State Sen. Nikema Williams, left, talks with Stacey Abrams on Saturday shortly before she was elected chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer
Photo: Steve Schaefer

Georgia Democrats pick a new leader after setting a new course

The chants erupted almost as soon as state Sen. Nikema Williams was elected Saturday to become the first black woman to lead the Democratic Party of Georgia: “Fired up, ready to go.”

The party’s annual convention represented a passing of the baton from one of the last rural white Democrats to hold high office in Georgia to a young black woman with a background steeped in activism who represents one of the state’s most liberal legislative districts.

And it was a symbol of a larger shift in Georgia Democratic politics, away from the more moderate approaches of past decades and toward a more liberal, and confrontational, stance that reflects a base infuriated by President Donald Trump and Gov. Brian Kemp.

“I’ve knocked on doors. I made calls. And, y’all, I even went to jail fighting for our values,” Williams said. “We have to build upon the successes we had with Stacey Abrams in 2018 because she should be our governor.”

The party wants to build on a spate of upsets that sent Republicans in retreat across Atlanta’s suburbs last year with a group of younger leaders with a message tailored around voting rights, Medicaid expansion and economic inequality.

They’re eager to keep up the pressure after an exhausting midterm vote that ended with Kemp’s narrow victory and another GOP sweep of statewide offices — but also a string of Democratic legislative wins across north metro Atlanta capped by flipping a U.S. House seat.

Republicans aren’t sitting still. Top Georgia GOP operatives see their party in a crucible moment, much like what state Democrats faced during the early 1990s, with a choice between adapting to a changing electorate or trying to wring out as many votes as possible from the existing coalition.

Veteran party leaders concede the playbook Kemp used to win in 2018 with a rural-focused strategy likely won’t fly in 2020. The hiring last week of a new state GOP executive director came with a mandate from the party’s chairman: “Build, build, build.”

“2018 was a wake-up call for any Republican with their head in the sand,” said Jeremy Brand, a top Kemp adviser. “Democrats are mobilized and will remain so. Republicans have to perform even better than 2018 by engaging voters, organizing supporters and delivering real results — not divisiveness — for Georgians.”

For Georgia voters, it means the past two years of hyperpartisan politicking may have just been a taste of what’s to come over the next two years. Both parties are starting early to define their message — and cast the other as ineffective, corrupt or just plain wrong.

There’s good reason for both parties to start preparing now. With the 2020 presidential race looming, Georgia seems assured of being a battleground state, bringing more money and attention to the state’s politics — and its 16 coveted electoral votes — than ever before.

And for Democrats, whose ranks were thinned by two decades of defeats, the rebuilding effort got a refresh Saturday, when party officials elected a new set of leaders — including many with no link to the more moderate roots of Georgia Democrats of yesteryear.

It meant the farewell of DuBose Porter, a newspaper publisher from Dublin who had positioned himself as a bridge between the party’s rural roots and its more liberal Atlanta base, openly talking about his changing views on issues such as gay marriage and gun control.

And it brought Williams to the forefront after an eventful year. First elected to the Legislature in 2017, she was a top Abrams ally who gained national attention when she was arrested in December while taking part in a “count every vote” demonstration at the statehouse.

On Saturday, she was overwhelmingly elected party chairwoman after a pledge to “constantly let people know how Brian Kemp is failing us” — and a promise to create a year-round field operation to lay the groundwork early for 2020.

The new Ohio?

Georgia Democrats have predicted the same sort of electoral upheaval ahead of every November election, expecting that changing demographics and disgust with Republican policies would blend to paint Georgia blue for the first time since Bill Clinton’s 1992 win over President George H.W. Bush.

Back in 2016, every time a Georgian faced the cameras at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, he or she promised the state was on the verge of flipping. It was not: Trump won Georgia by 5 percentage points, though his victory was tighter than many projected.

