Georgia Dems stay on sidelines as presidential hopefuls ramp up focus

High-level Georgia Democrats greeted U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris with praise when she visited the state in March and rallied at Morehouse College. But they stopped short of endorsing her candidacy for president. For a number of reasons, Georgia Democrats are primarily in a wait-and-see mode at this stage of the 2020 race for the White House. Curtis Compton/

High-level Georgia Democrats greeted U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris with praise when she visited the state in March and rallied at Morehouse College. But they stopped short of endorsing her candidacy for president. For a number of reasons, Georgia Democrats are primarily in a wait-and-see mode at this stage of the 2020 race for the White House. Curtis Compton/

Delicate footwork was on display during U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris' recent visit to Georgia, her first since announcing her campaign for president. Many of the state's most prominent Democrats showered the Californian with praise and predicted a bright future — but stopped short of endorsing her.

That hesitation is playing out in Democratic circles across Georgia. With a growing field of presidential candidates, uneasiness about the coronation of Hillary Clinton in 2016 and the possibility that Stacey Abrams could enter the contest, Democratic leaders and rank-and-file party members are staying neutral.

Hardly any state elected officials have picked sides in the 2020 race, and Georgia’s top tier of Democratic figures is holding back. The same goes with the grassroots leaders that help shape the party’s direction from the local level.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reached out to more than 60 Democratic leaders at the county level and found the broad majority are in wait-and-see mode. Only one of the dozens of county chairmen who responded to the AJC’s requests had decided on a candidate.

“I saw what picking sides did in the 2016 election, when our party was bitterly divided between Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters,” said Ken Akins, the Democratic Party chairman in Lumpkin County. “Right now, I’m just waiting for one to stand out.”

Election 2020: Georgia Presidential candidate visit tracker

The Georgia presidential primary is still about a year away — it will likely be in early March — and the slate isn’t even set yet. But endorsements are an important measure of support amid what has been a chaotic start to the Democratic contest. And the lack of consensus shows how wide open the race remains in Georgia.

That’s important because some Democrats are wary of a repeat of the unrest that shaped the GOP ticket in 2016, when Donald Trump emerged from a similarly large field despite vocal opposition from many in his party.

The neutrality stands out compared with other states, particularly those holding early primaries where candidates trumpet lengthy lists of endorsements and the hiring of each operative. It also sharply differs from this point in the last presidential race, when many Georgia leaders had already staked out positions.

In that race, most of the state's Democratic establishment quickly rallied behind Clinton. Her position was so dominating that state Sen. Vincent Fort generated national headlines when he flipped from Clinton to Sanders, making him one of a handful of high-profile surrogates for the Vermont senator in the South.

In this one, few Democrats want to risk taking a stance this early, even if it means not reaping the rewards that come with being an early supporter of a candidate.

“From what I’ve seen, fewer people are drawing lines in the sand the way we saw with Sanders versus Clinton,” said Levi Barner of the Sumter County Democratic Party. “I think the most important criteria for many is that the candidate be able to beat Trump.”

Georgia Republicans, by and large, don't share the same indecision over Trump. No high-profile GOP official has disavowed the president, who is seeking a second term, and few have risked distancing themselves from him.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts waves to supporters during a rally at Central Gwinnett High School, becoming the first Democrat to hold a campaign event in Georgia this year after launching a presidential bid. Gwinnett Democrats are touting the county, with its diverse population, as the future of the party and a destination for its presidential candidates. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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A spate of visits

The indecision from Georgia’s left has not been for a lack of attention.

Unlike presidential elections in the recent past, when most Democratic candidates saw Georgia as little more than fertile fundraising ground, a string of announced candidates and would-be contenders have arrived in the state to start building the groundwork for their campaigns.

While it pales in comparison with how they’ve treated early-voting states, such as neighboring South Carolina, the White House hopefuls have held rallies, networked with local officials and raised cash. Two candidates, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, have made pilgrimages to Plains to visit former President Jimmy Carter. Another, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, drew a large crowd to Gwinnett County.

