Why Georgia Democrats aren’t putting Trump at center of November hopes

Georgia Democrats hope that President Donald Trump helps fuel a blue wave that will surge over Republicans on the November ballot. But that doesn’t mean they’re putting him at the center of their election plans.

For as much as state Democrats despise Trump — and opinion polls consistently confirm they do — he’s been largely missing from campaign trail attacks.

Stacey Abrams, the party’s nominee for governor, studiously avoids mentioning the president as she stumps across the state. And many of the down-ticket candidates have followed her lead, instead focusing on their policies — or their GOP opponents’ stances.

At Saturday’s Democratic Party of Georgia convention, where hundreds of delegates gathered at the Omni Hotel, that strategy was in full throttle. Trump’s name was hardly invoked on the stage.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, a possible U.S. Senate candidate in 2020, spoke broadly of a biblical battle against “this present darkness.” Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin talked about expanding Medicaid and sparking more economic growth across the state.

And Abrams stuck to broader themes about helping the most vulnerable and fighting for Georgia values.

“My story is our story,” she said to a cheering crowd. “This is a Georgia that no matter how tough things get, our core beliefs in faith and family and service never waver.”

The exception came from several of the U.S. House candidates, who took aim at the $1.5 trillion package of tax cuts that Trump signed into law, and they nodded toward the intensifying investigation into whether he violated campaign laws or benefited from Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“One way or the other, it looks like something big is about to go down,” said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia. “And his name is Donald Trump.”

Few would have predicted this more delicate approach to Trump a year ago. His election sparked a level of political activism not seen in Georgia since the early days of the conservative tea party, with activists hoping to channel the grass-roots fury into a movement to resist the president.

That quickly filtered down to the candidates. Jon Ossoff launched his campaign for a U.S. House seat in suburban Atlanta last year with a pledge to “make Trump furious” — and then faced criticism after losing the special election for veering from that strategy.

And Abrams started a “Georgia Resists” website through her House caucus devoted to challenging Trump’s policies shortly after he took office.

But the tide of Trump-focused vitriol has given way to a different tack. Party candidates clearly don’t yet want to make this contest a referendum on Trump, who won the state by 5 percentage points despite losing parts of metro Atlanta that were once Republican strongholds.

“Trump is a non-issue to us,” said Nancy Whitfield Dennard, the mayor of Quitman in South Georgia. “He doesn’t matter to us. His policies affect us, of course, but it’s only a matter of time. We are now looking for the future.”

That may start to change nationally as some Democrats abandon a more cautious approach to the president amid a growing corruption investigation that last week led ex-Trump attorney Michael Cohen to implicate the president in payoffs to a pair of women before the 2016 vote over alleged affairs and the conviction of former Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort on eight felony charges.

Republicans aren’t even hinting at any effort to distance themselves, mindful of Trump’s enduring popularity among GOP voters in state polls. Many have echoed the style of U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who often dismisses questions about the president’s latest comments to focus on state issues.

Brian Kemp, the GOP nominee for governor, may have taken a page from Isakson’s playbook when asked about the corruption saga. He stressed his loyalty to the president, whose endorsement helped fuel his victory in the Republican runoff, while steering clear of criticism.

“I’m running for governor to put Georgians first ahead of the special interests, the status quo, the politically correct,” Kemp said. “That’s what I’m going to continue to do. I have no idea about what all is going on in Washington.”

No anomaly

The emerging Democratic strategy in Georgia means that statewide candidates are targeting policies that Trump and other Republicans have adopted rather than attacking the man himself.

At a discussion Thursday with the Lowndes County Chamber in Valdosta, smack in the middle of a county that Trump won with nearly 60 percent of the vote, Abrams focused on her plan to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The health care law requires the federal government to fund most of the expansion — at least initially — and supporters say the influx of money would help the economy and improve health care for hundreds of thousands of Georgians.

Republicans have resisted expanding the program over concerns it’s too costly in the long run, especially if federal funding turns out to not be a sure thing down the road.

Kemp has said there’s no reason to pump more state money into a “failed” program. Abrams, though, has pitched it as a method to fight the opioid crisis, save lives and shore up rural hospitals vital to South Georgia’s economy.

As Abrams wrapped up her comments, Jan Brice breathed a tiny sigh. An executive with the South Georgia Medical Center, she had a pointed question to the Democratic nominee: “All that sounds great, but are you talking about raising taxes?”

“You don’t have to raise taxes to do this,” Abrams answered. “Our issue isn’t resources, it’s priorities.”

Abrams ticked through new "streams of revenue" Georgia is developing — namely, a 2018 law that will let the state collect taxes on sales from internet retailers who currently don't tally the levies. That's enough, she said, to pay for her pre-k program and the upfront costs of expanding Medicaid.

“Some of these things haven’t been done not because we don’t have the resources,” Abrams said, “but because we don’t have the will.”

Brice pronounced herself satisfied: “That was a good answer,” she said with a chuckle.

Abrams then headed to Valdosta State University, where more than 100 people packed a town hall meeting — and hundreds more cheered outside as Abrams addressed them from a megaphone.

Inside the auditorium, she answered what's become a near-ritual question about her stance on firearms by outlining a policy that includes a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. And she repeated that she's open to casino gambling, so long as proceeds help fund a needs-based version of the HOPE scholarship.

What she didn’t include during her two-day trip through South Georgia: Any overt mention of Trump.

That’s no anomaly. Down the ticket, other Democrats have adopted the same strategy to flip seats long held by conservative Republicans.

“I don’t think the enemy of democracy is another candidate or policy or even Donald Trump,” said Sarah Riggs Amico, the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor. “The enemy of democracy is apathy. And what we will talk about is how we can get people inspired to vote.”

She and others on the ballot label themselves as progressive but stress positions they view as non-ideological. Take Lindy Miller, a candidate for the Public Service Commission, which regulates the state’s utility industries.

“I’m running for an office where politics shouldn’t play a role. And no matter what happens in November, we’ll have two parties working together,” she said, referencing the three Republicans on the five-member panel not facing a November vote. “Trying to shadow this election with distant politics is a distraction.”

That might unnerve some Democrats who are hungry for more aggressive attacks. But it’s just fine by Gladys Lee, a Democrat who lives near Valdosta and is fed up with Trump being treated as the center of the political universe.

“I really don’t think any of the candidates need to bring him up,” she said. “His behavior is the narrative, but what we are looking for is how to make the day better, how to improve education and provide health care for our children.”


It's a busy election year, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is keeping the spotlight on the leading candidates for governor, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Stories we've done include a look at Kemp's fundraising among industries he regulates and Abrams' tax difficulties. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.