Democratic presidential hopefuls will gather Wednesday on the Oprah Winfrey soundstage at Tyler Perry Studios in southwest Atlanta for the party’s fifth candidates debate. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Photo: Chip Somodevilla
Photo: Chip Somodevilla

Georgia’s spot on debate stage reveals how much it’s changed politically

The national political world that will descend on Atlanta this week for the Democratic presidential debate will find a vastly different landscape than what existed even two years ago.

Democrats have made big gains across metro Atlanta, Republicans have strengthened their grip on rural regions and, after a decade of overzealous projections, partisans from both sides of the aisle say the state has transformed into a true political battleground.

Those Democratic pickups have come largely at the expense of more sparsely populated territory that the party once dominated. Even as Democrats racked up big margins in Atlanta and its suburbs, Republican-held territory in small towns, exurbs and rural stretches turned a darker shade of red.

The nation’s political establishment will get an up-close view of those competing trends Wednesday with a debate in Atlanta that local Democrats see as more than just a showdown of White House hopefuls but a turn in the spotlight that state party leaders have long dreamed about.

They plan to drive home to a national audience — and scores of influential donors, operatives and activists — that Georgia Democrats are on the cusp of major victories in 2020 with two U.S. Senate seats up for grabs and a chance to flip the Georgia House.

“With the upcoming Democratic debate in Atlanta, our great class of candidates will have the opportunity to show why Georgia is the battleground state of the cycle,” said Scott Hogan, the state party’s new executive director, “and why investing in the South matters.”

The shifting political terrain forces Republicans to confront an array of challenges they’ve sidestepped for a generation. No longer are the populous suburbs of Cobb and Gwinnett counties safe conservative territories; now, they are key spots on the Democratic road map in Georgia.

A new Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll provides a vivid outline of the state’s fast-changing dynamics, painting a challenging portrait, for now at least, of President Donald Trump’s fortunes in a state that no Democratic presidential candidate has captured since 1992.

Most Georgians have unfavorable opinions of Trump, who won Georgia by 5 percentage points in 2016, and he’s trailing or locked in tight head-to-head matchups with potential 2020 rivals. Most also support the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry, which entered a new phase last week with the start of public hearings.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, one of his top allies, faces his own problems. While half of Georgia voters approve of his job performance, only one-third say they’ll support his 2020 re-election bid. And about 40% say their choice depends on which Democrat is running against him.

Still, the GOP has faced predictions of a Democratic renaissance ever since Republicans began their rise to power in Georgia nearly two decades ago. And voters have responded by giving Republicans a clean sweep of every statewide office in each election since 2008.

Republican operative Brian Robinson, who was a top deputy of former Gov. Nathan Deal, said many of the white, college-educated voters who abandoned the GOP in the 2018 midterms will come back if they see the alternative as “open borders and eliminating private health insurance.”

“They might not like the controversy and management style,” he said of Trump. “But by golly, their family purse has bulged under Trump.”

A suburban ‘battlefield’

The debate will be held at the just-opened Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, a reward for the home of the Democratic Party’s traditional base in Georgia. But the bigger political battle, analysts and operatives agree, will be fought primarily in the suburbs.

That’s where Democrats carved a blue path last year, flipping roughly a dozen legislative seats and powering Lucy McBath’s U.S. House victory with the help of female voters, many of them independents or moderates. That’s the voting bloc keeping GOP leaders up at night.

“Republicans need to work hard to regain the trust and respect of metro Atlanta women,” said Meagan Hanson, a former Republican state legislator from Brookhaven who was defeated in the 2018 midterm. “That’s where the battlefield has been — and that’s where it will be in 2020.”

State Democrats are charting a course to exploit the GOP’s struggles by pushing deeper into the suburbs with a focus on health care and the economy, while also battling for Republican votes in more sparsely populated areas where they’ve struggled.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Tharon Johnson, who was the Southern regional director of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012. “This is a perfect storm with two Senate races, an unpopular president in Georgia, and we’re uniquely positioned to capitalize on it by talking about issues to pick up moderates and disaffected Republicans.”

