African Americans key to Democrats’ hopes but absent in Ga. Senate race

Ted Terry and Teresa Tomlinson are Democratic candidates for Senate. AJC/photos.

Ted Terry and Teresa Tomlinson are Democratic candidates for Senate. AJC/photos.

Months after Stacey Abrams narrowly lost her bid to become the state’s first black governor, some Democrats are eyeing the growing U.S. Senate field in Georgia with a concern: There are no African American contenders in the running yet for the state’s biggest prize in 2020.

The five Democratic candidates in the race or known to be seriously considering a challenge to Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue are all white. The two that have launched campaigns, Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry and former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, are tailoring their appeals to energize black voters.

Still, it can seem incongruous that Georgia lacks a top-tier African American candidate at a time when the black electorate in the state is as powerful as ever. Turnout among black voters surged last year, helping Abrams clobber a primary opponent and nearly defeat Brian Kemp.

Democratic strategists and politicians say the Senate field is sure to continue to evolve after Abrams' decision not to run left the party without a clear favorite. Other high-profile African Americans have either passed on the race or are noncommittal about a potential run.

"I think it's unfortunate that we don't have any black candidates, especially since we have so many qualified black leaders in the state. But the field cleared for Stacey and she took longer than people expected, and it may be that people are now playing catch-up," said state Rep. Dar'shun Kendrick, a black legislator not interested in a statewide run next year.

Kendrick added that she’s “not shouting for joy, as I think a black leader would motivate the Democratic base. I would have loved to see a black leader, but it’s a good, solid field.”

Other prominent African Americans who seem unlikely to run include the Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church, DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston and state Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party. Boston said she is focused on running for another term, while the other two declined to comment for this story.

Still, it’s early. DeKalb Chief Executive Michael Thurmond, a former labor commissioner who was the first non-incumbent African American to win a statewide race in Georgia, said an experienced black candidate can enter in six months and still “automatically move to front-runner status.”

“What’s causing people to hesitate is not the opportunity to win the Democratic nomination,” said Thurmond, who added that he’s not planning to run. “It’s the challenge of raising at least $20 million and a very difficult November campaign.”

>>More: Who is running for Senate in Georgia in 2020?


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‘Right message’

Any Democrat who challenges Perdue, a former Fortune 500 chief executive, must contend with that steep fundraising curve.

Perdue’s close ties to Georgia’s GOP establishment and President Donald Trump will help him raise heaps of campaign cash for a re-election bid, and any Republican on the ballot comes in with a decided edge: No Democrat has won statewide office in Georgia since 2006.

Still, Democrats hope to turn Perdue’s relationship with Trump into a liability, and White House hopefuls are pledging to compete for Georgia’s 16 electoral votes next year rather than bypass the state for other battlegrounds. A part of that blueprint hinges on mobilizing voters of color, the party’s most reliable electorate in Georgia.

Abrams' strategy reaped dividends in 2018. The number of black voters rose 43% in the May 2018 primary compared with 2010, the last time there was a competitive race for governor, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of demographic data. Exit polling showed that at least 90% of black voters backed Abrams for governor.

Newly released census data point to an accelerating trend: Georgia's electorate is growing less white — about 59% of Georgia voters in 2018 were white, down from 64% in 2014 — and African Americans make up about 30% of the state's active registered voters.

Just as important to any Democratic road map to victory is the party's growing success in the more moderate suburbs of Atlanta. Down-ticket Democrats won a swath of once-solid Republican territory in November's midterms, and party leaders hope to build on those gains next year.

Tharon Johnson, a veteran strategist who headed up Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in the South in 2012, said he’d welcome a person of color in the contest because “we need more competition.” But Johnson, who does not have a candidate in the race, said there are other factors that will likely matter more.

“What I’m more focused on is electing the right person that has the ability to fundraise, can fire up the base,” Johnson said, “but also do it in a way that doesn’t turn off independents and moderate Republicans, which I believe are people that are persuadable in 2020 if we have the right message.”

U.S. Sen. David Perdue speaks during the GOP state convention in Savannah on May 18, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM


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‘Speaking frankly’

In separate interviews, Terry and Tomlinson pledged to capitalize on the playbook pioneered by Abrams to mobilize minority voters who have long felt ignored by politicians.

(Other Democrats who are evaluating a run include Sarah Riggs Amico, a logistics executive who ran for lieutenant governor last year; Jon Ossoff, an investigative journalist and former 6th Congressional District candidate; and Matt Lieberman, an educator who is the son of former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman.)

Tomlinson said she plans to spend significant time in rural, majority-black stretches of Middle and South Georgia that had previously received little attention from some statewide candidates.

“I will be speaking as frankly about race as I possibly can because I think that people are hungry for the conversation,” said Tomlinson, who added that the nation’s “outdated civic and economic infrastructure that disproportionately weighs on black Americans” helped shape her priorities.

Those include a proposal to revive sections of the federal Voting Rights Act struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, legalizing marijuana, and expanding Medicare and Medicaid. She also backs a federal bill to study reparations for African Americans.

Terry, 36, casts himself as a voice for young adults who are disenchanted with Washington’s unwillingness to tackle complex issues such as climate change, the student loan crisis and economic inequality.

“The millennial generation is the most diverse generation in American history, and when I think about my peers, my friends, just people I’d meet randomly in Clarkston or throughout Georgia, I would say there’s a lot of people who care more about your ideas and what you’re going to fight for as opposed to the color of your skin,” he said.

His platform echoes policies he pushed as mayor to the small DeKalb city, including a higher minimum wage and more lenient marijuana policies. But he said he also plans to "do a lot of listening" in diverse communities as he develops stances on issues such as housing affordability.

November 8, 2016 Atlanta - Candidate for United States Senator Jim Barksdale speaks during the Democratic Party of Georgia Election Night Party at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta on Tuesday, November 8, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM


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‘A fighter’s chance’

The lack of a clear favorite for now, though, means more uncertainty for Democrats used to some volatility in Senate races.

While Thurmond and Michelle Nunn quickly emerged as front-runners in 2010 and 2014 Senate bids, Democrats labored to recruit a viable candidate to challenge U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson in 2016. The party eventually turned to Jim Barksdale, an introverted millionaire who was soundly defeated.

Kristin Oblander, an Atlanta fundraiser and veteran operative, said national party leaders appear to still be “actively looking” for more candidates before deciding whether to make Georgia a top-tier target.

“They want a candidate with some built-in name ID to run who can galvanize the base, excite new voters and raise the massive amounts of money needed,” Oblander said. “So, yes, I would expect we still see a well-known African American enter the race.”

For now, the candidates who are in the race are tacking to the left on a range of policy issues that mirror the presidential field. Whoever emerges will quickly learn a lesson that Thurmond discovered during his 2010 defeat to Isakson.

“A U.S. Senate race is a national race and not a state race,” Thurmond said. “If you can nationalize the race and get financial support, then you have a fighter’s chance. If you don’t, you almost have no chance.”

2020 Senate race

This is the latest in a number of stories about the race in 2018 for the Georgia U.S. Senate seat held by Republican David Perdue. This story examines the potential field of Democratic candidates in the contest. Other stories will focus on Perdue’s bid for re-election.