seen by Democrats as their most promising nonincumbent candidate of 2014, with the best shot at flipping a GOP Senate seat. A win by her could mean the difference between keeping the chamber or not. Waiting out the Republican runoff, she’s been a very quiet presence as the Republican free-for-all primary and tough runoff unfolded, sticking mostly to smaller events away from the media glare.
For Nunn or Carter, winning will take more than pulling ahead in November. If no candidate gets over 50 percent on Nov. 4, a runoff will occur on Dec. 2 in the Senate race or on Jan. 6 in the governor’s contest. For a state party that is still putting itself together, getting Democrats to the polls twice in an off-year might be too much to ask.
For now, though, Nunn and Carter are counting on each other and the changes in Georgia.
“The campaigns are different. The issues are different. But there is a huge amount of energy in our state for something new,” Carter said at the Wal-Mart.
Nunn and Carter are both pitching themselves to voters as moderate Democrats, but Republicans are working to link the pair to unpopular leaders in Washington.
“Georgia is a very conservative state — socially, fiscally, however you want to determine,” McNeely said, calling Nunn and Carter “left-wing liberals” who, no matter what they say in the campaign, will support the agenda of Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “The fact that they are in the race and putting on this pretty packaging doesn’t change the content of that packaging.”
But Virgil Fludd, a Democratic state representative who is campaigning for Carter, said the optimism within the party is palpable.
“It’s a great opportunity for people to start to believe in what they see and what they read,” Fludd said. “Each time there’s a new poll, each time there’s a new report with the money that’s been raised and where it’s coming from, it starts to reinforce what people believe could happen.”