The disastrous midterm-election performance by Georgia Democrats has sparked a bitter debate inside the party about how to move forward in a state where Republicans have solidified their hold on state offices for the next four years.
Jason Carter’s and Michelle Nunn’s lopsided losses have set off a cascade of finger-pointing, a blame game that’s laid bare the fault lines of a fractured party still struggling to find a compelling message and strategy after more than a decade in political exile.
The debate pivots on two nagging questions: How the party can register hundreds of thousands of minority voters and newcomers to Georgia who have come from left-leaning states that Democrats see as essential to the party’s revival? And how it can attract white voters, a bloc that was once the backbone of the party’s support and now makes up less than a quarter of its votes?
Two leading Democratic figures are staking out firm positions in the debate. Their visions could shape the party’s direction for the rest of the decade.
The first is Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, the state’s top elected Democrat. Reed says the party didn’t do enough to reach out to black voters and criticized fellow partisans for not aligning themselves with national figures such as President Barack Obama.
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“When the President landed to visit the CDC. I was there to greet him,” Reed wrote in a recent tweet, an apparent reference to the absence of Carter and Nunn during that September visit. “That’s what a ‘true Democrat’ would do.”
The second is Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter who was soundly defeated by Gov. Nathan Deal. He made clear in an interview that he is considering another run, and he said the party needs a leader who can appeal to minority voters as well as whites.
“The debate about who we go after as Democrats is an absolutely false debate. Really, what Democrats have always done and always had to do is both,” Carter said. “We have to get more support in the white community, and we have to reach out and get more support in every other community, including the African-American community.”
A debate over direction
The debate is playing out against a stark backdrop for Democrats, who ran the state for more than a century until Republicans took the Governor’s Mansion in 2002 and soon gained control of the Legislature and all state offices.
Since then, Democrats have spent every post-election cycle trying to regain control. Many believed demographic changes and high-profile candidates would make November the start of their comeback.
But Carter and Nunn both suffered eight-point losses to Republicans, echoing a wave of Democratic defeats across the country. The entire slate of GOP statewide officials notched another four-year term. John Barrow, the Deep South’s last white Democrat in the U.S. House, was ousted. And U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a popular two-term GOP senator, announced Monday that he is seeking re-election in 2016, depriving Democrats of an open seat.
The crossfire that’s since erupted is about more than this month’s defeats. Georgia Democrats in February will gather to elect a chairman to a four-year term — a term that will not only preside over the 2016 presidential race here, but the 2018 race for governor as well.
The current leader, former state lawmaker DuBose Porter, was elected to a shortened term in August over Doug Stoner, an ex-state legislator supported by Reed and his allies. Porter announced this week that he’ll run again for a full four-year stint. Some party insiders expect a challenge to his bid.
Porter, for his part, said “there’s a lot to learn” from this cycle. He believes Democrats must educate voters on why state elections matter, strengthen the party’s roster of candidates and get out the vote.
In an email sent to state committee members on Wednesday, Porter encouraged the party to stay upbeat. “We didn’t win—and I’ll say it again—that stung like hell. But our loss should not mean that the party should fall apart, or that we should simply capitulate to the grandstanding opportunists who were counting on our defeat.”
One of the party’s sharpest critiques has come from Reed. The two-term mayor pointed to comments he made in June that between $3 million and $5 million should be spent to turn out the black vote, and he said Democrats should have gravitated toward Obama, despite his sour approval ratings in Georgia.
But some Democrats have accused Reed of not doing enough to help Carter, pointing to his close friendship with Deal.
Those divisions escalated last week when an anonymous robocall claimed Reed wasn’t a “true Democrat.” The mayor took to Twitter to attack members of his own party, and he released a lengthy statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution urging the party to rally around Obama.
“(Reed’s) post-mortem analysis is not a personal attack on Michelle Nunn or Jason Carter. It is a repudiation of campaign strategies that repeat the same mistakes cycle after cycle,” Reed spokeswoman Anne Torres said in the statement. “It is a repudiation of a party that backs away from President Obama and Democratic values.”
The rehashing is unlikely to end soon. State Sen. Vincent Fort has called for an autopsy of the electoral failures. He also said Reed’s icy embrace of Carter hurt the larger effort and noted that the mayor and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, another party leader, have a rocky relationship.
“Unity begins not just at elections, but it’s something that has to be focused on over time,” said Fort, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat. “I think both of these people are putting their personal ambitions before what is really important and what is best for constituents and best for the party.”
Georgia State University political scientist Steve Anthony, a longtime Democratic insider, said regardless of the strategy, how well Democrats performed against Republicans in this deeply red state could indicate the party’s chances in the future.
“The fact is I think Carter and Nunn did as well as anybody would’ve hoped to receive as a Democrat, and so what they received was almost a high water mark for now,” he said.
‘Build and build and build’
The start of the January legislative session offers the party a chance to turn political messaging into new policy proposals.
Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson wants Democrats to take full advantage. He said he supports a pivot aimed at middle-class voters, including proposals that push an increase in the minimum wage. Exit polls showed wide support for the initiative, which is not on Deal’s agenda.
“It’s easy to focus on the negatives of our opponents,” Henson said, “but we need to focus on the issues.”
Emory political scientist Michael Leo Owens said the current infighting isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It could force issues to the table that have otherwise been neglected.
“The Democratic Party in the state of Georgia needs to figure something out, for sure,” Owens said. “And I don’t think anyone would disagree with this — other than Republicans, of course.”
Carter, for one, sounded an optimistic note about the party’s future. He said he had no ill will toward Reed and that no shift in the party’s strategy this past year could have withstood a Republican tide that swept most of the nation. The Democratic Party’s rebuilding, he said, is more of a long slog than an instant turnaround.
Anthony said the party needs to recalibrate for what works for in Georgia and not just echo the national party. He believes Democrats should press a message of being pro-business fiscal conservatives in order to regain statewide control.
But he acknowledges that what matters is results.
“The only way you can prove anybody’s theory,” he said, “is to actually win.”