Can Georgia Democrats Make the State Turn Blue Ahead of Schedule?

They bottomed out in 2010. But the state’s Democrats are using the GOP’s right-wing tilt to mount their comeback.

Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams
Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams.

Photo courtesy Stacey Abrams Facebook

ATLANTA—Hanging on the largest wall in Rep. Stacey Abrams’ office, there’s a handy visual reminder of how rotten things are for Democrats. It displays every legislative district in the state, in bright colors, with photographs of Abrams’ colleagues plunked inside them. They are outnumbered, 119 to 60, in districts that cut jaggedly across the terrain to keep the Republicans in power indefinitely. That was the point. They drew the map after winning one of 2010’s many GOP landslides, in a year when nine Georgia Democratic legislators threw up their hands and switched parties.

It’s easy to view Abrams, the first woman and the first black leader of the House Democrats, as the captain of a permanent minority. She views herself and her Democrats as the beneficiaries—eventually—of Republican hubris.

“They were going after a supermajority,” she says, pointing at the map. “They actually drew themselves 124 seats. But those 124 seats became competitive in a way they wouldn’t have, had they drawn 110 seats. Each year, we will double the number of pick-ups that we have, in part because in order to draw so many seats in a state that is so increasingly Democratic and demographically diverse, they had to draw too many slim margins. We can nibble away with that this year, and in 2016 and 2018 we can take much bigger slices. 2014 advanced our agenda by two years.”

She ticks off the reasons. Republicans have run Georgia since 2003, and first-term Gov. Nathan Deal has struggled to keep above water. He won his office in a 10-point rout over a former Democratic governor, but his lead over state Sen. Jason Carter—the grandson of the 39th president—is in single digits. The Democratic candidate for an open U.S. Senate seat will be Michelle Nunn, the do-gooding daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn. The party had been courting her for years, and now she’s tied in polling with any possible Republican nominee, all of whom she’s out-fundraised by a factor of at least 2–1. On May 20, two of them will be forced into a two-month runoff, while Nunn campaigns freely and stacks dollars.

And those are just the horse-race factors. Democrats are counting on a backlash to a gun bill that legalized firearms in bars and churches. They expect voters to blame the Republicans for larger class sizes and a spike in the cost of teachers’ health plans. And they’re shaming Republicans for turning down the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which has spawned a steady run of stories about doomed or closing rural hospitals.

“Most people viewed Medicaid as sort of a poor people’s program,” Abrams says. “What they’re starting to realize is that it’s actually the funding for their hospitals. You lose one of those hospitals and you lose an economic center. A lot of the effect of that won’t be felt until July, when they start budgeting for next year.”

That’s the theory, but none of it will matter unless Democrats turn out Georgia’s growing, nonwhite population. In 2004, the Kerry-Edwards ticket lost Georgia by 17 points, with an electorate that was 70 percent white. In 2008, Barack Obama came within five points of winning Georgia with an electorate that was only 66 percent white. There were no state exit polls in 2012, but the president’s re-election campaign lost the state by only eight points, less than public surveys had predicted, helping Abrams’ Democrats win in a few of those gerrymandered seats.

Georgia Democrats now have to figure out how to make the electorate look like it does in an Obama year, minus Barack Obama. They want, basically, to turn their state into the next Virginia, where a population that’s growing less and less white can elect Democrats. No other state in the South has figured out how to replace the long-gone Dixiecrat/black majority with a majority of white liberals and nonwhites. By pulling out the nonwhite vote, by pulling maybe 30 or 31 percent of whites, they can elect Carter or Nunn.

But nobody pretends that the legacy candidates have the same appeal as the first black president. Every Georgia Democrat remembers the 2008 Senate race and runoff. Jim Martin, the perfectly adequate Democratic candidate, came within three points of Sen. Saxby Chambliss. That forced a runoff, which Martin lost by 15 points. The Republican vote had fallen by 34 percent, but the Obama-free Democratic vote had collapsed by 48 percent. It mirrored what happened in every midterm in the new, red Georgia.

Now, the Democratic base needs to get thrilled about two candidates who are running to the center. Carter actually voted for the gun bill, in a naked attempt to neutralize the issue. “They’re unhappy about it,” suggested Abrams, “but they’ve been unhappy about lots of things. People are disappointed, but they’re not willing to sacrifice Jason to Gov. Deal.”

