Georgia Democrats hope state's shift to purple comes quickly
ATLANTA — For most of Georgia's history, Democrats and Republicans knew where they stood.
The state was a linchpin of the solid Democratic South for nearly a century after the Civil War, but the partisan tides shifted after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, with the state becoming solid Republican by the early 2000s.
Since John F. Kennedy won here with more than 60% of the vote in 1960, the only Democratic presidential nominees to carry Georgia were native son Jimmy Carter and southerner Bill Clinton, who won in 1992 by a narrow plurality in a three-man race.
Nevertheless, with changing demographics and a controversial GOP nominee, Democrats see an opening in 2016, even as Republicans project confidence and polls show Donald Trump maintaining a lead of around 5 points.
“I think it’s clearly a battleground state," says Jason Carter, grandson of the former president and the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee. "I think that we are undeniably in play today."
"We’re not a battleground state," says Michael McNeely, first vice chair of the state Republican Party. "We’re a very conservative, red state, and we will continue to be so.”
Whoever is right about the 2016 vote, it is already clear that while Georgia will never again be the state that once gave the Democratic presidential nominee 87% of the vote, the GOP is unlikely to hold for much longer the monopoly on statewide offices it now enjoys.
“There’s going to be a surprise here one day," said Daniel Franklin, a political science professor at Georgia State University. "The question is just when."
'Party of the future'?
At the heart of the changing political landscape in Georgia are demographic shifts that seem to be inexorably moving in the Democrats' favor. In 2000, African Americans constituted around 29% of the state's more than 8 million residents, according to Census Bureau figures, while Hispanics made up 5.3%. In 2015, it was estimated that blacks accounted for 31.7% of the state's growing population of 10.2 million, while Latinos had risen to 9.4%. In the not-too-distant future, it's projected that Georgia will be a majority-minority state.
The Democratic Party "is the party of the future, without a doubt, from a demographic standpoint,” said Carter, 41, who served two terms in the state Senate prior to his unsuccessful run for governor two years ago.
Many Democrats hoped Carter's campaign, along with Michelle Nunn's Senate bid that year, would mark a breakthrough for the party in a high-profile statewide race. Carter, however, went on to lose to incumbent GOP Gov. Nathan Deal, 53% to 45%, and Nunn lost by a nearly identical margin to Republican David Perdue.
But even those losses illustrated the gains the party had made since the previous decade. In 2006, a year where Democrats nationally took control of both chambers of Congress, Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor lost in a rout to Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue. Eight years later, Carter cut that margin in half in a year Republicans regained control of the U.S. Senate and expanded their majority in the House.
"That was actually progress for us," said state Rep. Stacey Abrams, the Democratic leader in the state House.
Abrams argues that Democrats' path back to power is not a complicated one; it boils down to turning out voters who are naturally inclined to vote for the party. She cites North Carolina, which voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and has become one of the most hotly contested presidential battlegrounds, as evidence of why Georgia is on the cusp of trending blue.
“In sheer volume, we are a more demographically diverse and thus more Democratically inclined electorate," she says. "It is simply a question of boosting turnout among those who already agree with our belief systems.”
GOP outreach and the Trump effect
Georgia Republicans, while confident of a Trump win, are not oblivious to the challenges that lie ahead.
In 2013, Leo Smith launched the state party's minority engagement program, an effort, he acknowledges, that he didn't enter into “thinking it was gonna be easy.”
Smith, who is black, casts the decision for African Americans in selecting between Clinton and Trump in stark terms.
“Is the devil that has already proven to be the devil the one you want to choose, or do you want to choose possibilities?” he said.
Clinton, he says, "is the mistress of oppression, she is the system itself.”
In the closing weeks, Smith says the party plans more editorials from minority surrogates and additional advertising on black radio stations and publications, among other efforts.
Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, who's comfortably ahead in his re-election bid against Democrat Jim Barksdale, says he's always sought to appeal broadly in his campaigns and thinks "that's what the Republican Party needs to do to grow and prosper in the 21st Century."
As for Trump, whom he supports, Isakson said he doesn't "think the cumulative effect of his campaign has hurt the Republican Party in Georgia."
Smith and state GOP chairman John Padgett both argue Trump can get 20% of the black vote in Georgia, a proposition Carter calls "laughable."
Kimberley Dial, who co-chairs the Trump effort in Henry County, a newly minted battleground southeast of Atlanta, isn't particularly worried whether her candidate's provocative rhetoric regarding minorities will hurt the Republican brand.
“They weren’t voting Republican anyway," she says. "They want free, and that’s why they’re Democrats. And so he wasn’t going to get their vote even if he didn’t offend them."
Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, says he expects Trump to do “very poorly” among African-American, Latino and Asian voters, but says African-American turnout in Georgia is already "pretty good" for Democrats.
“You could certainly try to push the African-American turnout up a bit," he said of the Democrats' turnout-focused approach, "but that’s already similar to the white turnout.” He added, though, that there were opportunities to increase the Latino share of the vote.
Still, he said, he didn't think Clinton had "much of a chance to carry Georgia."
“There’s no reason, really, for them to put much of an effort out in Georgia," he said. "They don’t need it.”
The 'long game'
In 2012, Georgia was the second-closest state, after North Carolina, that Mitt Romney carried, and Democrats here are quick to point out that result came came despite no investment from the Obama campaign.
Rebecca DeHart, executive director of the Georgia Democratic Party, says her field efforts are now modeled after battleground states as the party looks to take the next step.
“Our short game is to remain incredibly competitive and to win in 2016 in November," she says, "and our long game is to use this to build infrastructure and build a more sophisticated model here in Georgia.”
The Clinton campaign, in coordination with the state party and the Democratic National Committee, has 39 paid staffers in the state and has opened 12 field offices around Georgia, an effort that ramped up at the beginning of August after the conventions.
September brought high-profile surrogate visits from Anne Holton, the wife of vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, and later Kaine himself.
“Every day you see a new poll come out in Georgia showing just how close the race is here, and it is the kind of race where ground games matter," Holton told Clinton campaign volunteers at a Sept. 21 event, where she also likened Georgia's trajectory to Virginia's, her home state, which supported President Obama in both of his elections.
There's no indication yet whether Clinton herself plans a campaign stop in Georgia in the final weeks.
While the investment of resources and candidate time may not approach Florida or Ohio levels, the effort Democrats are making here coupled with Trump's candidacy do raise the stakes for the party.
“I think the Democrats would be disappointed if they tried and didn’t do significantly better" than four years earlier, said Franklin, who noted it could discourage candidate recruitment and negatively impact fundraising.
Whether Clinton pulls off the upset in November or not, Democrats are hopeful that 2018 — when an open governor's race figures to attract some of the party's top prospects — and beyond will begin to restore the party to equal footing with Republicans, even if its previous era of dominance is never again attained.
“If Georgia doesn’t go blue in ’16, I am not going to crawl into a fetal position and bemoan our fate and say that we have to wait until 2020," said Abrams. "That’s not the way it works."