The deep division between the two rivals heightened the possibility of an extended nomination fight that lasts through the March 24 primary in Georgia and beyond — in effect, a replay of Sanders' lengthy bout against Hillary Clinton in 2016 that simmered well into the summer of that year.
Though Democratic officials downplay the prospect of a messy brokered convention, such a drawn-out fight would mean the party’s leaders could decide the nomination if no candidate arrives at the convention with a majority of the delegates.
Georgia offers 15 of those unpledged delegates, a group of party officials, top officeholders and establishment figures once known as “superdelegates” who aren’t legally bound to support any candidate and can back whoever they want at a convention.
Nikema Williams, chairperson of the Democratic Party of Georgia, speaks against President Donald Trump ahead of his visit to Atlanta on Nov. 8, 2019. (Bob Andres / email@example.com)
A majority of them told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they were opposed to delivering the nomination to Sanders or Biden if they only had a plurality of delegates but fell short of the 1,991 needed to secure the nod.
That should benefit Biden, who enjoys broad support among party leaders and seems poised to add Georgia to the collection of Southern states he captured this week thanks to rock-solid support from African American voters.
Still, some party officials were cautious that any effort to exert their influence could fuel mistrust from Sanders’ core of supporters.
“There’s a groundswell in the party of people upset with the establishment, and we have a lot of work to do to make sure we’re transparent,” said Dan Halpern, a member of the Democratic National Committee and one of the party’s top financiers.
That helps explain the approach from state Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia. She told the AJC before the polls closed Tuesday that she wouldn't endorse any candidate in the race but would cast her vote as a delegate for whoever won Georgia's primary.
“As the leader of our party, it’s my job to represent our voters,” she said. “I’m standing firmly and confidently with who Georgia Democrats decide.”
As pundits picked over the carcass of Super Tuesday’s vote, Biden’s new supporters in Georgia came in droves from competitive suburban districts, remote rural areas and deep-blue Democratic bastions.
State Sen. Jen Jordan, a Bloomberg supporter who's considered a rising star in Democratic politics, said she was "100 percent" behind Biden as soon as the former New York City mayor quit the race. DeKalb County Chief Executive Michael Thurmond, who also endorsed Bloomberg, pointed to the role the billionaire could still play.
<p> Former U.S. Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden reacts as he is introduced by Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during an assembly of Southern black mayors Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis) </p> <p> Former Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, right, walks around a table meeting with an assembly of Southern black mayors including Mississippi Mayor Chokwe Lumumba and Virginia Mayor Levar Stoney, left, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis) </p> <p> Former Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden visits with an assembly of Southern black mayors Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis) </p> <p> Former Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, second from right, visits with an assembly of Southern black mayors Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis) </p> <p> Former Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden visits with an assembly of Southern black mayors Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis) </p> <p> Former Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is greeted by Fayetteville (NC) mayor Mitch Colvin, right, after talking to Talladega (Ala.) mayor Timothy Ragland, left, as he visits with an assembly of Southern black mayors Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis) </p> <p> Former Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to the media while during a visit with an assembly of Southern black mayors Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis) </p> <p> Former Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to the media while during a visit with an assembly of Southern black mayors Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis) </p>
Credit: John Amis / Associated Press
Credit: John Amis / Associated Press
“What appealed to me was his commitment to November, regardless of who wins the nomination,” Thurmond said. “All Democrats ought to be praising this man this morning. He’s going to be Joe Biden’s best friend if he wins the nomination because what does (Biden) struggle with most? Raising money.”
State Rep. Billy Mitchell, the president-elect of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, promised that 90% of Georgia's Democratic lawmakers will soon announce their endorsements of Biden. He called it a "rush" to the former vice president's camp.
They join a core that includes Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, long Biden's most visible backer in Georgia; Calvin Smyre, the longest-serving member of the Legislature; and U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, the first Democratic congressman in the state to pick a side. <br/>
The blitz of support isn't surprising. Sanders was walloped in Georgia in 2016, losing to Clinton by a 3-to-1 margin. This election he's put more of an emphasis on wooing African American voters, including a November visit to Morehouse College to promise more funding to historically black colleges and universities. So far, though, he has little to show for it.
