Democrats try to convince nationals that Georgia is worth fighting for

Katie Leslie contributed to this report.

State Democrats on Saturday gave their leader a resounding vote of confidence. Now DuBose Porter’s next task is to convince the national party that Georgia is worth a fight.

The vote at the party’s annual convention ensures that Porter will chair the Democratic Party of Georgia during next year’s presidential election and the wide-open statewide contests in 2018.

His stewardship will help determine whether Hillary Clinton or another Democratic presidential candidate decides to contest Georgia next year, or concedes the state’s 16 electoral votes as President Barack Obama did in 2012.

“We’re going to show what we’ve been doing here to convince the rest of the nation that Georgia is going to be competitive,” Porter, a 61-year-old newspaper publisher from Dublin, said in an interview. “We’ve gone from red to purple, and the next phase is to get that to blue.”

To Republicans, though, the November mid-term elections were proof that Georgia remains a deep shade of red. Despite polls predicting a tight race, Gov. Nathan Deal and Senate candidate David Perdue defeated their Democratic rivals by an eight-point margin. The Georgia GOP now hopes to boost that gap by investing in new technology and grassroots efforts.

“Democrats think they can turn Georgia blue?” asked Ryan Mahoney, a Georgia GOP spokesman. “We say, ‘keep dreaming.’”

Porter, a one-time leader of House Democrats, helped recruit a full slate of statewide candidates led by Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter, two youthful figures with brand-name political legacies. After Republicans swept November’s election, retaining every statewide office and commanding majorities in the state Legislature, the state Democratic Party was wracked by infighting.

Some questioned whether the party was vigorous enough in its outreach to minority voters. Others questioned the use of a flier that invoked the shooting in Ferguson, Mo. Still others said Nunn and Carter should have more forcefully embraced Obama and his policies.

Porter, though, said the stream of polls before the election predicting a tight contest proves that the state is inching away from the Republican Party, despite the final tally. Like other Democrats, he contends that shifting demographics, including an influx of minorities, will boost the party’s fortunes in the future.

He’s started the rebuilding process by hiring a new political director, Richard McDaniel, who was a top aide to Nunn’s Senate campaign and a former Obama operative. McDaniel is tasked with filling gaps in the party’s grass-roots organizations, from booming suburbs where the GOP holds sway to rural enclaves where support for Democrats has evaporated.

“We have gaps in our county party system, and we have to build a lot of our relationships back,” Porter said. “There are a lot of places in the state where people say they aren’t Democrats but support our policies. And that could make us competitive in the presidential race.”

He must also drum up an opponent to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, the Republican seeking a third term next year, and lay the groundwork for the 2018 contest that includes an open governor’s seat and other offices that could be left vacant. Carter and Nunn, allies of Porter’s, have both left open the possibility of a return to politics.

Simmering tension

Porter took office in 2013 after Mike Berlon resigned in June amid mounting legal problems and growing push-back from activists upset with the party’s 2012 performance. Porter’s victory was a rebuke of powerful party leaders, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and former Gov. Roy Barnes, who endorsed his opponent.

Reed said in a Friday interview in Atlanta that he will focus his efforts on serving as a member of the Democratic National Convention’s executive committee.

“I don’t have any advice for him,” he said of Porter. “I’ve made it clear about how I feel about DuBose’s leadership, and I wish him the best.”

There were rumblings about a fresh challenge this year after Reed said the party's electoral defeats shouldn't be rewarded by keeping the same leadership team intact. But Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson, a Reed ally, opted against a challenge, and the mayor has stayed on the sidelines as much of the Democratic establishment rallied around Porter.

Still, the GOP sweep of 2014 will not be soon forgotten. State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, has asked for an independent analysis of what went wrong during the election. Supporters of Rockdale Tax Commissioner R.J. Hadley, who finished a distant second to Porter on Saturday, said the results speak for themselves. The vote was 141-92.

“Support, inclusion and having access to viable resources are a must,” said Liz Johnson, the party’s nominee for insurance commissioner last year. “Others haven’t provided these necessary components to victory.”

At Saturday’s convention, Porter talked of the hurdles the state party has cleared since he took office, from stabilizing the party’s bank accounts to recruiting a slate of candidates. He also pointed to the Democratic National Committee’s decision to hold meetings in Atlanta last year as a measure of the national party’s optimism about Georgia.

“That signals they realize that the opportunity for turning something purple to blue is there,” Porter said. “And that groundwork begins right now.”