Can Georgia Democrats Make the State Turn Blue Ahead of Schedule?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 19 2014 7:41 PM

Can Georgia Democrats Make the State Turn Blue Ahead of Schedule?

They bottomed out in 2010. But the state’s Democrats are using the GOP’s right-wing tilt to mount their comeback.

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Nunn has no legislative record at all, spending her career in charity organizations before running this year. That’s attracted some support from Republicans, and Nunn has only embraced Democratic stances when she’s been pushed to do so. Her first TV ad ended with her rejecting “special treatment” on health care for members of Congress—meaning she supported a dilatory Republican effort to deny subsidies for their care under the ACA. In her final televised debate against a field of fringe candidates, Nunn was dared to “say President Obama in any of your speeches.” She responded with a lukewarm statement about how proud she’d been to work with the president and his predecessors.

But she and Carter are all the Democrats have at the moment. Georgia, like North Carolina before it, is home to a “Moral Monday” protest movement uniting the NAACP and progressive groups against Republican legislation. Tim Franzen, a 37-year-old organizer with the American Friends Service Committee, takes questions about the campaign from an office in downtown Atlanta, decorated by posters from the campaign to close the School of the Americas and to block banks from foreclosing on homes. He walks through this year’s plans—the first of a multiyear strategy—to build progressive momentum across the state.

“We’re going to Savannah, we’re going to Atlanta twice, we’re going to Augusta, Dalton, Gainesville—anywhere that has even a medium-sized college, anywhere with a medium-sized population,” he says. “It’s going to take longer than North Carolina. We’ve never been a progressive state.”

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To pull this off, the Moral Monday activists were going to register voters—“we want to do 10,000 between now and the election”—and team up with Georgia WAND, a group that focuses on the female vote. “When we look at this election cycle,” says Franze, “the most powerful demographic is going to be African-American women.”

But why would they turn out this year? The strategies of Carter and Nunn are designed to offend as few white conservatives as possible while counting on a backlash to turn out their actual base. Other Democrats have shown how not to do that. In 2010, black Democratic Rep. Artur Davis ran for governor of Alabama and opposed the Affordable Care Act, with his eye on the general election. Black voters rebelled and nominated a white Democrat in the primary by a landslide.

Nunn isn’t making Davis’s mistake, but she’s trying to say as little about “progressive” issues as she can. Last week, in an interview with MSNBC, Nunn carefully avoided saying whether she would have voted for the Affordable Care Act—“I was working at Points of Light”—while rattling off some of her preferred changes to the law and sticking up for the Medicaid expansion. That’s the message, but MSNBC saw the dodge, and Nunn ended Monday with an AP story about her “struggle” to explain herself.

The candidate had a slightly easier time talking about Michael Boggs. On Friday, after most of Georgia’s congressional delegation had condemned the conservative court nominee and called for the Senate to reject him, Nunn told Politico that she “share[d] some of the concerns that have been raised by the Senate committee members.” She wasn’t a hard no, but she wasn’t running away from the position of black Democrats, either.

On Saturday, I followed Nunn into a hybrid campaign/charity event in a poor section of Atlanta. Nunn volunteers set up a table at the front of Perkerson Elementary School, presenting a campaign sign-up sheet and free T-shirts to the 300 locals who showed up to paint walls, restore a basketball court, and plug fresh mulch into a playground. I asked her whether she had anything else to say about Boggs, or about what she looked for in a jurist.

“How are we going to ensure that our judicial nominees represent and are inclusive of the full diversity, the full spectrum of our Georgia constituents?” she asked. (Nunn has a possibly genetic habit of referring to Georgians, whom she does not yet represent, as constituents.) “I think that’s a starting point. Someone who represents the best ideals of jurisprudence [and has] experiences in the world that make that individual empathetic and wise and capable. “

It was a soft remix of Barack Obama’s 2009 explanation of what he wanted from a Supreme Court nominee, before picking Sonia Sotomayor. Nunn’s defense of the Affordable Care Act was exactly what Democrats wanted from Georgia—talk about the Medicaid expansion. Voters, she said, “see that we have 650,000 people that are going without insurance that, if they lived in Kentucky, they’d have access to.”

This is no call to action, but former Sen. Sam Nunn didn’t do that sort of thing, either. Michelle Nunn’s success, Jason Carter’s success, and the whole Georgia Democratic revival depends on a base remaining angry and motivated and in the streets—and then ready to back centrist-sounding, centrist-acting candidates who shrink from the national party. Before they inherit the state’s demographic future, Democrats need to be inoffensive to its demographic present. They don’t need the voter who, say, marches against Common Core or kicked in a TV when Michael Sam celebrated his NFL drafting with a same-sex kiss.

“That’s not who I want,” Abrams said. “What I want is the person who flinched a little bit and still watched it and said, ‘Eh, okay.’ The person who has evolved.”

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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