Republican candidates in Georgia and across the nation are seizing on the positions of liberal lawmakers such as U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and trying to cast their Democratic opponents in the upcoming elections, even the moderates, as socialists. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: Emily Haney
Photo: Emily Haney

Georgia Republicans try to paint Democrats with wide ‘socialist’ brush

Republican Lynne Homrich launched her congressional campaign in Atlanta’s suburbs with a grainy video featuring two House freshmen who call themselves democratic socialists — and have become the GOP’s favorite new boogeywomen.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue used one of his first re-election rallies to declare “socialism will fail” if Republicans win.

Shaped by focus groups and sharpened by polls, state GOP candidates are seizing on soundbites from lawmakers in solidly Democratic states to paint candidates in Georgia, even the more moderate ones, as socialists.

They’re casting first-term U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib as the faces of the party and attacking their ideas on issues such as health care and climate change as extreme.

Gov. Brian Kemp and his allies used the same tactics last year to brand Stacey Abrams as out of the political norm. And Republicans have long tried to make House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the embodiment of all things Democrat.

But this election cycle, Georgia Republicans see an opportunity to turn the label of “socialist” into an even more potent weapon.

Introductory videos from some Republican candidates have focused as much on “socialist” adversaries as the candidates’ resumes. Speeches to small crowds are laced with threats of European-style government crossing the Atlantic. One candidate, a military veteran running for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, debuted with a promise to combat “domestic socialism.”

“I’m running for Congress because my family and I didn’t fight for our freedoms to allow our country to fall to socialism,” the Republican, Harrison Floyd, said in the clip. “I’ll fight socialists in Congress the same way I fought terrorists in the desert. So help me God.”

Will it work? Georgia Democrats, even the most liberal, don’t advocate for the policies that define socialism, such as the state ownership of resources and collective control over the means of production.

The GOP offensive, however, comes as several Democrats running for president push for policies that would scale up the federal role in sectors such as health care and higher education. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to establish a single-payer health care system. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed eliminating tuition and fees at public colleges. Some Republicans think those liberal policy positions strengthen their hand, making it easier to rally support from the right.

‘Save the country’

For now, Georgia Democrats often choose to ignore Republicans’ “socialist” attacks or laugh them off entirely.

Democratic strategist Howard Franklin said Republicans currently have an opening on the messaging front because Democrats are searching for a standard-bearer for president. But that will quickly change, he said.

“I think a lot of the lack of clarity around which issues the Democratic Party really stands for or advocates for will really fall by the wayside once we nominate our candidate for president, or at least narrow the field to two or three serious contenders,” Franklin said.

Still, Democrats’ leftward shift has been a messaging gift for Republicans.

The GOP was hammered for its Obamacare repeal effort ahead of the midterm elections, and its signature legislative accomplishment, the tax overhaul, wasn’t resonating with voters as much as party leaders would have liked.

But Democrats’ diverse freshman class, which included self-identified Democratic Socialists such as Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib, gave the GOP an opportunity to go on offense.

Proposals such as “Medicare for all” and the Green New Deal have fired up young liberal voters, and Democratic Party leaders have been wary of angering them ahead of a tricky presidential election. At the same time, leaders are focused on shielding the more than two-dozen Democratic freshmen running for re-election next year in districts Trump won, such as Marietta’s U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath.

Republicans are exploiting that chasm by dialing up the pressure on McBath and other vulnerable freshmen to answer for the most controversial comments made by many of their more liberal colleagues.

In recent weeks, GOP leaders on Capitol Hill have taken things a step further, teeing up floor votes designed to embarrass Democrats on their colleagues’ own proposals. U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe, is trying to force a vote in the House on Ocasio-Cortez’s controversial Green New Deal after Senate GOP leaders brought it to the floor in March.

“Democratic constituents want to know where their representatives stand on this issue, just as much as mine want to know where I stand,” Hice told colleagues in a recent speech. “So let’s have a vote.”