Still, neither campaign saw Georgia as a battleground, and thus the state was spared the blitz of media attention, TV ads and rallies that besieged Florida, North Carolina and Ohio.

Now, though, even the most battle-hardened Republican operatives acknowledge Georgia is nearing swing-state status, with Abrams’ strong showing in November’s race for governor and a suburban washout that swept Democrat Lucy McBath to victory over U.S. Rep. Karen Handel.

“The midterm strategy ran up the numbers in rural Georgia, but that’s not sustainable in the long range. And everyone knows that,” said Jason Shepherd, the GOP chairman of Cobb County, once a Republican stronghold that Democrats have carried the past two election cycles.

“We need significant resources poured into the metro Atlanta area. We concentrated on rural Georgia — almost to the detriment of Atlanta. And we got shellacked,” Shepherd said. “We are becoming Ohio — a swing state. I’m not sure it’s a realignment, but there’s something going on.”

And some Republican candidates are getting an early jump. Just weeks after McBath’s win, state Sen. Brandon Beach announced he would challenge her. One reason the Alpharetta Republican is starting this early — even before Handel decides whether to run again — is to prepare for a supercharged competition.

“I can win this,” said Beach, who long led the local chamber of commerce. “The Democrats worked for years to win this seat — and they did. I’m going to start early and win it back.”

Democrats are rallying around Abrams, who is publicly debating whether to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue next year or seek a 2022 rematch against Kemp. She kicked off a “thank you” tour last week in Albany that was seen partly as a testing ground for a Senate bid and partly as a way to keep Democrats energized.

“We have proven that Georgia is not about to be a battleground state. We are at war right now,” she told about 200 supporters who crowded into a downtown diner. “It’s time for folks to show up and fight with us.”

‘Pushing back’

That work is already well underway on both sides of the aisle.

Republicans plan to recalibrate their message, hopeful that Kemp’s teacher pay raise proposal and his early focus on economic issues rather than social ones resonates with voters.

“We expect every statewide election to be closely fought,” state GOP Chairman John Watson said. “Right now we are focused on sound policies, not socialism, and growing our political base and resources from people who actually live in Georgia.”

Democrats hope to consolidate their gains in the suburbs while picking up ground in GOP territory. The party has launched training programs to recruit leaders and build operations in counties long abandoned, helped by a lengthy voting list stockpiled with supporters from the midterms.

And party activists are connecting those efforts to a focus on voter protection by recruiting poll watchers and dialing up new efforts to combat what they see as efforts to intimidate or suppress voters, whether it be long lines or precinct closures.

In conservative-leaning Fayette County, Democrats have established a community-based approach to mobilize supporters, offering a steady diet of book clubs and social gatherings to go along with politicking and candidate recruitment efforts.

“We’ve tried to turn our headquarters into a vibrant center of the progressive community in Fayette County,” said Leonard Presberg, a school board member and chairman of the local party.

“We’re pushing back on the narrative that there are no Democrats in Fayette County, that Democrats here just want to be quiet and keep their heads down,” Presberg said.

That ties to a more aggressive approach by Democrats who are stepping up their attacks on Perdue as he prepares for a pitched re-election fight while also trying to deny Kemp any sense of a honeymoon period even as he attempts a more conciliatory approach.

That was on display last week at a statehouse memorial for Martin Luther King Jr., an annual event that’s often resolutely apolitical. Not so this year, just five days into Kemp’s stint as governor, as a string of speakers lobbed not-so-subtle criticism toward the Republican as he sat in the front row.

The fiercest came from former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who blasted a trifecta of policies Kemp made central to his campaign: his ad promising to “round up criminal illegals myself,” his pledge to sign a “religious liberty” measure and his vow to pass the nation’s toughest abortion restrictions.

She ended her speech by imploring her allies to take a page from King’s playbook: The civil rights leader was not afraid to “make leaders and everyday people uncomfortable,” she told a room crowded with politicians.

“And we shouldn’t either.”

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