‘Backroom deals’ reshape Democratic races in Georgia

Democrat Charlie Bailey, who lost a close race for attorney general in 2018, recently abandoned his bid for a rematch against Republican Chris Carr to instead run for lieutenant governor. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Democrat Charlie Bailey, who lost a close race for attorney general in 2018, recently abandoned his bid for a rematch against Republican Chris Carr to instead run for lieutenant governor. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

A spate of decisions by Georgia Democratic candidates has reshaped races for key statewide offices as senior officials try to exploit Republican infighting and avoid their own damaging internal warfare.

The behind-the-scenes maneuvering that became public this month has realigned three statewide contests that Democrats are hungry to win after more than a decade of GOP dominance in state politics.

And the developments are a sign some power brokers fret that weak down-ticket candidates could pose problems for Stacey Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in November.

It started earlier this month when Charlie Bailey, the runner-up to Republican Attorney General Chris Carr in 2018, abandoned his bid for a rematch and entered the jumbled race for lieutenant governor with the backing of influential Democratic figures intent on making him the new front-runner.

Days later, Bryan Miller ended his quest to follow in his grandfather Zell Miller’s footsteps and dropped out of the race for Georgia’s No. 2 job, saying that it has “become clear that the amount of money needed to win the primary is no longer within our reach.”

And this week, Gwinnett County School Board Chairman Everton Blair announced he was running for state school superintendent at the urging of prominent Democratic officials.

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Everton Blair, the chairman of the Gwinnett County Board of Education, announced earlier this week that he is entering the race for state school superintendent at the urging of some prominent Democrats. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Everton Blair, the chairman of the Gwinnett County Board of Education, announced earlier this week that he is entering the race for state school superintendent at the urging of some prominent Democrats. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Everton Blair, the chairman of the Gwinnett County Board of Education, announced earlier this week that he is entering the race for state school superintendent at the urging of some prominent Democrats. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Other candidates have grumbled privately that they, too, have been encouraged to make way for better-known contenders as Democrats try to win statewide constitutional offices for the first time since 2006.

“There are backroom deals that are being brokered, and people are being pursued and recruited to join various races,” said state Rep. Derrick Jackson, D-Tyrone, who added it would “be a waste of time” to try to talk him out of running for lieutenant governor.

The jockeying down the ballot contrasts with the clarity at the top of the party’s ticket. Both Warnock and Abrams are shoo-ins to win the Democratic nominations for the U.S. Senate and governor, respectively, and Bailey’s switch in races cements state Sen. Jen Jordan as her party’s favorite for attorney general.

But there are crowded races for lieutenant governor, secretary of state and other posts — and there’s a sense that anything can happen down the ballot in lower-turnout primary elections.

In 2018, state Democrats narrowly avoided a headache when perennial candidate Triana James — a little-known activist who often wore beauty sashes to events — came closer than expected to defeating wealthy logistics executive Sarah Riggs Amico to be the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor.

In that same primary, well-known health care advocate Cindy Zeldin was handily defeated in her bid for insurance commissioner by Janice Laws, a newcomer to politics who was largely unknown even to industry executives. Laws is making another run this year.

“If we can avoid some of these political food fights where we’re spending time and treasure going after other Democrats — if we can avoid it — then that’s better so that we can actually focus on the real target, which is the Republicans in November,” Jordan said.

‘Full stop’

Across the aisle, chaos reigns. Former President Donald Trump’s demand for allegiance to his lies about election fraud has ignited a Republican-on-Republican war for his favor, and so far he’s endorsed four statewide GOP candidates and denigrated four others.

He persuaded former football star Herschel Walker, a recent Texas transplant, to enter the U.S. Senate race. And he urged former U.S. Sen. David Perdue to challenge Gov. Brian Kemp, guaranteeing a nasty GOP battle for conservative voters.

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The GOP contest for governor, with former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, challenging incumbent Brian Kemp, is just one of several Republican-on-Republican battles fueled by former President Donald Trump's demand for allegiance to his lies about election fraud costing him the 2020 election.

The GOP contest for governor, with former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, challenging incumbent Brian Kemp, is just one of several Republican-on-Republican battles fueled by former President Donald Trump's demand for allegiance to his lies about election fraud costing him the 2020 election.