The new Democratic gains come with a caveat, as candidates who embrace liberal positions on climate change and government-backed health care could risk alienating more moderate voters looking for a political home.

A sense of that angst was revealed in the AJC poll, which found that 53% of registered Georgia voters opposed Medicare for All, the proposal for a single-payer health care system that’s a tenet of several White House campaigns.

“Historically, I’m a Republican. Now I’m independent and I’m opposed to what Republicans are trying to do. But I’m not for what Democrats are trying to do,” said Deby Glidden, an Atlanta consultant who feels alienated by both parties.

“I’m fiscally conservative, socially liberal and I value integrity above all else — and Trump does not play into that mode,” she said. “But Democrats have to come up with more than Medicare for All. That’s a nonstarter for me. So, tell me, who am I going to vote for here?”

A telling ‘dry run’

Throw into that mix the specter of impeachment, which is already carving a deep new fault line in state politics.

Rallying behind the president, GOP leaders are wagering that the Democratic-led push energizes Trump’s supporters more than it mobilizes his Democratic critics.

That strategy rang clear on a breezy Saturday earlier this month as Trump’s campaign in Georgia packed the Cobb County GOP’s office with volunteers for what was described as a “dry run” for the 2020 election.

Candidates and party officials took turns on the podium to slam Democrats and passed around a “stop the madness” petition that generated dozens of signatures. Not surprisingly, the predominant prediction was that impeachment would backfire on Democrats.

One of them was U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, who characterized the president’s critics as agents of an establishment “who are there to sink Donald Trump.” He mockingly thanked Democrats for giving the GOP a leg up.

“The biggest problem we face in 2020 is apathy,” he said. “Impeachment has turned that around.”

Not surprisingly, Democrats say they’re unfazed by that sort of warning. They frame impeachment as a constitutional duty that will also help energize the party’s base of liberal voters who have long demanded a formal inquiry into whether Trump is abusing his power.

“Republicans are still walking in lockstep with the president,” said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, “and it is to the detriment of our democracy when people follow the person rather than the Constitution.”

‘Wake-up call’

Even the most optimistic of Republican leaders talk of last year’s election as an ear-splitting “wake-up call.”

It’s one reason Gov. Brian Kemp took stances his Republican predecessor shunned: He electrified conservatives by berating “C-List celebrities” offended by his agenda even as he made more moderate approaches aimed at a broader electorate.

It led to Kemp’s decision to endorse legislation that expanded Georgia’s medical marijuana program and set the stage for a limited Medicaid expansion — two issues that Deal, who leans more moderate, never embraced — and signed an anti-abortion law that infuriated his opponents.

Even though he remains a divisive politician to many of his critics, the AJC poll shows Kemp’s standing has steadily improved with Georgians since his election. About 55% of Georgians approve of how he handles his job as governor, including about one-quarter of Democrats.

At the same time, Democrats will be more aggressively tying their opponents to Trump than they did in the midterms. Each of Perdue’s four main Democratic opponents has relentlessly tied him to the president; Teresa Tomlinson used her first major campaign event to brand him the “enabler, the influencer, the co-pilot” of Trump.

Georgia Republicans have wholeheartedly embraced the president. The Never Trump movement has long since been snuffed out in Georgia, at least among elected officials, and Trump’s surprise endorsement of Kemp in last year’s Republican runoff was a reminder of his political might.

One of those erstwhile Trump critics was House Speaker David Ralston, who during the 2016 campaign panned some of the GOP candidate’s more controversial remarks.

In an interview, Ralston said the spate of suburban Republican defeats in the Legislature last year was linked to a Trump-driven phenomenon — he called it the “first time we really had seen legislative races here in Georgia become nationalized.”

But he’s come to terms with Trump’s polarizing effect and is among the loudest Georgia supporters of the president’s economic agenda. When Trump arrived in Atlanta this month to launch a new campaign initiative, Ralston was among a select group of dignitaries who welcomed him on the tarmac.

“Anyone who wants to be on the ballot,” Ralston said, “is going to have to be at peace with their relationship with the president.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article from Washington.