OPINION: Color Georgia crimson. Or at least ‘tickle me pink’

My AJC colleague, Greg Bluestein, is routinely ahead of the game when it comes to breaking political stories.

But old Bluey might have gotten ahead of himself in his recent book, “FLIPPED: How Georgia Turned Purple and Broke the Monopoly on Republican Power.”

FLIPPED,” is a behind-the-scenes page-turner recounting how a two-decade GOP grip on Georgia loosened in 2020 when voters went for Joe Biden and then, two months later in a runoff, FLIPPED the U.S. Senate by electing Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

But after the Tuesday Night Chainsaw Massacre, AKA the election in Georgia, prognosticators will have to change the color of their crayons from purple back to crimson or at least “tickle me pink.”

“How about Rurple?” offered Patricia Murphy, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s political columnist. Are you listening, Crayola?

The top eight statewide posts all went to Republicans by a 6.3% average, with Governor Shotgun leading the way with a 7.6% drubbing of Stacey Abrams. The average loss for the Dems would have been higher if Warnock was not included in my calculations. He came out ahead of GOP candidate Herschel Walker but didn’t make it across the 50% line, so they will have to suit up and do it again in a runoff.

This year’s race is coming off the feel-good 2020 election and a heartening midterm election in 2018 where statewide Dems lost by an average 3.5%. In that race, Abrams led the ticket with a 1.4% loss to Brian Kemp. It was so close that she didn’t concede, fought the Georgia election process in court and started organizing to get Dems out to the polls, including folks who didn’t normally vote.

Greg Bluestein is author of "Flipped: How Georgia Turned Purple and Broke the Monopoly on Republican Power."
Viking Press/Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

2018 gave Democrats hope that turnout and changing demographics would turn the tide. A growing minority population and more young people moving to metro Atlanta would hopefully win the day.

That hope of demographic change saving Democrats been around for a minute. In 2014, Democrats were excited. Jason Carter, a state senator with a famous grandfather, was running for governor. And Michelle Nunn, daughter of longtime U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, was running for Senate.

On election night that year I went to Manuel’s Tavern, the noted Democratic joint, to observe that enthusiasm. Instead, it was like going to an Athens bar and watching the Crimson Tide squash the Dawgs. Carter and Nunn each lost by nearly eight points. And the 2014 Democratic ticket was worse, with a 12.5-point average loss. Turns out Georgia wasn’t ready for a change.

Not much has changed since 2014, other than $70 million more in campaign money and the severity of loss. No Democrat, other than Ossoff and Warnock, who got the Trump Craziness bump, has won a won statewide since 2006 when sitting Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, and two other down-ballot candidates, were re-elected.

Thurmond, now the CEO of bright-blue DeKalb County, was thought of as a possibility for gubernatorial candidate if Abrams didn’t run this time. Given the results, I’m sure he’s glad she did.

“Democrats are saying it wasn’t that bad this year, that there wasn’t a red wave,” Thurmond told me. “But that wave hit Georgia. It wasn’t a tsunami. But it hit the beach where we were sitting.”

He said Donald Trump bashing Kemp helped “moderate” the governor in the eyes of independents and even some Democratic voters.

It’s not hopeless for Dems, Thurmond said. “The right message with basic concerns and the right coalition can net a win,” he said, adding that the Democrats got killed on the crime narrative of being soft. That must change.

Roy Barnes, Georgia’s last Democratic governor (he got unelected in 2002), said Bobby Kahn, his old aide-de-camp, predicts “it’ll be 2026 or 2028 before Georgia’s truly purple, looking at the demographics.”

“It’s a long term slog. But it’s moving in the right direction,” Barnes said. He sounded like Thurmond, saying independent voters must be picked up with “kitchen table” issues.

Future Gov. Sonny Perdue and then-Gov. Roy Barnes in 2002 (AP File)

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That was the Dems’ strategy in 2014, going with moderate candidates. But the blowout, and Abrams’ 2018 “success,” had the party reach harder for the base.

Congresswoman Nikema Williams, who has John Lewis’ old seat, joked that the state might not be purple but it could be considered “periwinkle.”

She noted the party has consistently picked up state legislative seats, although recent redistricting did cement a solid GOP hold on both chambers. She said waiting around for demographics to change is not a proper strategy.

“We have a serious turnout problem in the Democratic party‚” Williams said. “You have to turn out voters. We haven’t done that.”

She says more engagement in non-election time is needed.

John Barrow, a former Democratic congressman from Athens, said 2018 was “a classic midterm wave” that made his party look good, even in defeat. Barrow forced GOP secretary of state candidate Brad Raffensperger into a runoff that year, only to lose.

Barrow said the party needs to distinguish between climate and weather. Climate is the demographics of the state and the organizational outreach. Weather is what’s going on politically, socially, economically around the time of the election.

I suppose Georgia’s Democrats have to wait until the climate here warms up for them.

Was 2020 a Trumpian-fueled fluke? We’ll find out in the runoff next month.