The Senate race in Georgia is shaping up to host the first test case for Democrats’ push to play in demographically diversifying states currently dominated by Republicans.
A surge in the black and Hispanic populations around Atlanta has altered the political outlook in Georgia’s statewide races for decades to come.
But for Democrats, the future is now. The party is banking on the burgeoning minority-populated and increasingly suburban electorate paying off in 2014, when an open-seat Senate race represents its most promising offensive opportunity of the cycle.
“I believe that Georgia is in a great position to go for a Democrat not only in 2014, but 2016 as well,” said Tharon Johnson, a top Democratic consultant in the state and President Barack Obama’s national Southern regional director in 2012.
Next year, the party’s hopes rest on the perfect political storm — including the quality of likely candidate Michelle Nunn’s campaign, the registration of tens of thousands of potential voters and a GOP primary race to the right that debilitates the eventual nominee.
Operatives from both parties agree Georgia is headed for swing-state status, as suburban Atlanta continues to sprawl. They estimate that, as soon as 2016, the state will get the kind of attention from presidential contenders that Virginia’s new purple-state status invited in 2008.
The Peach State was considered safe Republican territory in 2012, when Obama’s team declined to invest any advertising or field efforts like those seen in swing states. Still, Obama won nearly 46 percent of the vote.
Blacks now make up 31 percent of Georgia’s population and about 30 percent of its active voters, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. Hispanics now account for 9 percent of the population but remain underrepresented in the voter rolls at just 2 percent. Similar demographic trends are also occurring in states such as Texas and Arizona.
The lingering question is: How soon can Democrats use their demographic advantages to consistently compete in federal elections in these states? Some national Democratic strategists believe that their first, best shot is in Georgia.
Johnson listed five specific necessities for Nunn to win and show her state as competitive:
• Full engagement from the political operation of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, the most popular Democrat in the state.
• A coordinated voter registration operation that targets African-Americans, Hispanics and young, white progressive voters.
• Significant assistance from national Democratic organizations, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
• A coalition of voters based on the 1998 road map drawn by Michael Thurmond, Thurbert Baker and Roy Barnes — Democrats who all won statewide.
• Avoiding a costly primary.
Democrats’ chances increased in January, when Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced his retirement. As their top chance to pick up a seat, there is a strong probability DSCC officials will spend significant money to win it.
But the timing isn’t perfect. Even though Georgia is headed toward becoming a routine battleground, midterm electorates are generally older and whiter — which favors Republicans.
“I think a Democrat winning in Georgia right now for this seat is at best slim to none, and leaning toward none,” said Tom Perdue, a longtime consultant to Chambliss. “And not her name — I mean N-O-N-E.”
Nunn is the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, a four-term moderate Democrat who last graced a ballot in Georgia in 1990. She’s made a name in her own right by running the nonprofit Points of Light Foundation.
The political neophyte hasn’t announced her candidacy yet, but she has been making the rounds with donors and elected officials, and she could be in the race by the end of the month. Since Rep. John Barrow took his name out of the running last month, the party’s support is clearly coalescing around Nunn.
Dave Heller, who counts three of Georgia’s four black Democratic members of Congress as clients, cited several reasons Nunn is a strong candidate: She is a woman, she already has a statewide donor network and her family name will make it hard to brand her as a traditional liberal — which he said has been the GOP playbook in the state.
Republicans counter that Barrow, a Blue Dog Democrat, was the stronger opponent and that Democrats are over-hyping Nunn.
GOP consultant Joel McElhannon doubts Nunn has the profile to win over enough of the Republican-leaning women necessary to win Georgia in a midterm — at least not this one. He also cited the turmoil at the state Democratic Party, where the chairman just resigned.
“Nunn would need to break away support from suburban white voters, namely women, or break away rural white voters to put together a winning coalition,” McElhannon said. “None of those groups are likely to be persuaded to support someone who has no business or political accomplishments of note.”
Democrats concede that Nunn likely needs to run a perfect campaign to win. Also, Republicans must live up to their potential for an ideological primary hosting a crossfire of GOP-aligned outside groups.
So far the race includes three members of Congress — Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston — and former Secretary of State Karen Handel. Republican operatives have expressed concern that nominating a conservative such as Broun could give Democrats an opening, similar to what happened last year in Missouri and Indiana.
A bruising primary and fringe GOP nominee always helps, Heller added. But for Nunn to take advantage, she’ll need to excite the minority community, define herself as more than a traditional Democrat and define her opponent as something other than a mainstream Republican.
“If she can do those things,” Heller said, “I think she’s very well-positioned to win.”