ATLANTA—Hanging on the largest wall in Rep. Stacey Abrams’ office, there’s a handy visual reminder of how rotten things are for Democrats. It displays every legislative district in the state, in bright colors, with photographs of Abrams’ colleagues plunked inside them. They are outnumbered, 119 to 60, in districts that cut jaggedly across the terrain to keep the Republicans in power indefinitely. That was the point. They drew the map after winning one of 2010’s many GOP landslides, in a year when nine Georgia Democratic legislators threw up their hands and switched parties.
It’s easy to view Abrams, the first woman and the first black leader of the House Democrats, as the captain of a permanent minority. She views herself and her Democrats as the beneficiaries—eventually—of Republican hubris.
“They were going after a supermajority,” she says, pointing at the map. “They actually drew themselves 124 seats. But those 124 seats became competitive in a way they wouldn’t have, had they drawn 110 seats. Each year, we will double the number of pick-ups that we have, in part because in order to draw so many seats in a state that is so increasingly Democratic and demographically diverse, they had to draw too many slim margins. We can nibble away with that this year, and in 2016 and 2018 we can take much bigger slices. 2014 advanced our agenda by two years.”
She ticks off the reasons. Republicans have run Georgia since 2003, and first-term Gov. Nathan Deal has struggled to keep above water. He won his office in a 10-point rout over a former Democratic governor, but his lead over state Sen. Jason Carter—the grandson of the 39th president—is in single digits. The Democratic candidate for an open U.S. Senate seat will be Michelle Nunn, the do-gooding daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn. The party had been courting her for years, and now she’s tied in polling with any possible Republican nominee, all of whom she’s out-fundraised by a factor of at least 2–1. On May 20, two of them will be forced into a two-month runoff, while Nunn campaigns freely and stacks dollars.
And those are just the horse-race factors. Democrats are counting on a backlash to a gun bill that legalized firearms in bars and churches. They expect voters to blame the Republicans for larger class sizes and a spike in the cost of teachers’ health plans. And they’re shaming Republicans for turning down the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which has spawned a steady run of stories about doomed or closing rural hospitals.
“Most people viewed Medicaid as sort of a poor people’s program,” Abrams says. “What they’re starting to realize is that it’s actually the funding for their hospitals. You lose one of those hospitals and you lose an economic center. A lot of the effect of that won’t be felt until July, when they start budgeting for next year.”
That’s the theory, but none of it will matter unless Democrats turn out Georgia’s growing, nonwhite population. In 2004, the Kerry-Edwards ticket lost Georgia by 17 points, with an electorate that was 70 percent white. In 2008, Barack Obama came within five points of winning Georgia with an electorate that was only 66 percent white. There were no state exit polls in 2012, but the president’s re-election campaign lost the state by only eight points, less than public surveys had predicted, helping Abrams’ Democrats win in a few of those gerrymandered seats.
Georgia Democrats now have to figure out how to make the electorate look like it does in an Obama year, minus Barack Obama. They want, basically, to turn their state into the next Virginia, where a population that’s growing less and less white can elect Democrats. No other state in the South has figured out how to replace the long-gone Dixiecrat/black majority with a majority of white liberals and nonwhites. By pulling out the nonwhite vote, by pulling maybe 30 or 31 percent of whites, they can elect Carter or Nunn.
But nobody pretends that the legacy candidates have the same appeal as the first black president. Every Georgia Democrat remembers the 2008 Senate race and runoff. Jim Martin, the perfectly adequate Democratic candidate, came within three points of Sen. Saxby Chambliss. That forced a runoff, which Martin lost by 15 points. The Republican vote had fallen by 34 percent, but the Obama-free Democratic vote had collapsed by 48 percent. It mirrored what happened in every midterm in the new, red Georgia.
Now, the Democratic base needs to get thrilled about two candidates who are running to the center. Carter actually voted for the gun bill, in a naked attempt to neutralize the issue. “They’re unhappy about it,” suggested Abrams, “but they’ve been unhappy about lots of things. People are disappointed, but they’re not willing to sacrifice Jason to Gov. Deal.”