Georgia Democrats, with Stacey Abrams at the lead as the party’s new nominee for governor, are taking a sharp turn to the left. Abrams has maintained that it is a lost cause for Democrats to try to appeal to moderate GOP voters. Instead, she has made a case for persuading more left-leaning voters to go to the polls. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia Democrats test a more liberal comeback strategy

Georgia Democrats took a dramatic turn toward progressive policies in last week’s votes, part of a broader realignment that will reshape November’s election by shifting the party’s philosophy away from decades of centrist appeals.

The sharp tack to the left was headlined by Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor, who maintained that trying to appeal to moderate GOP voters was a lost cause — and won a sweeping mandate from her party to refocus its attention on policies that will energize left-leaning Georgians.

Elsewhere on the ballot, voters fed up with conventional party strategy also rewarded other progressive candidates who support fewer abortion restrictions, back gun control, press for gay rights, oppose illegal immigration crackdowns and push other policies once sidelined by top Democratic contenders.

That leftward lean is both thrilling and unnerving to Georgia Republicans, who are themselves moving more aggressively toward their conservative base. They’re thrilled because leaders believe Georgia is still a conservative state where voters will punish Democrats who can be painted as ideologically extreme, giving Republicans an advantage in the November general election.

That leftward lean is both thrilling and unnerving to Georgia 

“By wrapping themselves in the arms of Bernie Sanders and Nancy Pelosi, Stacey Abrams and the Democratic Party have shown their desire to raise taxes and grow government,” said state Rep. Trey Kelley, a Cedartown Republican. “Those values are as Georgian as drinking a Pepsi at a Mets game.”

But Republicans are unnerved because Democratic participation shot up in last week’s primary, signaling energy and possibly higher turnout for Democrats in November. For the first time in decades, Democrats came close to matching GOP ballots cast in the primary. And they outnumbered GOP voters in Gwinnett County, a longtime bastion of conservative support.

This map shows how Georgia primary voted by party in the 2018 gubernatorial primary election. 

“The enthusiasm on the left has a lot of people on my side of the game anxious,” said Todd Rehm, a Republican strategist.

“There may not be enough of a difference to make Abrams the next governor,” he said. “But a lot of folks who don’t work in this world don’t understand the effect it has on lower-level races. It’s a sea change for some of these.”

‘The center is shifting’

For some candidates, it was more like a tidal wave. Voters punished some Democrats with centrist records — and some liberals who got outflanked on their left.

State Rep. Darrel Ealum, who had a record of pro-gun support, was ousted. So was state Sen. Curt Thompson, an unabashed progressive who wanted to legalize marijuana — and was defeated by a populist immigrant from Bangladesh who called for a single-payer health care system.

Former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, an avowed centrist with a hefty fundraising advantage, barely avoided a runoff in the secretary of state’s race. And Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson eked out a narrow victory over a flashy challenger who painted him as too pragmatic.

They’re being pressed by frustrated voters who, in more than a dozen interviews at polling sites across metro Atlanta, insisted that Democrats take more aggressive action to fight GOP candidates.

Claudia Colichon, who works in public relations in Brookhaven, went to the polls Tuesday with one factor in mind: electing a “vocal progressive.” Terri Cowart said she cast her ballot for Democrats at a Smyrna polling site because “we need change at every level.”

Others described their votes as sending a message to the White House. Evan Rosen, a Dunwoody attorney, said he wanted an “anti-Trump” candidate who will “not just sit back and take the rise of fascism.” And Harold Arnold, a computer consultant, said he backed Abrams because he sensed a nationwide movement building.

“We’re going in the wrong direction,” Arnold said. “This will get the wheels turning, generate the energy for when the fall elections come.”

The votes came in droves. Democratic voter participation shot up by more than 20 percent compared with 2010 — the party’s last contested primary for governor — in five of the most densely populated counties: Chatham, Cobb, Douglas, Henry and Gwinnett.

