Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, shown at the party’s IWillVote Gala in June in Atlanta, often describes Georgia as “on the brink of turning blue.” But Georgia Democrats have expressed concerns that the national party has yet to invest any resources in the state in preparation for the 2020 election. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

‘We cannot wait.’ Georgia Democrats push for national investment now

Hardly a day goes by without a blaring national headline proclaiming Georgia, with its tightening statewide elections and dual Senate races, will take center stage in next year’s election.

Yet, despite the predictions that Georgia will be a top 2020 battleground, Democrats are growing increasingly concerned that the national party still hasn’t devoted any significant resources to the state.

They’ve penned memos to Washington pleading for immediate investment to pay for field operatives and voter training. They’ve had quiet internal discussions to lay the groundwork for when the money comes. And they’ve lobbied national leaders to give more than lip service to the state.

“We need boots on the ground. We need more money to flow to this state. We need more training. And we need (national) leadership to be making trips here,” said Lewanna Heard-Tucker, the Fulton County Democratic chairwoman. “There needs to more noise and excitement so folks can see this state matters.”

The Democratic angst was on display in interviews with more than a dozen top operatives, activists, elected officials and candidates, many who say they are confident the party will pour resources into Georgia but worry it could come too late.

“There’s too much on the line,” said Jon Ossoff, a Senate candidate who plans to call on national Democrats to ramp up investment at a Saturday rally. “We have to start now. We cannot wait until next September to lace up our boots and start marching and knocking.”

Party strategists are still stung by the lack of national attention Georgia received during the last presidential election in 2016, when Donald Trump notched a five-point victory as neither party seriously contested the state.

Saddled with a weak U.S. Senate candidate and no competitive House races, national Democrats largely ignored Georgia in that vote. Hillary Clinton bypassed the state after she won the party’s nomination and waited until weeks before the election to open her first campaign office in Atlanta.

The 2020 election will bring a vastly different dynamic. Democratic wins across Atlanta’s suburbs and Stacey Abrams’ near-miss run for governor in 2018, plus U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s decision to retire at year’s end, have combined to make Georgia one of the nation’s most competitive territories.

Yet Democrats feel like they’re falling behind. Although Democratic presidential candidates are lavishing more attention on Georgia, none has built any lasting infrastructure in the state. No candidate has established a campaign office in Georgia or hired any full-time staff devoted to the state.

By contrast, a pro-Trump “Victory” operation is already humming, with staffers who have crisscrossed Georgia for months to hold rallies and training sessions, some geared toward women and Asian American voters that Republicans have struggled to keep in the fold.

State Democrats say they’re trying to prepare for the surge of new funding — whenever that may come. Scott Hogan, the executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia, said his organization has already tripled its number of staffers and begun an intense new round of voter outreach.

“You always want more, but I feel confident that national Democrats will be here for Georgia to help get us over the top,” Hogan said. “We’re playing offense, and we fully expect a large investment in Georgia in 2020.”

‘The X-factor’

Past and present candidates have led the way in sounding the alarms.

Abrams, the state’s leading Democratic figure, sent a much-discussed memo this month to every 2020 White House hopeful and dozens of leading strategists that warned that “any less than full investment in Georgia would amount to strategic malpractice.”

Elected officials up and down the ballot have echoed her concerns. Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, one of four Democrats challenging U.S. Sen. David Perdue, said the party’s hopes could rest on 440,000 new left-leaning residents who aren’t registered to vote. It will take time and money to mobilize them.

“We have to pinpoint everyone on a map. We can take voter registration efforts directly to their doors,” he said. “The transplant vote will be the X factor in 2020, and we need to be welcoming these new Georgians into the Democratic Party.”

Former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson predicted the full might of the national party in Georgia won’t be on display until next year. And Sarah Riggs Amico, another Senate candidate, said the key to 2020 victory “requires investment that is both early and big.”

Cultivating strong relationships with local activists and campaign staffers also takes a determined effort. Tharon Johnson, who was President Barack Obama’s Southern regional director in 2012, said they must remember “there is no one-size-fits-all strategy that the national party can bring to Georgia.”

“Winning in 2020 is going to take an intergenerational coalition building campaigns across all of Georgia — metro and rural areas both,” he said. “Georgians are different folks — it’s going to take different strokes to get us across the finish line.”

‘On the brink’

The funding spigots could soon open.

DNC Chairman Tom Perez, who held a major party fundraiser in Atlanta in July, has told anyone who will listen that “Georgia is on the brink of turning blue.” Top Senate Democrats have been intimately involved in recruiting and vetting contenders for the two races.

Outside groups are also promising to open their checkbooks. The liberal Way to Win announced a $50 million initiative to help Democrats in Georgia and a handful of other Sunbelt states that will focus on mobilizing women, minorities and younger voters.

And U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren became the latest 2020 presidential hopeful to pledge to help Democrats flip the state’s two Senate seats, leading a pro-Republican group to beg the Massachusetts candidate to campaign with Georgia Democrats so she can help energize conservatives.

Until then, party leaders are dreaming up their wish list. Jacquelyn Bettadapur, the Cobb County Democratic chairwoman, said she wants more investment in data-sharing and county organizations to help them develop a permanent infrastructure that will outlast the 2020 campaign.

“There is a tendency for national and even state campaigns to helicopter in with a top-of-the-ticket strategy that leaves very little in its wake after Election Day,” she said. “Shore up the county parties and they will deliver results all the way up the ballot — a party grassroots approach if you will.”

State Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, a Lithonia lawyer who is one of the House’s top Democrats, had a similar idea. She wants the national party to help pay for field workers who can help identify and register potential Democrats — and encourage them to vote. And she has some pointed advice for presidential contenders.

“I hope all the candidates that are serious about winning open a few campaign offices here,” she said. “There is space in my district.”

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