The laserlike focus on socialism is a tried-and-true tactic that flourished in the Cold War era, when politicos frequently used fears of communism to chastise their political opponents.

“It escalates a theme that has been widely used: that such and such Democrat is too liberal for Georgia,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist.

Even with the Soviet Union kaput, GOP strategist Dan McLagan said fears of socialism are still urgent for many voters today who have seen images on the news of Venezuelans “getting run over by tanks and eating their dogs.”

“It’s not like political consultants sat down in a smoke-filled room and said, ‘What’s a good bogeyman?’ ” McLagan said. Socialism “is the real deal, and it scares the hell out of me and a lot of Americans.”

Avoiding labels

The tactic carries the risk of alienating more moderate voters, particularly in Atlanta’s suburbs that Republicans are struggling to hold.

Recent polling suggests voters’ views about socialism are changing — more Americans now associate socialism with “equal standing for everybody” than “government ownership or control,” according to a recent Gallup survey. Republican voters, however, still mostly view socialism negatively, especially among older voters who tend to turn out in elections.

Georgia Democrats aren’t particularly worried. No major Democratic candidate has embraced the socialist movement, and most have avoided sharing the spotlight with the likes of Ocasio-Cortez. McBath recently turned away a $2,000 campaign donation from U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a freshman who earned widespread condemnation for comments about Israel and 9/11.

“As a Democrat, you’re going to want to keep your distance from those on the far left side of the Democratic Party,” Bullock said. “You’re going to be attacked anyway, and if you actually provide some evidence to support those attacks it’s going to make it awfully difficult.”

On the campaign trail, most Georgia Democratic candidates have carefully distanced themselves from “Medicare for All,” the Green New Deal and calls to drastically hike tax rates on the rich, even if they’ve endorsed the sentiment behind them or portions of those plans. Many have focused their campaigns on local issues and their interactions with would-be constituents.

“My focus is about what improves the social mobility of residents in our district, and I don’t think we can dispute that’s a good value set to begin any policy conversation,” said state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, who’s running for the Democratic nomination in the 7th Congressional District.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, thinks Democrats have more room to maneuver than they once did. Most Americans support the country’s major entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and as long as Democrats can address the country’s “very real problems with solutions,” he said, “I think most Americans can see through the labeling.”

From the minority

Don’t expect Republicans to abandon that line of attack anytime soon.

In Georgia, organizers of conservative rallies frequently invite Oscar Arreaza, a Venezuela-born construction worker who now works in metro Atlanta, to talk about the perils of socialism and the damage it has done to his native country.

Several Republican U.S. House candidates in Georgia have put national Democrats at the center of their campaign message — none so much as Homrich, a first-time candidate in Georgia’s 7th District whose introductory ad flashed the images of Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Tlaib.

Former Congresswoman Karen Handel has leveled similar attacks on opponents over nearly two decades in politics. During runs for secretary of state, governor, the U.S. Senate and the nation’s most expensive U.S. House race, she’s branded opponents as extremist — and been accused of being out of touch herself.

She announced her comeback bid for the 6th Congressional District, which spans parts of Atlanta’s northern suburbs, with a promise to fight the “Pelosi agenda” and the same trio of liberal firebrands that Homrich highlighted. As she drew a line tying them to Georgia Democrats at a recent meeting of Marietta conservatives, a hand in the audience shot up.

It was Gary Pernice, a local Republican activist, who questioned the strategy of trying to fire up already-energized conservatives with “red meat” issues.

“We’re good to go,” Pernice said, pressing Handel: “But the average American — if we don’t focus on the big issues like health care, and nationalize (Ocasio-Cortez), does that backfire on us?”

Handel, who won office in 2017 by relentlessly equating her opponent to Pelosi, said Republicans have little choice but to press their case against a Democratic agenda she described as “far out of step not just with the 6th District but mainstream America.”

“We do have to have solutions, but we’re in the minority right now,” she said. “Our job in the minority right now is to do twofold: You have to point out what’s good, bad and et cetera with the left. And you have to come up with solutions.”

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