Each visit is accompanied by a reference to Abrams’ narrow defeat in November and Trump’s relatively tight 5 percentage-point victory here in 2016, which has given Democrats hope they can flip Georgia for the first time since Bill Clinton carried the state in 1992.

The candidates are believers, too. Abrams, Georgia’s most prominent Democrat, has met with a half-dozen so far, and each has agreed to two conditions before the sit-downs: She wants to hear 1) the candidate’s plan to combat voter suppression and 2) a vow to compete in Georgia.

The surge of attention means great risk and reward for local officials. Helping a contender win a key state such as Georgia could set politicos up for big-time appointments and clout in a future White House administration. But picking a candidate this early, when the race is so volatile, could also squander their influence.

Although several of Georgia’s leading Democrats have hosted fundraisers and visited with candidates, none have endorsed yet. Chief among them is Abrams, who could decide by the end of the month whether to run for the White House, focus on a U.S. Senate bid or prepare for a 2022 rematch against Gov. Brian Kemp. She’s flirted with all three races, but at an event last week she suggested the passage of new abortion restrictions in Georgia will play a role in her decision.

"Having watched what just happened on Friday," she said, referring to the legislative approval of a measure that would outlaw most abortions as early as six weeks, "I can't just let the idea of governor go yet."

There are a few early converts. Gary Day, the Democratic Party chairman in Clay County, picked South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, saying he admires his “background and intelligence.” Several others said they were torn between a few leading contenders.

Among them was Carroll County Chairman J.L. Biddle, who is leaning toward Harris and Buttigieg while trying not to rule out other candidates. Biddle, a teacher, is drawn to Harris’ pitch to raise teacher pay and Buttigieg’s economic message and military background.

“I love my party,” Biddle said, “but we can ill afford to polarize one another over our favorite candidate, especially with what Trump is doing to our country.”

LeWanna Heard, the Fulton County Democratic chairwoman, said her top pick hasn’t jumped in the race yet but that, so far, she’s leaning toward Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden.

"I have not selected a candidate yet, but I won't be on the sidelines once I do," she said. "I need to see the next two or three disclosures to see how well folks are fundraising and who the donors appear to be."

U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris, D-California, works the crowd after her speech while holding a campaign rally at Morehouse College on Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Atlanta. Harris is one of the first presidential candidates to visit Georgia in the 2020 cycle.Curtis Compton/

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‘Wait-and-see mode’

Harris entered that uneasy environment last month during visits to Ebenezer Baptist Church and a rally at Morehouse College.

At each of the stops, she was feted by some of the state's most prominent Democrats: Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, former 6th Congressional District candidate Jon Ossoff and state Rep. Bee Nguyen, among them.

And yet, while they showered her with praise, no endorsements were forthcoming from those figures. The highest-profile official to bestow her with his blessing was state Rep. Erick Allen, a first-term Democrat from a Cobb County-based district who applauded her knack for consensus.

Still, several inched right up to the line: Johnson, for one, hinted strongly at which candidate he was leaning toward.

“Isn’t it time for a woman to finally break through the glass ceiling of leadership? To be the most powerful politician in the free world?” he said, to cheers from the crowd of 3,000 or so. “She has stood tall as a vocal and determined fighter for all people.”

At that event and others, interviews with more than a dozen rank-and-file voters have echoed the indecision. Marissa Autumn, an Atlanta educator, said she considers the party’s pick almost an afterthought.

“We can’t rely on leaders. We never can. We have to organize ourselves,” she said. “We tell them what we want the policies to be — politely or not — and not wait for them to figure it out for us.”

Same for Asher Tobey, a Georgia State University student and former Abrams operative who was at a recent “thank-you” tour event for the Democrat in Atlanta. As attendees munched on finger foods and awaited Abrams, Tobey outlined his wish list for president.

“I want someone who has empathy, who has an American story, who has fought and clawed their way to the top,” he said. “But most importantly, I want someone with experience.

“Something big is going to happen. But we’re all in wait-and-see mode first.”

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