Fearing another bruising primary, Democrats seek to clear field

With a tantalizing shot at a rare open U.S. Senate seat, Georgia Democrats are considering a political strategy that could upend the electoral landscape ahead of next year’s election.

Party leaders are debating ways to avoid a primary fight to boost their chances of picking up the seat held by retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. After decades in power, Democrats are confronting a thinner political bench and fewer resources to wage campaigns in a state that has swung more conservative.

Yet not everyone within the party is comfortable with the prospect of anointing candidates, and political ambition can prove impossible to tame. Some hope shifting demographics could soon boost the party’s chances no matter how crowded the primaries are. Indeed, one well-known Democrat is openly talking of flouting the state party’s hopes.

Even so, party Chairman Mike Berlon said he’s through with the “collateral damage” of painful past primaries where top Democrats savaged each other only to lose to a Republican in November. He sees it as a way to conserve already strained resources needed to organize voters and broadcast the party’s message.

Two Democrats considering a Senate bid, U.S. Rep. John Barrow of Augusta and Michelle Nunn, the chief executive of a nonprofit and daughter of ex-Sen. Sam Nunn, are expected to soon meet with each other to talk about their options. Other prominent Democrats are discussing a political action committee aimed at supporting rising stars.

“We’ve had too many incidences where we’ve run Democrats against each other, spent a lot of money and then had nothing to show for it,” said Berlon, who hopes that meetings such as the one he will attend Tuesday night will advance the new strategy. “If you’re the party on the rise like we are, resources still aren’t plentiful. We have to do more with less and make sure we have the right candidates.”

Democrats need not look too far back for stinging reminders of past primary battles, including bruising fights in 2006 and 2010 for their party’s ultimately failed quests for the governor’s office.

One of the most frustrating battles for Democrats was between Jim Martin and Vernon Jones for the party’s nomination in 2008 to run against Chambliss for his Senate seat. Martin barely squeaked by Jones in a runoff only to fall to Chambliss in another runoff months later.

Now Jones, a former DeKalb chief executive, has signaled he may run again — whether the party wants it or not.

“There’s gonna be a battle in 2014,” said Jones, who also lost a congressional bid in 2010. “My powder is dry, my musket is clean and I have a satchel full of bullets. And I’m not gonna shoot until I see the white of their eyes. Stay tuned.”

Georgia’s changing demographics give Democrats hope that the state could shift from solidly conservative to somewhere in between by 2020, as the number of black and Hispanic voters — groups that typically vote for Democrats — continue to increase.

With Chambliss’ retirement, several high-profile Republicans are expected to eventually run in a crowded primary that is making some in the party nervous. While confident they will hold the seat, some Republicans are concerned about a bloody primary.

Rusty Paul, a lobbyist and former Georgia GOP chairman, pointed to recent races in states such as Missouri and Indiana where arch-conservative Republican Senate candidates faltered.

“We have shown that there is the possibility that we can do dumb stuff in the course of the primary that makes it impossible for us to win in the fall,” Paul said. “… We can make our points, but we can’t burn bridges.”

Analysts agree that a stridently conservative nominee such as U.S. Rep. Paul Broun of Athens could increase the chances that voters elect a moderate Democrat.

“As much as Republicans have dominated Georgia in recent years, when they look at the changing demographics, you can’t assume that Georgia will be a safe Republican state and they can do anything they want,” said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist. “And the Democratic leaders are praying that Paul Broun is the nominee.”

Even if Broun does not win, his mere presence in the race works in Democrats’ favor, they argue.

“When the most conservative candidate doesn’t win, they [primary winners] emerge badly wounded,” said Matt Canter, deputy executive director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “They’re broke. And they’ve usually taken on right-wing positions that they wouldn’t have taken on had they not had gone through a primary.”

Canter said Georgia and Kentucky are the two states that could offer national Democrats a pickup opportunity going into a year in which they are playing a lot of defense.

Seven 2014 Senate races are in Democrat-held seats in states that Republican Mitt Romney won in last year’s presidential race, and an open seat in Iowa will be another difficult hold. According to an analysis by Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, President Barack Obama took just 46.6 percent of the vote on average in the states where there are contested Senate seats next year.

But because most of the key states have inexpensive media markets, Canter said national Democrats will have plenty of money to spend to try to flip Georgia.

For Democrats in Georgia and Washington, that mission starts with a strong, consensus candidate. It will also require big spending, as some analysts have projected spending on the Senate campaign could surpass $10 million.

That will put further strain on the state Democratic Party. The organization reported roughly $150,000 in cash on hand in January and faces competition for donors from upstart groups such as Better Georgia, a guerrilla outfit created by progressives with the goal of harassing the GOP establishment.

Records released in March show the party has substantially less money, about $20,000, in a pot of money primarily devoted to federal contests, though that figure often fluctuates in years where there’s not a federal election.

Republicans, meanwhile, enjoy a healthy financial advantage. State records show the Republican Party of Georgia had about $850,000 cash on hand in January, and roughly $740,000 in the account for federal contests.

Democrats have talked of clearing the field before to little effect. This time, Berlon has been quietly laying the framework for the plan for months. Aside from Barrow and Nunn, several other candidates are in the mix for possible higher office, including state Rep. Scott Holcomb, state Sen. Jason Carter and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed also could have his sights set on something bigger, but he has said it will not be in 2014.

“If someone really wants to run, we’re not going to stop them,” Berlon said. “But if someone literally has no chance, we’ve got to tell them that. If we finally have a system where elections are planned out, that’s when we’re going to turn the corner.”

Holcomb, the Atlanta Democrat often mentioned as a statewide candidate, said the party’s uphill challenges in 2014 call for this unconventional strategy.

“We’re running into a headwind in 2014,” Holcomb said. “If the party can unite behind a strong candidate, that will save a lot of money for November. Our greatest hope is to see some really nasty primaries on the Republican side that provide us with an opening.”

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