Purple Georgia

Why the Democratic Party is placing big bets on Georgia.

Michelle Nunn
As of this week, Democrat Michelle Nunn has opened a small margin over her Republican opponent in the race for Georgia’s open Senate seat.

Courtesy of The Corporation for National and Community Service/Wikimedia Commons

Alison Lundergan Grimes still insists she can beat Sen. Mitch McConnell and capture Kentucky for the Democratic Party. But she trails in almost every poll of the race, and has harmed her campaign with needless obfuscation and attacks on Democratic priorities. She still has donors, but with McConnell likely to win, national Democrats have turned their attention to a different red state, where a win is still possible. To that end, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has ended its ad buys in Kentucky, leaving Grimes to fend against a powerful opponent alone.

Instead, the DSCC has moved its cash to Georgia, where it bought $1 million in ads—focused on the Atlanta area—for Michelle Nunn, the former nonprofit executive turned politician. As of this week, Nunn has opened a small margin over her opponent, Republican David Perdue, with a 3-point lead in the most recent poll of the race. And while polling averages still show her behind—3.8 points in the latest update of the Huffpost Pollster average—Nunn has the advantage of a powerful ground operation and rapid demographic changes.

As I wrote last month, the New Georgia Project—led by state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams—has made a huge push to register blacks and Latinos, in hopes of shifting the electorate and giving Democrats a stronger chance in the statewide races. The project submitted 80,000 registrations to the Georgia secretary of state, Brian Kemp, who subsequently began a voter fraud investigation, citing unnamed allegations of “significant illegal activities.”

The most recent twist in the story came on Monday, when Third Sector Development—the parent nonprofit of the New Georgia Project—and the NAACP filed suit against Kemp. Abrams says the project is missing records from the state for more than 40,000 of its applications. “We are concerned that given the speed with which Election Day is approaching, that if we do not resolve this quickly, and through legal means, these will be 40,000-plus disenfranchised voters in the state of Georgia,” said Abrams on Sunday.

But for as much as this is a problem, Nunn still has a solid shot at winning. As Nate Cohn explains for the New York Times, there’s a fair chance that polls are underestimating the share of black voters—and overestimating the share of white voters—in the Georgia electorate. “Combining the data on registered voters with census data on the voter-eligible population,” he writes, “I expect the 2014 electorate to be about 64.2 percent white and 28.8 percent black.” And yet, he continues, “The last four nonpartisan polls that released demographic data showed an electorate that’s 65.7 percent white and 25.7 percent black.” If Cohn is right and the Georgia electorate is more black and less white than it looks, then Nunn might have as much as an even chance to win the seat, which could transform the overall Senate landscape.

Remember, while Republicans are favored to win the Senate, there’s still a fair amount of uncertainty in the individual races. In addition to demographic questions in Georgia (and Colorado, where Latinos are a substantial portion of the electorate), there are the polling difficulties in Alaska and early voting dynamics in Iowa, where Republican Joni Ernst has a small lead but Democrats are winning ballots from Iowans who would not have otherwise voted. Which is to say that while odds for a Republican Senate are good, they’re still a bit fragile. Come November, a win for Nunn could shift the Senate back to Democrats, saving their majority and giving them good legs for the next election cycle, when they can capitalize on a presidential electorate and a favorable Senate map.

One last thing: Regardless of how Nunn fares, it’s clear that Georgia will enter 2016 as a competitive state. And if blue Virginia was a serious wound for Republicans in 2008 and 2012, then purple Georgia will be a catastrophe for the party in 2016. A world where Republicans lose Georgia is one where—barring a major shift to the GOP—they can’t win national elections. Indeed, if you want to know why Republicans have pushed voter ID in the most nationally competitive states, there’s your answer.