Georgia Democrats focus on bringing together Clinton, Sanders backers

For the past month, Georgia Republicans have struggled to get behind their party’s presumptive pick for president even after he clinched the nomination. Now Democrats are grappling with a similar challenge.

Hillary Clinton soared past the 2,383 delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination Tuesday, winning a majority of pledged and unpledged delegates, the popular vote and most of the states that held primaries.

Yet Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ vow to fight to the July nominating convention puts Clinton in the prickly position of trying to embrace his mostly younger, liberal and white supporters without alienating a wave of foot soldiers she’ll need in the November contest against Donald Trump.

Clinton took Georgia’s Democratic primary by nearly three-quarters of the vote in March. But winning over Sanders’ supporters will be essential for the party to have any shot at turning the state blue in November.

The stakes are large for Georgia Democratic officials beyond November. They need to harness the enthusiasm that drew young voters to Sanders to grow the party — and have a shot at winning back statewide positions.

“The Democratic tent is a big tent,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, a longtime Clinton supporter, “and the young people with energy, commitment and dedication should be there.”

Millennial trust

The question is whether those young voters will flock to Clinton’s campaign as enthusiastically as they joined Sanders. A range of national polls show many millennials say they can’t trust her, a problem that could dampen Democratic turnout.

The party has also faced internal divisions that have hampered its outreach efforts in recent years.

“There’s a great possibility we could line up behind Clinton,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, Sanders’ top surrogate in Georgia. “But a lot of it depends on what happens with the issues that Bernie and his supporters have talked about for the last year — getting Wall Street under control, universal health care, a higher minimum wage. That’s what’s critical.”

Trump sees an opportunity. Like Sanders, he’s spent much of his campaign thundering against a party establishment that he says is more interested in self-preservation than sweeping changes.

“To all of those Bernie Sanders voters who have been left out in the cold by a rigged system of superdelegates, we welcome you with open arms,” Trump said.

Even as Sanders’ chances of winning the nomination dwindled last month, dozens of his backers rallied at Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta to press for his populist policies to live on beyond his presidential campaign.

“Bernie never wanted to become president,” said Ramsses Cobos, who helped organize the rally. “His run for the presidency was a tactical move to gain more media attention on issues that are always getting ignored by the media.”

Cobos and others take heart that Clinton seemed more receptive to Sanders’ press to raise the minimum wage — just not as high as the $15 level that he wanted — and other populist policies.

“Whether he wins or loses,” Cobos said, “his task has been accomplished: the awakening of this country.”

How to unify

Every Georgia Democrat seems to hold a different opinion about what the task of unifying will take.

U.S. Rep. David Scott, a Democrat from Atlanta and a longtime Clinton supporter, said the former secretary of state and the Georgia Democratic Party need to fine-tune their messaging and focus on policy issues that animate voters who sometimes sit out elections, including job training, the military and caring for veterans.

“Say what you will about Donald Trump … but he’s saying ‘I’m going to do something’ ” on issues such as border security and fighting the Islamic State, Scott said.

“Hillary has got to do the same thing,” Scott said. “We Democrats have got to say ‘this is what we want to do.’ ”

Scott said focusing on job training in particular can help energize male African-American voters, a group that has at times contributed to low voter turnout.

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, an Albany Democrat who never endorsed Clinton, said focusing on issues near and dear to Democrats such as health care and voting rights will help bridge the party’s divide.

“Look at all of the issues with which we’re faced. It’s a clear choice, and I think that people who are thoughtful will reflect on that and realize just how much this election matters,” said Bishop, who says he will support his party’s nominee.

Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist who supports Clinton, said outreach to Sanders’ supporters should begin as soon as possible.

“Georgia party leadership should totally start the communications with the Bernie Sanders supporters now so that once the convention is over there will be a meeting of the minds and philosophies that will happen to discuss what policies and what issues should be at the forefront in our grass-roots efforts to secure votes in November,” said Johnson, who helped lead Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign in the South.

In the hours after Clinton appeared to clinch the nomination, the White House announced Obama would meet with Sanders on Thursday “to continue their conversation about the significant issues at stake in this election that matter most to America’s working families.”

“The biggest fear is that Sanders’ supporters stay home, not that they’ll support Donald Trump. And a lot hinges on what happens with Obama’s visit Thursday with Sanders,” said Barry Balleck, a Georgia Southern University political scientist. “Does he want to be seen as an elder statesman or a spoiler? The ball is in his court.”