The results were loud and clear to Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson: Democratic voters were rejecting “Republican lite” politics.

“What we saw Tuesday in spades is the sense that voters are looking for something authentic and people who are talking plain talk and progressive values,” said Tomlinson, a Democrat who briefly considered running for governor. “The center is shifting in Georgia, and we’re just now catching up to the shift.”

This map shows the shift in primary voters from the 2010 gubernatorial primary to the 2018 gubernatorial primary. 

‘Something new’

Nowhere is that shift more pronounced than at the top of the ticket, where Abrams won a decisive victory over former state Rep. Stacey Evans with a promise to be an “unapologetic progressive.”

The former state House minority leader’s platform includes a string of proposals that would have been unthinkable for top Georgia Democrats just four years ago. They include a ban on sales of assault rifles, the removal of Confederate faces from Stone Mountain and the reversal of a Republican-led income tax cut enacted earlier this year.

“The standard-bearers in 2014 ran the kind of campaign that made sense then. We’re in a different moment in 2018. We’re a different state, our demography has changed,” Abrams said in an interview. “We’re running on issues, and the issues that matter to Georgians are progressive value issues.”

Abrams is one of a record-setting number of female candidates — who mostly ran as Democrats — aiming for districts that hadn’t been seriously contested in years. Dozens of women running in state legislative races advanced in Tuesday’s vote. And women finished as the top Democratic vote-getters in many of the contested U.S. House seats by taking liberal positions on issues such as immigration, health care and opposing Trump’s policies.

“We still don’t know if it’s going to work,” said Lisa Ring, a former corrections officer who won her party’s nomination for a Savannah-based U.S. House seat. “But we do know that trying to appeal to that middle ground, those people that only want to hear a more conservative philosophy, has not worked over and over again. So we need to try something new.”

Still, some activists warn that other extraordinary measures are needed to win back statewide offices they haven’t held for more than a decade. Steve Reilly, a former 7th District congressional candidate, said candidates must appeal to voters in rural areas where Trump won by gaping margins.

“Things that appeal to them are going to be expansion of health care, which is so desperately needed in those areas, and our perspective on bolstering the economy,” he said.

‘Get our base out’

The Democratic pull is happening as Republicans ramp up base-pleasing conservative appeals.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who square off in a July 24 runoff for the GOP nomination for governor, have traded escalating pledges to adopt gun rights expansions, adopt tough new abortion restrictions and wage a war against illegal immigration.

And Republicans down the ticket have framed gun control proposals as a mortal threat to Second Amendment rights while embracing social legislation such as “religious liberty” measures like the one Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed in 2016.

The Republican race to the right in Georgia is not so novel as the Democratic dart to the left — GOP candidates have tried to outdo each other on conservative issues for decades — but it’s sharpened this year with explosive ads touting guns, chain saws and an ill-fated “deportation bus tour.”

“If you can’t get your base to support you, going out and trying to collect some other voters to come into your fold is going to be an impossible proposition for you,” said John Padgett, a former Georgia GOP chairman.

“We want to get all the people under the tent that we can,” he added, “but right now the main thing is to get our base out.”

Kemp offered a taste of that strategy when asked in an interview about the potential of going head-to-head with Abrams in November. Smiling, he said, “I think she’s way too extreme for the state of Georgia.”

Already, though, Democrats are trying to flip that script. Jason Carter, the party’s 2014 nominee for governor, centered his campaign on a plea to significantly boost school funding and expand Medicaid while hewing to more moderate positions on tax policy and gun control.

Even as Abrams takes positions Carter would never have embraced in 2014, he said, Republicans are veering even further off-course from Deal’s philosophy.

“For all the talk about Democrats moving to the left, the Republicans have moved so far to the right they’re unrecognizable,” Carter said.

“The question is whether decades-old Republican strategy will work in 2018 against this new type of candidate,” he added. “And I’m not betting against Stacey Abrams.”

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Staff writer Ben Brasch contributed to this article.