‘We’ve got next.’ After Ohio debate, Georgia prepares for its close-up

Almost as soon as Tuesday’s Democratic debate came to an end, the head of Georgia’s state Democratic Party chimed in with a message to partisans back home.

"We've got next Atlanta," state Sen. Nikema Williams wrote.

Georgia Democrats intensely lobbied national figures to land the Nov. 20 debate, in part to reinforce the idea that the state is a top 2020 battleground. And they were carefully watching what went right — and what went wrong — at Tuesday’s debate in Ohio.

Some of the specifics that sparked the most criticism will be out of their control, such as the length of the debate and the size of the field on stage. But local officials will have more say on other important issues, including the setting, the preparations and the dramatics of the event.

There’s plenty of work ahead, starting with where the November showdown will be held. State officials expect the event, hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post, to be located in metro Atlanta, but that only whittles down the list of potential sites.

The location of the venue will hold symbolic resonance. The debate in Houston was held at a historically black college in one of the city’s strongest Democratic bastions. The 12-candidate mashup on Tuesday was at a small college in the northeast outskirts of Columbus, a once-reliably GOP area that’s now more competitive.

The pick for Georgia’s event will send a message, too, if the party selects a suburban site to reflect its expanding ambitions or a spot in the city’s center to pay homage to the historic Democratic base. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has already made her pitch.

“There is no denying that Georgia is poised as a swing state and will play an important role in the upcoming election,” she wrote in a Sept. 21 letter to party officials. “With people of color being the cornerstone of the Democratic Party, Atlanta remains set to provide a large portion of votes for our eventual nominee.”

Wherever the debate winds up, it probably won’t faze a city used to the spotlight. Atlanta has hosted scores of big-ticket events in recent years, including the 2019 Super Bowl. Still, this would be the first time the city has been the home to a national political debate since 1992. And it presents its own set of challenges.

The scene at Westerville, a town of about 40,000, offered a glimpse at what is to come.

Hundreds of journalists, politicos and others converged on the city, whether to attend the event or gawk at the spectacle. Packs of protesters paraded around the leafy town, and patrons packed bars and restaurants. A phalanx of bike-riding security officers roamed streets cordoned off by barriers.

The campus of Otterbein University, the small liberal arts school where the debate was held, was also transformed. The Columbus Dispatch reported that CNN racked up 15,000 man-hours worth of work to get the site ready for its close-up.

Construction workers turned the newly finished basketball courts at the campus gym into a sophisticated soundstage with a dozen custom-built podiums for the candidates ringed by TV cameras.

Around the corner, the nearby student center became the staging ground for about 700 journalists from across the globe — and a plush red-carpeted spin room dominated by a giant CNN set. Inside, a local café gave out free cups of coffee and tea to visitors almost as soon as they emerged from a security check.

Outside, church courtyards and convenience store parking lots became makeshift studios for visiting reporters. Tents sprang up on the end zone of the school’s football field, which became sets for national networks.

Georgia Democrats have already dispatched a flurry of emails seeking volunteers and supporters to sign up for information. Scott Hogan, the state party’s executive director, said Georgia Democrats will capitalize on the excitement.

“Our voters know how important Georgia is for Democrats in 2020,” he said, “and they’re ready to hear the candidates address our issues.”


When: The next (fifth) debate will be Wednesday, Nov. 20.

Where: It is expected to take place in metro Atlanta. The specific location will be announced later.