Georgia Democrats left their national convention four years ago aglow with the news that Barack Obama’s campaign had declared Georgia a presidential battleground. Two weeks later, Obama pulled out of the state. He found 365 electoral votes elsewhere and moved into the White House in January 2009.
This week, Georgia Democrats head to Charlotte for the 2012 national convention under no illusion that Obama will devote staff and resources to winning the state’s 16 electoral votes.
Local Democrats have taken a beating the past four years: They were swept out of statewide office in 2010 and left broke and broken. In 2011, Republicans pushed through a redistricting plan that likely will result in increased GOP numbers in the General Assembly and the U.S. House.
Yet Georgia’s Democrats see a glimmer of hope. The state is changing. Shifts in demographics are expected to make the state more competitive — if they can repair their brand and build their bench of candidates and their organization.
“We’re going to surprise a lot of people in 2014, and in 2016 and 2018 the state is going to look much different,” state party Chairman Mike Berlon predicted.
In 2012, Georgia’s delegates are aware of their state party’s challenges.
Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, is headed to Charlotte for his ninth Democratic convention. The most senior member of the House and a former state party chairman, Smyre said the party faces a leadership vacuum.
State parties are typically top-down affairs. Absent a governor as the face and voice of the party, a U.S. senator, House speaker or other powerful officeholder fills that role.
Georgia Democrats have none of that. The party has been whittled down to five of 13 congressional seats and minority status in the House and Senate.
Now, Smyre said, the party “is a three-legged stool,” where the House and Senate caucuses and the state party must work together to craft a message and a strategy.
But he acknowledged, “We’ve got to continue to improve on that and do better.”
Amid the state Democratic Party’s struggles, it still has strong believers on the grass-roots level.
While Obama’s 2008 campaign pulled up stakes before the November vote (he lost Georgia by 5 percentage points), it left behind some goodies. Jeana Brown, the party’s 1st District chairwoman in southeast Georgia, and a delegate to Charlotte, worked for Obama’s first run here and said she has a “little secret” about that effort.
“When the Obama campaign pulled out, they left 57 paid staff here with offices,” she said. “Those neighborhood teams are still here working. The heart and compassion of people who worked in ‘08 are still with the president.”
What Democrats need
When Berlon was elected in January 2011 as state party chairman, he inherited a mess — a party short of enthusiasm and infrastructure and shorter still of cash.
Berlon said the state had about $50,000 in cash when he took over with at least $150,000 in debt. Today, however, the party is in the black, and “we’ve got some reasonable money in the bank.”
The party itself has been sidetracked by internal squabbles involving its political director and grass-roots supporters.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of campaign reports filed in July by the state Democratic and Republican parties shows the state GOP with $1.4 million in cash and Democrats with $204,000.
It is an imbalance Berlon acknowledges, but “I’m pretty pleased with where we’re going,” he said.
Others who have worked on Democrats’ campaigns say a plan should be at the top of the party’s to-do list.
Goldie Taylor, a veteran Democratic activist who served on Kasim Reed’s successful run for mayor of Atlanta in 2009, said, “Georgia has to get local again. There used to be a day when Dems had this state ID’d down to the precinct.”
Democrats “gave up that hyper-local way of attacking things,” said Taylor, who owns a media firm in Atlanta. “[Now] we don’t have a statewide apparatus that turns out Dems for Senate and statewide races.”
The party, she said, needs to focus on winning county commission seats and target state House seats where possible.
Chris Carpenter, who served in former Gov. Roy Barnes’ administration and managed his unsuccessful bid for another term in 2010, largely agreed with Taylor.
“Democrats need to do what happened in these other states [like Virginia and North Carolina],” Carpenter said, “where you start at the local level and work your way up to the state Legislature and you find and help elect candidates.”
A shifting electorate
Carpenter believes the party could make gains this year and is “hopeful” more good things are on the horizon.
“The demographic changes are happening,” Carpenter said. “As Georgia becomes more diverse, it becomes more competitive for Democrats.”
Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist and expert on voter demographics, said the continued increase in African-American and Latino population will eventually change the state’s political dynamic.
In January 2001, Georgia’s electorate was 72 percent white and 26 percent black, while Hispanics made up less than two-tenths of 1 percent, according to data compiled by the secretary of state. As of Aug. 1, those numbers had changed dramatically.
Blacks now make up 30 percent of active registered voters while whites are at 60 percent. Hispanics make up nearly 2 percent of the electorate after seeing their registration numbers increase from just 933 in 2011 to 85,000 as of Aug. 1.
Those shifts portend positive returns for Democrats. African-Americans in Georgia vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and party leaders believe they can, thanks to Republican policies on immigration, do well among Latinos. But with the current numbers, it is unlikely to be enough to change the outcome this year, Abramowitz said.
Some Republicans realize they face a challenge down the line. Charlie Harper, editor of the conservative blog Peach Pundit, said any Democratic talk of a resurgence this year or in 2014 is wishful thinking on their part, but said six or eight years from now, things will likely be different.
“The Democratic voter base is growing faster than the Republican base,” said Harper, who also writes a column for a chain of rural newspapers. “If Republicans aren’t able to figure out how to solve some of the problems they’re grappling with now, Democrats will have a chance to take Georgia blue, or at least make it purple.”
In essence, he said, Democrats need not just a bench but a winning message. Georgia remains a conservative state, where polls have shown voters overwhelmingly eschew most tax increases, support limits on abortion and oppose gay marriage.
But, Harper said, voters also want results. And, if by the time Democrats are ready to compete again, Republicans haven’t talked about problems like transportation, and if cuts to the HOPE scholarship cause a backlash, the GOP could suffer the consequences.
A new generation
To succeed, a party must recruit and develop candidates, and today, just a handful of Democrats possess the acumen and credentials to make credible statewide candidates.
Those most often mentioned include Reed, the Atlanta mayor, state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Atlanta, and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta. Two others, state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, and Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan, are among other potential stars.
To fuel grass-roots growth, Berlon said the party has created a “5 percent strategy”: to increase Democratic performance in even the most Republican of communities by 5 percent in each election. Do that, he said, and the cumulative effect means Democrats win statewide. It also lets the party identify and groom candidates.
In the meantime, the party is undergoing a makeover. The names and faces of the grass-roots leaders are changing. For example, not counting elected officials, only 26 of the 151 Georgians headed to Charlotte were also delegates to the 2008 convention in Denver.
The transformation is happening across the party, said Jeremy Berry, a member of the board of the Red Clay Democrats, a group of young party leaders.
“What you’re seeing is a new generation of leaders, getting involved with the party and elected office,” said Berry, an attorney with McKenna Long in Atlanta. “It’s a combination of younger, progressive leaders stepping up and providing the leadership.”
Rhonda Taylor of Conyers is one of the new delegates, and she’s optimistic.
“We’re so close to turning Georgia blue,” she said. “The number of times President Obama and his Cabinet members have been here, it’s possible. We need the money now and four more years to get our act together to bring our party back together.”