The biggest question in Georgia politics in this election cycle was whether the Peach State had shifted from red to purple. The resounding answer Tuesday night was: Nope.
Top-ticket Republicans Nathan Deal and David Perdue led a statewide sweep for the GOP ticket by collecting about 53 percent of the vote, roughly the same as Deal took in 2010 and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney received in 2012.
Hype about shifting racial demographics, the Democrats’ ground operation and dynasty candidates who could appeal to white swing voters crumbled. The Republicans ran an extensive ground operation and leveraged consistent messages — Deal on the economy, Perdue on President Barack Obama — to extend their winning streak.
And a nationwide Republican wave that even swept through blue states such as Maryland and Massachusetts didn’t hurt.
“There was no energy among Democratic voters,” Republican consultant Chip Lake said. “The advantage they gained over time by demographic changes were offset by the lack of intensity and energy.”
Democrats were licking their wounds and pointing fingers late Tuesday and Wednesday.
State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said the atmosphere in southwest Atlanta was “funereal.”
“I’ve never seen so little street activity on Election Day in my life,” he said. “Some of my biggest, hottest precincts, there was no activity, no street corner activity, no poll activity. They were running an Obama-style campaign without Obama. It’s like doing ‘Othello’ without Othello.”
Others worried that the party could be relegated to an afterthought if it ignores its once-fervent white base.
“We are struggling with people who look like me,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, a white Democrat who survived his own tight race. “Republicans know they have to expand their base to include minority voters. And we need to do a better job expanding ours to include white voters.”
Democratic Party Chairman DuBose Porter put on a brave face. He insisted Georgia was “now a battleground state” and said it would be even more competitive in two years. Asked what the Democrats should’ve done differently, Porter said: “I can’t think of one (thing). When you have great candidates that offer a better path, I don’t know how we could’ve said it any clearer.”
Deal and Perdue pressed very different strategies, but both enjoyed similar results. Only about 13,000 votes divided them.
As state Sen. Jason Carter, Deal’s opponent, stuck to an education-first message much of the campaign, Deal built his re-election efforts around a sunny economic message. The governor’s internal polling showed that a majority of voters listed the economy as their top priority, with education a distant second.
He also made frequent use of his executive powers to distinguish himself from Carter, a two-term senator. Deal embarked on a politically tinged overseas trade mission and traveled the state to sign into law newsworthy pieces of legislation . In the last week of the election, he unveiled jobs announcements and a new Ebola plan that attracted significant media coverage.
The Perdue campaign started making daily calls on Feb. 1 to voters across the state.
After narrowly besting U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah in the GOP runoff, Perdue’s operatives knew South Georgia would be his biggest weakness. Perdue quickly hired two Kingston organizers, Benjamin Ayres and John Eunice, to run the show in South Georgia.
The Republican National Committee, which vowed a renewed focus on data and turnout after getting lapped by Democrats in 2012, pumped more than $1 million into a coordinated statewide campaign. The Georgia GOP opened up 17 field offices in the state and made 400,000 contacts with voters by phone or in person in the final week before Election Day.
“They have a real ground operation too,” Paul Bennecke, Perdue’s chief strategist, said of the Democrats. “We just had a better one. And nobody knew it.”
Obama was a drag nationally, and Perdue relentlessly tied Democrat Michelle Nunn to him. Nunn stressed her points of disagreement with the president, her work with Republicans such as George H.W. Bush at the Points of Light foundation, and attacked Perdue’s business career in outsourcing.
Even as independent polls showed the race tied or Nunn slightly ahead, Perdue’s internal numbers showed him holding a lead, so the campaign did not change course.
“If you look at our ads, there wasn’t a whole lot of change because our data didn’t show that we needed to,” Bennecke said. “We were nationalizing the election, and then we would win.”
Wednesday morning quarterbacking
Democrats’ dual-pronged strategy was to push the African-American share of the vote to 30 percent, then capture 30 percent of the white vote. Exit polls show they nearly accomplished the first goal and fell well short of the second. Nunn pulled just 23 percent of white voters, according to exit polling published by The Washington Post.
Porter, who said the results “stung like hell,” saw some bright spots. State Senate Democrats kept their seats, and no incumbents in the state House were defeated.
“I understand taking a bit of time to lick these wounds,” he said. “But not too much time. We have work to do.”
Yet the across-the-board defeats in statewide contests knocked the wind out of many partisans. Republicans retained control of every statewide office for the next four years as well as their commanding majorities in the state Legislature.
Even schools superintendent candidate Valarie Wilson, considered her party’s best chance at winning on Tuesday, lost by 10 percentage points. And U.S. Rep. John Barrow, long a stalwart survivor in the U.S. House, was trounced by businessman Rick Allen.
Now party leaders must rally around a new strategy. Some insiders want to significantly build up the voter registration operation. Others want leaders to focus more on investing in roads and infrastructure in a play for disgruntled Atlanta commuters.
Holcomb, for one, said one of the biggest mistakes was self-inflicted: a flier aimed at turning out more black voters that invoked the unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
“I was shocked the first time I saw it,” Holcomb said. “I think many other white people had a similar reaction. And there was a lot of negative reaction in African-American communities, too.”
A future battleground?
Republicans have their work cut out for them, too. The GOP ticket improved on its vote totals across much of the state, turning most of Georgia an even darker shade of red than in 2010 and 2012. But Democrats made gains in metro Atlanta, the fast-growing heart of the state’s electorate. And the GOP sweep doesn’t change the fact that a growing number of newcomers and minorities is transforming the state’s racial and ideological makeup.
“There is no reason to think 2016 won’t be in play,” Lake said. “It will be in play if we don’t do the things that we need to do to make certain we are successful.”
Just how to preserve their majority will dominate Republicans’ strategy sessions the next four years. Kingston, now an outgoing congressman with a looser tongue, said the party should be more proactive in embracing more diverse communities. He said the influx of Asian residents in Gwinnett County, for example, could be a ripe target.
“The most dangerous thing that can happen to any politician is thinking your district is reflective of the world,” Kingston said, adding: “You can’t just stay in one little isolated group, even though that might make you feel good. Again, it’s not bending the philosophy, but trying to sell people on the philosophy.”
The governor, for his part, said a commitment to steady, no-drama leadership will send a message to newcomers — particularly the out-of-state arrivals from Democratic bastions that GOP leaders fret over.
“I know that many of these people come from parts of the country where they’re accustomed to perhaps voting on the other side of the political aisle,” Deal said. “We want to show them that government with Republican leadership produces positive results and does not result in gridlock.”
Staff writers Aaron Gould Sheinin, Katie Leslie and Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.