A ‘gift year’ for Democrats creates a state in play

No doubt, you want to know who will win next Tuesday. And because you are such a good and faithful reader, just this once I’ll bend the bylaws of the Grand Order of Media Conspirators and clue you in:

Your winners will be Johnny Isakson, Hillary Clinton, and maybe Kasim Reed.

Now, if you’re as sharp as I think you are, you’ll notice that none of these three are on the Nov. 4 ballot. That requires some explanation.

A few days ago at the state Capitol, I ran into a prominent Democratic state lawmaker and inquired about the state of things. She offered a philosophical shrug. “Win or lose,” she said, “it’s been a gift year. This wasn’t supposed to happen this soon.”

We are five days from Election Day. Democrats Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn are pounding on the gates of Fort Republican, a thick-walled edifice that almost everyone assumed came with a 20-year warranty. Including most Democrats.

Lo and behold, cracks in the fortress have appeared far ahead of schedule. Nathan Deal, a Republican incumbent governor in a red state, quickly discovered that his final race – against a candidate who has yet to turn 40 — would be his hardest. And could last an extra four weeks.

David Perdue, despite his international business acumen and because of it, has been unable to shake the do-gooding daughter of Sam Nunn. Both could find themselves in a nine-week runoff for U.S. Senate.

The point is that, win or lose, the money and organization that have gone into the 2014 election season have shaved years off a Democratic exile that began in 2002. That’s when Republican Sonny Perdue, first cousin to David Perdue, was elected governor.

It was also the year that Merle and Earl Black, twin brothers, published “The Rise of Southern Republicans,” which for the last decade has served as holy writ for political journalists in the South.

Merle Black is still headquartered at Emory University. I called him to ask whether he was prepared to write the sequel – something along the lines of “The Return of Southern Democrats.” He seemed inclined to wait until at least Tuesday before he looks for a publisher.

Those much-talked about demographic changes in Georgia certainly are a factor this year, Black said. But luck has been involved, too. Democrats have displayed a pair of surprisingly aggressive candidates, capable of raising big money and rallying followers.

Republicans have proven vulnerable, Black said – Deal has been burdened by a 7.9 percent unemployment rate and a constant swirl of disputes over ethics. Perdue’s general election campaign has been a lackluster affair aimed at the Republican base rather than independents, he said.

Watch Michelle Nunn’s performance among white women, Black suggested. The U.S. Senate race is hers if she can attract 35 percent of them. Only one recent poll, by CNN/ORC International, has shown Nunn reaching that mark. Last week’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed her with the support of 24 percent of white women voters.

“If Michelle Nunn is able to win, then clearly that will make Georgia a large target in 2016,” Black said. “If that happens, Democrats are back in business.”

Which brings us back to the three winners we named above. Former President Bill Clinton will be in Atlanta on Friday to rally Nunn supporters – one more sign that Georgia will be considered fertile ground in a 2016 White House bid by Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state.

The loss of Georgia as a “gimme” state could make a hash out of an already stressed GOP formula for presidential victory.

But a Hillary Clinton campaign in Georgia would also be nothing but good for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who will be up for re-election in 2016. Isakson has said he intends to seek a third term, but even if he weren’t so inclined, the GOP would twist his arm until he promised to stay.

If Hillary Clinton is running amuck in Georgia, rallying Democrats to an even higher pitch, the last thing Republicans will want is another contest for an open Senate seat. They might even clear a primary for Isakson – or at least cut the legs out from under any opposition.

As for Kasim Reed: On the Democratic side, the problem with success is that it breeds expectations. Which means more candidates will take the gamble. Which means handcrafted tickets, like the one that Nunn and Carter top this year, will be harder to build, if not impossible.

A reinvigorated Democratic party will be based on a biracial coalition in which African-Americans will demand a much larger role than in the days of Jimmy Carter or Sam Nunn. You’re unlikely to see the current configuration – two white top-of-the-ticket candidates, plus a white state party chairman – in future election cycles.

That creates possibilities for the mayor of Atlanta – or someone like him.

So no matter what happens Tuesday, 2014 has increased the number of moving parts in Georgia politics. We are now a state in play, and only the nimble will survive.

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