Nunn has no legislative record at all, spending her career in charity organizations before running this year. That’s attracted some support from Republicans, and Nunn has only embraced Democratic stances when she’s been pushed to do so. Her first TV ad ended with her rejecting “special treatment” on health care for members of Congress—meaning she supported a dilatory Republican effort to deny subsidies for their care under the ACA. In her final televised debate against a field of fringe candidates, Nunn was dared to “say President Obama in any of your speeches.” She responded with a lukewarm statement about how proud she’d been to work with the president and his predecessors.

But she and Carter are all the Democrats have at the moment. Georgia, like North Carolina before it, is home to a “Moral Monday” protest movement uniting the NAACP and progressive groups against Republican legislation. Tim Franzen, a 37-year-old organizer with the American Friends Service Committee, takes questions about the campaign from an office in downtown Atlanta, decorated by posters from the campaign to close the School of the Americas and to block banks from foreclosing on homes. He walks through this year’s plans—the first of a multiyear strategy—to build progressive momentum across the state.

“We’re going to Savannah, we’re going to Atlanta twice, we’re going to Augusta, Dalton, Gainesville—anywhere that has even a medium-sized college, anywhere with a medium-sized population,” he says. “It’s going to take longer than North Carolina. We’ve never been a progressive state.”

To pull this off, the Moral Monday activists were going to register voters—“we want to do 10,000 between now and the election”—and team up with Georgia WAND, a group that focuses on the female vote. “When we look at this election cycle,” says Franze, “the most powerful demographic is going to be African-American women.”

But why would they turn out this year? The strategies of Carter and Nunn are designed to offend as few white conservatives as possible while counting on a backlash to turn out their actual base. Other Democrats have shown how not to do that. In 2010, black Democratic Rep. Artur Davis ran for governor of Alabama and opposed the Affordable Care Act, with his eye on the general election. Black voters rebelled and nominated a white Democrat in the primary by a landslide.

Nunn isn’t making Davis’s mistake, but she’s trying to say as little about “progressive” issues as she can. Last week, in an interview with MSNBC, Nunn carefully avoided saying whether she would have voted for the Affordable Care Act—“I was working at Points of Light”—while rattling off some of her preferred changes to the law and sticking up for the Medicaid expansion. That’s the message, but MSNBC saw the dodge, and Nunn ended Monday with an AP story about her “struggle” to explain herself.

The candidate had a slightly easier time talking about Michael Boggs. On Friday, after most of Georgia’s congressional delegation had condemned the conservative court nominee and called for the Senate to reject him, Nunn told Politico that she “share[d] some of the concerns that have been raised by the Senate committee members.” She wasn’t a hard no, but she wasn’t running away from the position of black Democrats, either.

On Saturday, I followed Nunn into a hybrid campaign/charity event in a poor section of Atlanta. Nunn volunteers set up a table at the front of Perkerson Elementary School, presenting a campaign sign-up sheet and free T-shirts to the 300 locals who showed up to paint walls, restore a basketball court, and plug fresh mulch into a playground. I asked her whether she had anything else to say about Boggs, or about what she looked for in a jurist.

“How are we going to ensure that our judicial nominees represent and are inclusive of the full diversity, the full spectrum of our Georgia constituents?” she asked. (Nunn has a possibly genetic habit of referring to Georgians, whom she does not yet represent, as constituents.) “I think that’s a starting point. Someone who represents the best ideals of jurisprudence [and has] experiences in the world that make that individual empathetic and wise and capable. “

It was a soft remix of Barack Obama’s 2009 explanation of what he wanted from a Supreme Court nominee, before picking Sonia Sotomayor. Nunn’s defense of the Affordable Care Act was exactly what Democrats wanted from Georgia—talk about the Medicaid expansion. Voters, she said, “see that we have 650,000 people that are going without insurance that, if they lived in Kentucky, they’d have access to.”

This is no call to action, but former Sen. Sam Nunn didn’t do that sort of thing, either. Michelle Nunn’s success, Jason Carter’s success, and the whole Georgia Democratic revival depends on a base remaining angry and motivated and in the streets—and then ready to back centrist-sounding, centrist-acting candidates who shrink from the national party. Before they inherit the state’s demographic future, Democrats need to be inoffensive to its demographic present. They don’t need the voter who, say, marches against Common Core or kicked in a TV when Michael Sam celebrated his NFL drafting with a same-sex kiss.

“That’s not who I want,” Abrams said. “What I want is the person who flinched a little bit and still watched it and said, ‘Eh, okay.’ The person who has evolved.”