Georgia Democrats are emboldened after last week’s primary elections, eager to transform anger with President Donald Trump’s policies and protests over racial equality into electoral energy to snap a string of statewide defeats.
Nothing so vividly shows the party’s potential arc than last week’s vote. Democrats set a primary turnout record and outvoted Republicans across Georgia, including in important swing districts. And the party avoided runoffs in the two top races on the ballot, sparing them a costly and divisive nine-week scrap.Now Democrats are freer to channel resources and energy into November’s matchup between Jon Ossoff and Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue for one of Georgia’s two open Senate seats, and the race between Carolyn Bourdeaux and Republican Rich McCormick in one of the party’s top U.S. House targets.Republicans who once downplayed perennial Democratic talk about a comeback in Georgia are clearly taking the threat seriously. For some, it began with Trump’s struggles in suburbia in 2016. Even more started sounding alarms following Democrat Stacey Abrams’ close finish in the 2018 governor’s race.So have a series of recent polls that show Democrats have a legitimate shot to carry Georgia in a presidential contest for the first time since 1992. Even those from conservative groups, which typically paint a rosier picture, show a deadlock between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden in Georgia.Buoyant Democrats clamor for more resources. It’s uncertain how aggressively Biden will invest in Georgia, a decision that will have implications across the political map. But Democrats say it’s “malpractice” to sideline a state with two U.S. Senate seats up for grabs and control of the Georgia House in play.“After Georgia’s primary, the world knows what we’ve been saying for years: Georgia is the battleground state,” said Nikema Williams, a state senator who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia.That’s all the more reason Republicans are digging in. The GOP has won every statewide seat in Georgia since 2008 and holds not only the advantage of incumbency, but also the fundraising edge and visibility that comes with it.
Republicans can also rely on a battle-tested playbook that’s helped energize turnout in past elections, such as promoting a mix of business-friendly policies with socially conservative initiatives and tying state Democrats to unpopular national figures and proposals.In this cycle, Republicans have swiftly adjusted that approach: U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the liberal New Yorker, has joined Speaker Nancy Pelosi among the Georgia GOP’s top targets. So has the nascent “defund the police” movement that gained traction amid the George Floyd protests.Perdue, for instance, has repeatedly tried to frame Ossoff as a supporter of a “radical socialist” ideology. And his campaign has accused the Democrat of seeking to abolish law enforcement agencies, something Ossoff has vigorously denied.“This whole race is about whether they want to move to a socialist agenda or those who believe in the economic opportunity for everyone, limited government and a strong workforce,” Perdue said. “This president and this administration have produced for Georgia, but we have a lot more to do.”‘Pepsi at a Mets game’Partisans from either side of the aisle need not worry about drawing a contrast. One of the defining narratives in this election is that Democratic leaders and rank-and-file members who once steered clear of liberal approaches are now embracing them.Abrams proved in 2018 that supporting stiff gun control measures, pressing for gay rights or opposing illegal immigration crackdowns are not the campaign-killers in statewide races they were once thought to be, and Democrats even in competitive suburban districts have followed that lead.This year, the party has taken up the call of demonstrators who demand structural changes to the criminal justice system, and many candidates include decriminalization of marijuana, a repeal of citizen’s arrest laws and new limits on police use of force as part of their campaign platforms.
“For the next 11 days, there will be no peace in the Capitol unless we get some of these things done,” Democratic state Rep. Erica Thomas said as state legislators returned to the Capitol this week.Republicans aim to exploit the shift. State Rep. Trey Kelley, a Cedartown Republican, once called the leftward tilt of Democrats in the state “as Georgian as drinking a Pepsi at a Mets game,” and his fellow conservatives counsel a stick-with-what-you-know approach.“We have a record of helping us out of the Great Recession, doing criminal justice reform and reforming the way we fund transportation in Georgia,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.“It’s even more important, as we begin the recovery from the pandemic, that we follow a model that’s already been proven and tested rather than turn around and go in a completely opposite direction,” Ralston said.This election could offer Democrats plenty of fodder to counter. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the front-runner in an August GOP runoff for an open U.S. House seat in northwest Georgia, has a history of making racist and xenophobic remarks on camera — and Democrats aim to make her the face of the state GOP.“She placed first by a mile in the primary because of these videos,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, “not despite them.”‘Just a preview’There’s little question after last week’s primary that Democrats are energized. Democratic turnout soared past 1.1 million to outpace Republicans, passing a previous high set during the 2008 presidential primary, thanks partly to an unprecedented number of absentee ballots.
Republicans lagged behind with more than 960,000 votes, but they also had no competitive statewide contest on the ballot since Trump had already captured the party’s nomination and Perdue faced no primary opposition.More troubling to Republicans were discouraging signs in a spate of down-ticket contests.Democrats outpaced Republicans in Georgia’s 6th and 7th congressional districts, the premier U.S. House races in the state, and about a dozen state legislative seats held by Republicans. The party needs to flip 16 GOP seats to retake the Georgia House — and influence the redrawing of political maps in 2021.Heath Garrett, a veteran Republican operative, said Democrats had an enthusiasm edge, though he cautioned that the turnout spike was a “warning sign but not game over” for his party.“We know Georgia will be more competitive, but Republicans still have a voter advantage as long as our voters are motivated,” he said. “I believe they will be for the general election.”One wild card is the chaotic November special election between U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and 20 other candidates on the same ballot. Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins leads Loeffler in polls, and Democrats have so far failed to clear the field for the national party’s chosen pick, the Rev. Raphael Warnock.Another uncertainty is whether Biden selects Abrams or Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms as his running mate, a decision that could further energize Democratic turnout in the state but also intensify Republican participation as well.The former vice president has repeatedly pledged to compete in Georgia, though he’s not yet devoted nearly the same resources he’s set aside for Rust Belt states that Democrats see as more winnable.
Still, Georgia could play a role in Biden’s strategy even if it doesn’t flip. If polls continue to show a tight race, Republicans could be forced to shift funding from other competitive races to fortify Georgia.Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in an interview the party will devote more staffers to contacting and organizing prospective supporters in Georgia in the runup to November, as well as amplifying efforts to ensure ballot access.“The road to the Senate majority runs through Georgia — that’s one of the many pathways to success for us, and we have a remarkable opportunity there,” he said of the party’s push to erase the 53-47 Republican advantage in the chamber.“We have not only been talking the talk about Georgia as a battleground,” Perez said, “but walking the walk.”Abrams said she was “absolutely certain” Georgia will get a fresh wave of investment from national Democrats after the record-setting primary. So did Williams, the state Democratic chairwoman, who said the party contacted 1 million potential supporters in the four days before the vote.“Georgia Democrats have done the work to mobilize our voters and earn their votes,” she said. “And we know the high turnout from June is just a preview for the blue wave to come in November.”