- In the not so distant past, Democrats held an iron grip on the governor’s office in Georgia. There was an unbroken string of Democratic governors in Georgia from Benjamin Conley in 1872 to Roy Barnes in 2002. Sure, these weren’t the types of Democrats you see now. Most were very conservative, although some statewide Democrats started moving to the ideological center after black voters joined the Democratic Party post-1964. But still, they weren’t Republicans and, despite GOP gains after 1994, it seemed unlikely that a Republican would sit in the governor’s mansion prior to the 2002 election.
In 2002, Republican State Senator Sonny Perdue challenged sitting Democratic Governor Roy Barnes in a longshot bid. Although the south had generally been trending toward the GOP in prior gubernatorial elections (Georgia included) and white voters were now giving over 60 percent of their votes to Republican candidates (up from just 33 percent in 1986), Barnes had tremendous spending and name recognition advantages over Perdue. Moreover, he had defeated his Republican opponent in 1998 by over 8 percentage points and his moderate “New Democrat” policy positions sat well with Georgia voters who were conservative by nature, but had strong ties to the Democratic Party.
Perdue’s victory was shocking, as he won 118 of Georgia’s 159 counties and 53 percent of the two-party vote. Public polling strongly underestimated his chances of winning. His support was particularly strong in rural Georgia, where the average share of the Republican vote went from 38 percent in 1998 to 56 percent in 2002. Rural white voters were the game changers in 2002. These voters had not lent the same level of support to Republican gubernatorial candidates in 1990, 1994, or 1998. They finally turned to the GOP in 2002 though— maybe to support Perry-native Perdue, maybe because of Governor Barnes’ position on the Georgia state flag. Whatever their reasons, their party-switching handed the governor’s mansion to the GOP in 2002, and it has not let go since.
15 years and three elections later, the Georgia Democratic Party is in bad shape. It has little influence outside of Atlanta and hub cities, and it has a tough path ahead in 2018. Yes, Georgia’s demographics are changing. But, it is still 60 percent white and gave over 2 million votes to Donald Trump in 2016. Hillary Clinton won just 32 of 159 counties, and most of these were in the Atlanta area or near a hub city. Democrats’ white voter problem (they are taking around 25 percent in statewide contests) is not going away by 2018, making it difficult for them to win a statewide race.
It is possible that Democrats can recapture their pre-2002 mojo, but a few key things must fall in place next year. Most importantly, they need the Republicans to screw up. This can happen in two ways. If Donald Trump continues to stir controversy at the national level, then they could be bolstered by the same increase in turnout and enthusiasm that nearly handed them Congressional District 6 on April 18. Trump’s presence on the ballot helped Democrats win Cobb and Gwinnett in 2016. The CD-6 race was certainly Trump-centric, but he was not on the ballot and Republicans still continued to see losses in formerly reliable areas like Sandy Springs and East Cobb.
This is a good sign that of party building for the Democrats. Research from Columbia University shows that voting can be habit-forming. This means that the Democrats who came out to vote for Jon Ossoff might be coming back in 2018. With the right candidate, other suburbanites who may have voted for Romney in 2012, but Clinton in 2016 could also be in play. These efforts will be made easier if Republicans follow through on part two of their potential statewide blunder: nominating the wrong candidate.
If Republicans nominate a candidate who is either closely aligned with Trump, is seen as a rabble-rousing extremist, or is widely unpopular, the Democrats will have a path to victory. Their lack of appeal among rural white voters might keep them from winning, but they will be able to mount a serious challenge to the GOP and put Republicans on the ropes in 2020 and beyond.
A favorable national climate and a weak Republican candidate are necessary but not sufficient conditions for a Democratic victory in 2018. The Democrats must also decide where their votes are going to come from. They could nominate a candidate who can appeal to the white suburban voters who are usually Republicans, but voted for Hillary Clinton. This is what they tried in 2010 with Jason Carter, who ran as the moderate grandson of Georgia’s only president. He was soundly defeated by Nathan Deal, but it should not be forgotten that he was running in one of Obama’s midterm elections, typically poor showings for the president’s party. The same will probably be true for Republicans in 2018, especially with a president as unpopular as Trump.
Democrats could also try to run up margins in Fulton, DeKalb, Chatham, and other counties that have high concentrations of black voters. Although 51 percent of the Democratic primary voters in 2016 were black, there has never been a black nominee for governor in Georgia. I would expect that there are high-level conversations going on in the Georgia Democratic Party about how to approach the party’s racial divide. In a world of limited resources, it will be difficult for Democrats to appeal to both moderate whites and urban blacks, so they will have to make choices about who to target in 2018.
The race issue (which is tangled up with socioeconomic issues) may be fleshed out in a primary battle. Right now, it only looks certain that House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams will jump in. She would be the first black and first female gubernatorial nominee in Georgia history. She isn’t a moderate, but she is not on the far-left either. It is possible she will be joined in the Democratic primary by either Jason Carter or State Representative Stacey Evans, both white moderates from the greater Atlanta area who are tied to former Governor Barnes. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed might also join, but he might be hampered by some of the legal issues coming out of the city hall bribery scandal.
Democrats have a lot to figure out about themselves if they want to win in 2018. They desperately need to have a seat at the table when redistricting starts after 2020. Winning the governor’s race and preventing the GOP from retaking a supermajority in the Georgia House is probably their best bet. Changing demographics in Georgia certainly bode well for the future of the Democratic Party. But, before these inevitable trends set in, Democrats have a lot of ground to make up and plenty of decisions to make about where to go from here.