That shift from cash cow to must-visit actually began during the last presidential cycle, when each of the major candidates swung through Georgia ahead of the regional “SEC primary,” when many Southern states held votes on the same day.
This time around, though, candidates are more aggressive. They’re lining up donors, hobnobbing with activists and courting the state’s most influential movers and shakers far earlier as they fight over who will take on President Donald Trump in 2020.
Trump won't be ceding any ground in Georgia. He last visited in April to headline an opioid summit — while also criticizing Democrats — and he's certain to pour campaign resources into the state and defend his ally, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, whose name will also be on the 2020 ballot.
As you’d expect, Abrams has already spoken with many of the candidates and leveraged her status as a rising star in the Democratic Party to push each to outline his or her plan for combating voter suppression and winning Georgia’s 16 Electoral College votes.
But many grassroots party activists and local leaders have also been showered with attention after many cycles of being largely ignored by presidential candidates during the unbroken string of Republican victories in the state dating to 1996.
"It's amazing," said state Rep. Dar'shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia. "We don't feel like stepchildren anymore."
A Peach State ‘pathway’
Each of the candidates who journeys to Georgia says he or she studied the 2018 election that cemented the state’s battleground status. Abrams lost the closest race for governor in decades to Republican Brian Kemp, but Democrats won a tide of victories across Atlanta’s suburbs and forced two statewide contests into runoffs.
And while the candidates all come to Georgia aiming to capture a trove of the 120 delegates up for grabs in the Democratic primary, they also seek opportunities to promote their strategies for flipping the state to the Democratic column in 2020.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren made a beeline to suburban Gwinnett County, central to Democratic hopes of winning Georgia. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders went to Augusta to try to connect with black voters who spurned him three years ago.
Three candidates — Booker, Buttigieg and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar — have trekked to the southwest Georgia hamlet where former President Jimmy Carter lives to seek his blessing, or at least his advice, on capturing the nation's fancy.
Booker and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris have focused their message on expanding voting rights — and criticizing Kemp — during visits to African American historic sites. And U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand headed for the state Capitol to decry the state's anti-abortion "heartbeat" law before a bank of television cameras.
Reflecting on his strategy, Booker told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he would do the “opposite” of Democratic presidential candidates who traditionally ignore the South, calling the region his “pathway to the nomination and to winning the election.”
"Obviously, my presence here shows you that you're going to see me a lot more in Georgia," Booker said in the interview. "This is a state we're going to be investing in and building a team up that I hope will allow us to earn the support of Georgians."
All this is happening without a primary date on the calendar: Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has yet to select a time for the vote, though most politicos believe it will be held March 3– a budding "Super Tuesday" when California, Massachusetts, Texas and a swath of other Southern states are scheduled to hold votes.
Without as much pressure yet to choose sides, though, most influential Democratic officials and activists in Georgia are so far staying neutral — with a few notable exceptions. Among them is former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, who quickly endorsed Biden after he entered the race.
“Look at the man’s leadership,” said Cleland, who served in the U.S. Senate with Biden from 1997 to 2003. “This moment also demands someone who knows about leadership, and no one in the history of the United States entered the race with more experience in politics than Joe Biden.”
For Biden, Buttigieg and O’Rourke, the flurry of events on Thursday mark their campaign debuts in Atlanta. Several of the candidates will speak at an African American leadership summit during the day, and they will join Booker and Abrams for the party fundraiser at night.
In between the meet-and-greets and stump speeches, they'll face withering questions from the state's most prominent Democrats. Nikema Williams, a state senator and chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, wants to grill each on his plan to hire staffers and open offices in Georgia.
“I know that’s already happening in South Carolina, but I want to hear what they’re doing to ramp up operations here,” she said. “If you win Georgia, you win the presidency. And engaging in Georgia in a very real and authentic way is the path to the presidency.”
Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.