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The GOP contest for governor, with former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, challenging incumbent Brian Kemp, is just one of several Republican-on-Republican battles fueled by former President Donald Trump's demand for allegiance to his lies about election fraud costing him the 2020 election.

Leading Democrats see their problems as minor in comparison. After all, not long ago, Democrats so struggled to recruit contenders that they considered it a victory when they simply filled out a statewide slate.

But while the state party stays out of primary battles, senior officials are looking ahead to the November election, when Republicans will attempt to unify by vilifying the Democratic nominees and connect them to President Joe Biden and his sour approval ratings.

DuBose Porter, who chaired the Democratic Party of Georgia for much of the 2010s, helped sway Bailey to switch races partly in hopes that his background as an ex-prosecutor could help counter “defund the police” attacks from Republicans that are destined to intensify.

“He has a unique background that would be a perfect fit policywise in contrast with those running on the Republican side,” said Porter, who was joined by U.S. Reps. Lucy McBath and Hank Johnson, along with other well-known Democrats, in backing Bailey. “This is someone who has prosecuted cases but also defended civil rights.”

Some worry there’s a racial element to the Democratic officials pushing Bailey, who is white, to join a ticket of prominent Black leaders. Amico said powerful Democrats shouldn’t suggest that Warnock and Abrams “need a white male in the lieutenant governor’s race to be successful.”

“Women and candidates of color don’t require validation to make their campaigns successful — or their leadership to be compelling,” said Amico, who was a political newcomer when she ran in 2018 and is now backing a rival to Bailey in the race.

“The most important thing for the ticket is that the most qualified and capable candidate wins the primary. Full stop,” Amico said.

‘Confusing to voters’?

Bailey’s decision might have most benefited Jordan. Though she was favored to defeat Bailey, thanks in part to strong fundraising and support from prominent outside groups, his switch gives her a clear path to the party’s nomination unless a new contender enters the race.

Blair, who entered the superintendent race this week, said in an interview that he received “very encouraging support” from senior officials seeking to topple Republican incumbent Richard Woods, who outpolled every other candidate on the 2018 ballot.

Missing from the list of endorsements that followed their announcements were two of the biggest names in state politics. Abrams and Warnock have yet to take public sides in the statewide primaries, though some of their allies have played that role.

Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo predicted that the party will wind up with “an unbelievable ticket that represents the diversity of our state.”

Which candidates make the cut won’t be known until the summer.

State Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, was the first Democrat to enter the race for lieutenant governor, announcing his campaign hours before the final gavel of the 2021 legislative session.

With his head start, Allen said he isn’t fazed by Bailey’s threat — and that he was inundated with calls from supporters who were “doubling down” on his candidacy.

“Charlie’s decision to jump in this race makes a lot of sense to Charlie,” Allen said. “But it’s confusing to voters who have seen him run for AG for five years, then saw a press release saying otherwise.”

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State Rep. Erick Allen was the first Democrat to launch a bid for lieutenant governor in this year's elections. He questioned the push behind Charlie Bailey's decision to end his run for attorney general to join the race for lieutenant governor. “Charlie’s decision to jump in this race makes a lot of sense to Charlie,” Allen said. “But it’s confusing to voters who have seen him run for AG for five years, then saw a press release saying otherwise.” (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

State Rep. Erick Allen was the first Democrat to launch a bid for lieutenant governor in this year's elections. He questioned the push behind Charlie Bailey's decision to end his run for attorney general to join the race for lieutenant governor. “Charlie’s decision to jump in this race makes a lot of sense to Charlie,” Allen said. “But it’s confusing to voters who have seen him run for AG for five years, then saw a press release saying otherwise.” (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

caption arrowCaption
State Rep. Erick Allen was the first Democrat to launch a bid for lieutenant governor in this year's elections. He questioned the push behind Charlie Bailey's decision to end his run for attorney general to join the race for lieutenant governor. “Charlie’s decision to jump in this race makes a lot of sense to Charlie,” Allen said. “But it’s confusing to voters who have seen him run for AG for five years, then saw a press release saying otherwise.” (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J