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Georgia Democrats struggle for a path forward after election

Georgia House Minority Leader, Stacey Abrams. KENT D. JOHNSON/kdjohnson@ajc.com
Georgia House Minority Leader, Stacey Abrams. KENT D. JOHNSON/kdjohnson@ajc.com

Ever since Hillary Clinton’s surprising defeat last month, Rebecca DeHart’s inbox has been flooded by messages with the same lament.

“They all say, ‘I wish I had done more,” DeHart, the state party’s executive director, recently told nearly 200 frustrated Democrats still licking their wounds after Donald Trump’s win at a post-election gathering.

It has been a brutal reckoning for the party. Sidelined for more than a decade, Democrats are no closer to regaining control of the Georgia Legislature than they were two years ago, when they had high hopes of flipping about a half-dozen state legislative seats. Or than they were two years before that. Or two years before that.

The Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, businessman Jim Barksdale, mustered just 41 percent of the vote despite pumping more than $3 million of his own fortune into his campaign.

And Democrats have no clear leader – and more importantly, no unified direction – as Republicans prepare for their twelfth legislative session in a row with complete control of all of the gears of power in Georgia.

“It was a wake-up call in retrospect,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat. “We made some gains, but there were some strategic errors.”

Tug of war

The internal debate echoing in Georgia mirrors the fight in other states swept by Trump in November.

Do Democrats adapt a lesson from Trump’s victory and craft policies to appeal to working-class white voters who helped the GOP run up the score in rural and exurban areas?

Or do they try to expand the coalition of younger, diverse voters and suburban moderates who helped the party capture the long-held Republican strongholds of Cobb and Gwinnett counties in November’s presidential vote?

That tug-of-war will likely play out among Democrats in January when the legislative session starts, and reverberate the next two years as voters prepare to decide a wide-open contest for governor and a slew of down-ticket seats up for grabs.

It is a particularly tense time for Democrats, who recognize that they probably won’t be able to stop Republicans from drawing legislative districts that favor their candidates for the 2020s if they falter in 2018.

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who is likely to run for governor in 2018, is among the Georgia Democrats who contend a shift to the left could help the party regain its mojo, even though the word "liberal" has long been considered a slur in Statehouse politics.

Minority voters make up about 40 percent of the state’s electorate, but they don’t pack the same punch at the polls. Case in point: Fewer than half of registered African-American men cast ballots this year.

The voter registration group Abrams started, the New Georgia Project, aims to persuade 800,000 unregistered minority Georgians to sign up to vote by 2024. She said the party will focus next year on boosting funding for schools in poverty-stricken areas and continue to push for the expansion of Medicaid - two issues popular with the party’s base.

“We need to demand from Republicans: What are you going to do about the healthcare crisis that’s facing Georgia?” she said.

Other party luminaries have decidedly different strategies.

Former state Sen. Jason Carter, the party's 2014 candidate for governor, centered his unsuccessful campaign on a bid to win 30 percent of the white vote. He supported a broad expansion of gun rights and crisscrossed rural Georgia with promises to amp up education funding and attract more economic development.

Some Democrats say the party can learn a lesson from Trump’s victory - and recapture more working-class white voters - by tailoring economic and education policies toward a broader audience.

“They need to make sure they concentrate more on the economic message,” said Roy Barnes, the last Democratic governor in Georgia. “And they need to make sure they understand that economic message starts with education and the support of public education.”

The party’s path forward could also hinge on what it chooses to block, such as widespread Democratic opposition to Gov. Nathan Deal’s failing-schools plan, which was routed at the polls in November. U.S. Rep. John Lewis said Democrats should carefully pick and choose their battles, starting with a fight against immigration crackdowns that Trump has promised.

“My philosophy is very simple,” said Lewis. “There’s no such thing as an illegal human being.”

Another year in the minority

Still, the party was caught flat-footed by Trump’s victory, and hopes of convincing Georgia Republicans to accept Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act or embrace other Democratic policies faded.

Clinton came closer to flipping Georgia than any Democrat since her husband in the 1990s, but she was shellacked outside of the larger cities. Black voters in Atlanta and other urban pockets didn’t support her as enthusiastically as Barack Obama, and her campaign’s decision to largely bypass Georgia meant millions of dollars that could have been showered on the party’s grassroots apparatus were spent elsewhere.

Now instead of leveraging Democratic control of the White House and the U.S. Senate – as many polls and pundits predicted – Georgia Democrats will be forced to play the same role they have for years: Uniting to try to resist some GOP measures or extracting concessions for their support.

“There’s nothing more liberating than being an absolute minority party with no power to bring people together toward a unified agenda,” said Charlie Harper, a conservative columnist and founder of the GeorgiaPol.com blog. “The most frustrating part will be that the people that have all the power have united to go in an entirely different direction.”

Beyond the party’s limited number of stars, there are only a handful of credible candidates for the down-ticket races. Among the party’s most devastating defeats was the narrow loss by state Rep. Taylor Bennett, a former Georgia Tech quarterback seen as one of the state’s most promising Democratic politicians.

Leslie Small, the head of the left-leaning Georgia Engaged advocacy group, said a certain gallows humor has taken root. He played on a high school football team that never won a single game and the string of defeats, he said, is a hard-fought reminder to seek silver linings in an otherwise brutal season.

“As long as you build upon those, it makes you cherish your wins even more,” said Small. “We didn’t win the ultimate objective, but we had a lot of small victories.”

One of those bright spots is the party's growth in long-held Republican bastions ringing Atlanta. In Gwinnett County, which went for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1976, two history-making politicians are poised to become leaders of the future.

Brenda Lopez won a Norcross-based House district and will become the first Latina to serve in the General Assembly. And Sam Park's defeat of a Republican incumbent in a Lawrenceville-centered district makes him the first openly gay man elected to the state Legislature.

Park has a simple remedy for his party’s struggles: stand for positive change.

“People want something to vote for, not something to vote against,” he said.