Democrats face key test this week with political qualifying

For a party pitching itself as on the rebound, Georgia Democrats face a monumental test in this week’s election qualifying: simply filling out their ticket.

The party has already lined up marquee names for the top statewide contests. But down the rest of the ballot, GOP incumbents face token opposition — or none at all. That could change during the weeklong qualifying that starts Monday as both parties lock down candidates.

For Republicans, the upcoming election is largely about defending their grip on Georgia’s top offices. Democrats, who hope changing demographics come to their aid in November, have waged a recruiting battle to try to prove their party is resurgent.

Party honchos have asked long-shot Senate candidates to switch to more winnable races. A well-known ex-party leader was implored to return to the ballot for another run. And a top Republican official was even courted. All to no avail, at least so far.

But party Chairman DuBose Porter is optimistic that enough down-ticket nominees and legislative candidates will join the ballot to boost Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter, the political scions running for the Senate and governor, respectively.

“I think we’ve got a ticket that’s stronger than anyone has ever imagined,” Porter said. “Politics in America is now about Georgia because of who we have running.”

Republicans can't help but scoff. They know the state's share of minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic, is projected to surge while the proportion of white voters shrinks. But many see their short-term prospects as brighter than ever.

“At the end of the day the strength of their ticket, it really is about the down-ballot races. It’s about challenges for the state Legislature,” Republican consultant Joel McElhannon said. “They have virtually no one running for these offices. It continues to be a story that the Democratic Party of Georgia has no bench.”

Republicans in Georgia began their steady march to ascendancy in 2002 when they took the Governor’s Mansion, and since then, they have cemented their grip on every statewide office, a majority of congressional seats and control by wide margins in both state legislative chambers.

The Democratic Party’s top hopes for reversing the trend rest squarely on Nunn, a nonprofit executive who is the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, and Carter, the grandson of the former president challenging Gov. Nathan Deal.

Further down the ticket, though, the cupboard is running bare. Most of the party’s rising stars are taking a pass at 2014, and recently redrawn state legislative districts make it harder for Democrats to seize new legislative seats. Infighting involving several candidates who have already announced complicates their chances.

One of the most tantalizing pickup opportunities for Democrats is the race for state superintendent, left open when Republican John Barge rejected pleas by Democrats to switch parties and opted to challenge Deal in the GOP primary.

State Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan of Austell soon announced her bid for the seat, but her support for a 2012 charter school push so unnerved Democrats that they tried to recruit a challenger. DeKalb Superintendent Michael Thurmond, a former state labor commissioner, rebuffed their offer last week.

A similar tension is playing out in the Senate race, where party leaders have tried to persuade Nunn’s lesser-known rivals to shift to another race. One of the candidates, Atlanta psychiatrist Branko Radulovacki, said he rejected advances at different times to run for secretary of state, insurance commissioner and labor commissioner.

The party has announced candidates for lieutenant governor and insurance commissioner, but both have struggled to raise campaign cash and gain traction. Porter said he’s confident he can draft “exceptional” candidates for the rest of the slate, which also includes the attorney general and the agricultural commissioner.

“Look at it this way: There’s a short game and there’s a long game. The short game is 2014. We may not win ‘em all, but we’re going to win some. Which is something no one thought we could do not too long ago,” Porter said. “And if we do it right, Georgia will be ready to swing to the Democrats in 2016.”

Still, that leaves Democrats at risk of not filling a full slate for the statewide offices, something that hasn't been done since Republicans failed to field a nominee for agriculture commissioner in 1994. (Libertarians, meanwhile, are set to tap their nominees at a convention Saturday.)

It’s hard to blame Democrats for shying from a down-ticket challenge. Midterm elections tend to drive lower turnout rates, making it harder to rev up supporters for low-profile races. That makes prospective candidates fear becoming campaign cannon fodder, Emory University political science professor Merle Black said.

“Republicans still have a statewide advantage in Georgia, especially Republican incumbents,” Black said. “So if you don’t have a famous last name and if you can’t raise a significant amount of money, it will still be an uphill battle for a Democrat in a statewide race.”

Nunn, for one, said it’s in the public’s best interest that she have plenty of company on the Democratic side of the ledger.

“The more people that get involved in the process, who are willing to raise their hand and throw themselves into the arena for public service, the better,” she said.