Georgia on Hillary Clinton’s general election radar

Georgia has quietly become part of Hillary Clinton’s general election plans, even as her campaign accelerates its focus on key primary states.

Clinton’s advisers won’t talk publicly about anything beyond the Democratic primary. But they are telling local politicos that Georgia is a “Tier Two” state. As in, it’s not a swing state, but it could be.

That’s a steep climb in a state that saw Democratic hopes rise on the backs of a legacy ticket for governor and U.S. Senate in 2014, only to see neither Jason Carter nor Michelle Nunn surpass 45.2 percent. Democrats, however, see new opportunity in big presidential-year turnout as the state’s demographics slowly shift their way.

Georgia has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since another Clinton won the state in 1992. For 2016, Georgia Democrats are eagerly hoping for — though not expecting — serious money and manpower.

“I don’t believe by any means Georgia has been eliminated from consideration for activity and investment in the general election,” said Gordon Giffin, former U.S. Ambassador to Canada under Bill Clinton and a longtime Georgia Democratic insider. “I don’t think we’ve been necessarily included either.”

Early campaign moves

Giffin helped stage a May 28 Hillary Clinton fundraiser in Atlanta, a quick closed-door appearance that was her only stop in Georgia this election cycle. Meanwhile, Clinton has repeatedly met with voters in the first states to vote in the primary: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

The Clinton campaign has hired a full-time staff member in Georgia, Ramone Rushing, and staged eight organizing meetings across the state, in what is billed as a play for Georgia’s Democratic primary but could be general election spadework, too.

Clinton’s director of state campaigns and political engagement, Marlon Marshall, and senior policy advisor Jake Sullivan also have traveled to Atlanta to brief Georgia Democrats on campaign strategy.

According to attendees at the meetings, the Clinton campaign has carved out three tiers for general election states. Swing states such as Ohio are atop the list, while states solidly for one party or the other are in the third tier.

Georgia, according to Democrats who have spoken with the Clinton campaign, is now in the middle tier. It is not a guaranteed swing state, but could become one if the race tightens.

Clinton spokesman Tyrone Gayle reiterated that the campaign is not focused on the general election, but rather Clinton aims to “run hard in early primary and caucus states and not take anything for granted.”

A two-decade GOP streak

Bill Clinton won Georgia in 1992 with 43 percent of the vote in a three-way race. But Republican presidential hopefuls have captured the state each time since. In 2008 Barack Obama made a late spending push with surging African-American turnout to reach 47 percent, the high-water mark for Democratic presidential candidates since former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.

In 2014, Democrats raised millions of dollars from across the country to register and turn out voters, but still fell well short.

“Obviously, Georgia Democrats can’t take the hint: 2014 was a shellacking,” said Georgia Republican Party spokesman Ryan Mahoney.

In the Republican presidential primary, the wide-open field means Georgia and other states voting in the March 1 “SEC Primary” become valuable targets. So far this year, GOP hopefuls (or expected candidates) Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Mike Huckabee all have cruised through Georgia.

“That translates into stronger coalitions being built out,” Mahoney said. “And when it comes time for a nominee, you’re going to have people who are trained and who are used to working the phones and working the doors to push our nominee across the finish line.

“When you can press the flesh with someone who can be a potential president, it fires you up.”

Mahoney said the state party is focused on fund-raising and already has opened an Augusta satellite office, continuing the path it followed to success in 2014.

Clinton also has foes to her left, as some local Democrats are waging a long-shot battle to defeat her for the nomination. Zaid Jilani was among a crowd of about 130 activists who showed up at Manuel’s Tavern for an early June organizing meeting in support of Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Jilani said he’s frustrated that the Clintons appear to try to have it both ways - they want to reform Wall Street and fix income inequality, he said, but remain close with some of the financial industry’s biggest heavyweights.

“I’d say that’s how people supporting Bernie feel,” said Jilani, a long-time progressive activist. “We need someone for president who has no desire to please the ultra-wealthy who have taken over both our politics and the economy.”

Paul Troop is planting the seeds in Georgia for a Draft Joe Biden campaign in support of the vice president. He contends Biden, a former U.S. senator who has danced around a potential candidacy, would bring more to the table than Clinton but also improve her candidacy.

“We’re perfectly happy with Hillary,” said Troop, a retired reporter and former state House candidate. “We just think Joe is better. It’s important for the party to have a number of highly qualified candidates, because you know things can change on a dime.”

Shifting numbers

Democrats in Georgia have long talked up the state’s changing demographics as an avenue to breaking Republicans’ dominance in statewide elections, considering that growing numbers of younger and minority voters lean their way. But it takes significant funding to find and turn out those voters in numbers big enough to overcome Democrats’ deficits at the ballot box.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said he thinks Clinton’s appeal to women makes her a stronger candidate in Georgia than Obama. And because the state has not been tapped by a sophisticated get out the vote operation, like the Obama campaign unleashed in North Carolina and elsewhere, Reed argued Georgia has a lot of potential.

One argument against Georgia as a general election battleground is that Clinton does not need it, with so many avenues to 270 electoral votes along the path Obama trod twice. Reed turned that on its head.

“If Hillary Clinton wins Georgia, for all effective purposes, the presidential campaign is over,” he said. “So while some may make the argument that it is a high risk, it falls into the category of the juice being worth the squeeze.”

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