Georgia Democrats brace for challenges ahead at party convention

Dublin - The last time top Georgia Democrats gathered for a party meeting, they huddled to replace a disgraced leader and carve a path forward in a Republican-controlled state. Their convention Saturday was a celebration of how far the party has come — and a reminder of the challenges looming in November.

This year’s middle Georgia gathering was designed to promote a full slate of candidates running for statewide office, headlined by two Democrats with name-brand legacies: Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter. Both offered some of their strongest attacks yet on their GOP rivals.

It was a festive event that featured flashy videos, shrieking yellow whistles, blaring music and circus-like glowsticks. The party was eager to roll out its six female candidates — five of whom are black — on the statewide ballot in hopes of drawing a contrast with the white men who make up the GOP slate.

The enthusiasm notwithstanding, Democrats acknowledge the tough sledding ahead. Republicans control every statewide office and commanding majorities in the state Legislature. GOP strategists believe their core supporters can overwhelm Democrats despite growing numbers of minority voters.

Sharpening attacks

Nunn, the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, has until now waged a largely positive campaign. But her rhetoric has sharpened significantly since Republican businessman David Perdue won the GOP nomination after his runoff victory last month.

She invoked Perdue’s leadership of Pillowtex, the failed North Carolina textile company that left thousands out of work, during her speech Saturday to her party faithful.

“To often, Mr. Perdue seems to have prospered while other people suffered,” she said, adding: “David Perdue’s real world does not include us.”

Carter, the party’s gubernatorial nominee, has attacked Gov. Nathan Deal from the start of his campaign. To cheers from the audience, he said Deal has ignored the plight of the middle class.

“Georgia has every reason to be a powerhouse,” said Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter. “But the path that we’re on right now is not taking us to that bright future. And our current governor is trading in tomorrow for today. And nowhere is that more clear in how he has treated our public education system.”

Deal has cast Carter as a left-leaning political opportunist eager to trade on his famous last name. And Perdue, at a campaign stop at an ice cream shop across town, sought to tie the two to the “failed” Democratic establishment in Washington.

“I wish they would stand up against their leaders in Washington – Harry Reid and Barack Obama – and bring some common sense to the crises we have today on our border, and foreign policy and the economy and get people working again,” he said.

A marked contrast

Many down-ticket candidates had a chance to address their largest crowds yet. Connie Stokes, a former state senator running for lieutenant governor, vowed to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a prospect that’s vilified by many conservatives in Georgia.

And Chris Irvin, the party’s nominee for agriculture commissioner, blasted a state immigration crackdown that he said “kicked our workforce out of this great state” and cost the industry millions of dollars.

The party also adopted a resolution aimed at ratcheting up the pressure on Deal as November neared. It urged the governor "to do the right thing" and dip into his own wallet to pay nearly $3 million the state agreed to spend to settle whistle-blower lawsuits from former ethics staffers.

It was a marked contrast from the party's last meeting in 2013, when they gathered to pick a replacement for Mike Berlon, stepped down amid legal issues. Rival factions of the party clashed throughout that meeting and many left with bruised egos.

The winner of that race, former House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, said the party is reinvigorated. He was jubilant as the party’s top candidates stood behind him.

“This is what we’ve worked so hard for.”