Sanders’ backers in Georgia, many of them younger voters who embrace his Medicare for All pledge, say they’re not going anywhere. Ted Terry, who as a state party vice chairman is also a superdelegate, urged Georgians to “let the primary process play out” and vote with their hearts.
“Predicting presidential electability in 2020 is like spitting muscadine seeds into a tin can: You might get it in eventually, but you’ll just end up with grape guts all over your chin and your closest friends,” said Terry, a former mayor of Clarkston now seeking a seat on the DeKalb County Commission.
11/21/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during his New Deal Democrats Rally at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Thursday, November 21, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Credit: Alyssa Pointer
Credit: Alyssa Pointer
Sanders' supporters also point to polls that suggest he matches up favorably against President Donald Trump in November, though a University of Georgia survey released Wednesday complicates that premise. The poll of likely voters in the state showed Trump beating Sanders 52% to 41% — the widest margin of all four Democratic candidates surveyed.
‘Don’t get me started’
In dozens of interviews with state elected officials, Sanders’ critics raised fears that his self-described brand as a democratic socialist and his comments about authoritarian regimes risk ruining their shot at flipping two U.S. Senate seats and winning important legislative races.
State Rep. Teri Anulewicz, a second-term lawmaker from Smyrna, pointed to Sanders' praise for the communist government of Nicaragua in the 1980s.
“I’m old enough to remember that the Sandinistas aren’t a scrappy band of freedom fighters. I am horrified to see that we are actually having discussions that say otherwise,” she said. “Many of the things that Bernie Sanders is doing to rally voters are deeply concerning.”
And state Rep. Dar'shun Kendrick, one of the party's leaders in the Georgia House, called Sanders the Democratic version of Trump.
“He’s an outlier like Trump. I don’t think he represents most Democrats — which I guess makes sense since he is only one when it’s time to run for president,” she said. “Don’t get me started on him.”
3/1/19 - Atlanta - Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D - Smyrna, is congratulated after her first bill, HB 281, which would increase the penalty provisions relating to pimping and pandering, passed the house, 147-4. The legislature was in session for the 25rd day of the 2019 General Assembly. Bob Andres / firstname.lastname@example.org
Credit: Bob Andres
Credit: Bob Andres
Some Democrats, though, worry that the perception that establishment leaders are maneuvering for Biden could deal significant damage to contenders in November.
“Some in the party would say they stole it from Bernie last election, and now they’re wanting to change the rules to hurt him this time,” said Vernon Jones, a former DeKalb County chief executive who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2008.
“That’s what’s creating more division than anything else,” said Jones, now a state legislator. “What makes the party more intelligent and able to pick the presidential nominee than the people? My powder’s dry. I’m not endorsing. But I am frustrated with the process.”
Already, Georgia Republicans are racing to paint Sanders as the face of the opposition.
U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler recently launched an ad with a new slogan — "Stop Bernie Sanders' socialism" — and Attorney General Chris Carr traveled to South Carolina to mock the Vermont senator before a debate. On Monday, Sanders doubled as a punching bag for Gov. Brian Kemp.
Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia speaks to the media following a tour of McEachern High School in Powder Springs, Georgia, on Thursday, February 13, 2020. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the AJC)
“This election can reverse all the progress that we have made,” Kemp said. “Democrats here in this state and across the country would like nothing more than to give Bernie Sanders the keys to the Oval Office. And I’m here to tell you that would mean the end of the country as we know it.”
Williams, the state Democratic chairwoman, pleaded for patience as she predicted the race will still be raging when Georgians head to the polls in less than three weeks. And she challenged the candidates left standing to start building an apparatus in Georgia now.
Bloomberg and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was facing immense pressure Wednesday to abandon the race, are the only Democratic hopefuls with a significant in-state operation in Georgia. Williams sees that as a “serious problem.”
“I want to see all of the presidential campaigns opening offices not just in Atlanta, but across our state,” she said. “We deserve to be listened to, and we deserve to engage with the candidates in a real and authentic way.”