Ge­or­gia de­bate sig­nals Demo­cratic hopes

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Bill Bar­row

PEACHTREE COR­NERS, GA. » Beth Moore would typ­i­cally fit the mold of a Ge­or­gia Repub­li­can. She at­tended pri­vate school in the af­flu­ent, mostly white north­ern At­lanta sub­urbs, at­tended the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia, prac­tices law and mar­ried a Repub­li­can.

But the 37-year-old is part of a class of 17 Demo­cratic House fresh­men in the state leg­is­la­ture, elected last year in an ur­ban and sub­ur­ban surge that nearly put Stacey Abrams in the gov­er­nor’s man­sion. De­spite Abrams’ de­feat, Moore be­lieves that other Demo­cratic vic­to­ries, in­clud­ing hers, rep­re­sent a “new Ge­or­gia” that will be on dis­play as 10 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates de­scend on the state this week for the Wed­nes­day de­bate at ac­tor Ty

ler Perry’s At­lanta film com­plex.

“Ge­or­gia is at a turn­ing point,” Moore said. “We have en­joyed a lot of eco­nomic suc­cess over the years that has kept na­tive­born Ge­or­gians here and has at­tracted new Ge­or­gians from all over the coun­try and all over the world. Those years of suc­cess have led to a new vot­ing bloc in the South that is hun­gry for change.”

In­deed, growth and ur­ban­iza­tion over re­cent decades has made Ge­or­gia’s pop­u­la­tion younger, less na­tive to the state and less white. That, com­bined with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s strug­gles among pre­vi­ously GOP-lean­ing white col­lege grad­u­ates, has put Ge­or­gia on the cusp of pres­i­den­tial bat­tle­ground sta­tus.

The ques­tion is how close.

“The road to the White House runs through Ge­or­gia,” Demo­cratic state Chair­woman Nikema Williams said mat­ter-of-factly.

Repub­li­cans counter with skep­ti­cism, even as they ac­knowl­edge de­mo­graphic trends.

“Only in the event of a land­slide na­tion­ally does Don­ald Trump lose Ge­or­gia,” said GOP poll­ster Whit Ayres, point­ing to Trump’s 5 per­cent­age point win in Ge­or­gia in 2016. Ari­zona, Ayres said, is the like­lier Sun Belt state to flip to Democrats, while Texas and Ge­or­gia are a tier be­low, still a few elec­tion cy­cles away from tilt­ing.

The 2020 elec­tions of­fer plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties for the two sides to prove their case.

Be­sides the pres­i­dency, two U.S. Se­nate seats are on the bal­lot. Repub­li­can David Per­due, a staunch Trump ally, faces re­elec­tion for the first time. A spe­cial elec­tion will de­cide a suc­ces­sor to re­tir­ing Repub­li­can

Johnny Isak­son.

GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, who de­feated Abrams, will ap­point a suc­ces­sor to Isak­son later this year. That pick is ex­pected to run for the seat.

In the shift­ing At­lanta sub­urbs, Demo­crat Lucy McBath will seek a sec­ond term in a con­gres­sional dis­trict once rep­re­sented by for­mer House Speaker Newt Gin­grich, while the neigh­bor­ing dis­trict will have a com­pet­i­tive fight to re­place Repub­li­can Rob Woodall, who an­nounced his re­tire­ment not long af­ter sur­viv­ing the 2018 midterms by fewer than 1,000 votes.

At the state level, the en­tire leg­is­la­ture will be on the bal­lot, with Democrats tar­get­ing 16 more Repub­li­can House dis­tricts with hopes of win­ning a ma­jor­ity — a re­sult that would al­low Democrats a stronger hand in re­draw­ing con­gres­sional and leg­isla­tive bound­aries af­ter the 2020 cen­sus.

Ryan Ma­honey, a top out­side ad­viser to Kemp, warned Democrats to be wary. He pointed to the same strong econ­omy that Moore cited when she ex­plained the metropoli­tan boom. Trump rubs some typ­i­cally Repub­li­can sub­ur­ban­ites the wrong way,

Ma­honey said, but that’s harder for Democrats to ex­ploit with un­em­ploy­ment un­der 4%.

“The re­al­ity is a ma­jor­ity of Ge­or­gians are happy with a thriv­ing econ­omy and the over­all di­rec­tion of the state,” Ma­honey said.

He noted Kemp’s ris­ing poll num­bers and a ten­ure with plenty to sat­isfy his con­ser­va­tive base. Kemp signed a re­stric­tive abor­tion bill that in­censed Democrats and el­e­vated sev­eral fresh­man law­mak­ers like Moore. She ref­er­enced that law when fram­ing Repub­li­cans as “a party that no longer rep­re­sents the val­ues” of dis­tricts like hers.

Kemp still de­clines to ex­pand Med­i­caid in­sur­ance un­der Democrats’ 2010 health care over­haul, in­stead of­fer­ing a pend­ing state-based plan he says will ex­pand cov­er­age.

But the gov­er­nor has found some com­mon ground with Democrats.

Moore and many of her fel­low Democrats voted for a Kemp-GOP bud­get that in­cluded a teacher pay raise, and Democrats, some­times be­grudg­ingly, credit Kemp with fill­ing state boards and ju­di­cial posts with a di­verse slate.

As with any com­pet­i­tive elec­torate, Ge­or­gia’s di­rec­tion will turn on a com­bi­na­tion of vari­ables within an elec­torate that now ex­ceeds 7 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers.

In the gov­er­nor’s race, Abrams ran up a record midterm turnout among non­white vot­ers, es­pe­cially among those who hadn’t reg­u­larly voted. It was enough to ex­ceed Hil­lary Clin­ton’s 2016 vote to­tal by about 46,000 votes. But it was still 55,000 short of Kemp’s num­bers and, look­ing ahead to 2020, about 166,000 short of Trump’s haul of nearly 2.1 mil­lion.

And de­spite her gains in metro ar­eas, Abrams lost con­sid­er­able ground in Ge­or­gia’s ru­ral coun­ties, with Kemp hit­ting 80% or higher in sev­eral coun­ties that hadn’t even given Trump such lop­sided mar­gins.

There’s plenty of de­bate about whether Democrats’ pres­i­den­tial for­tunes de­pend on who they nom­i­nate.

Ma­honey ar­gued that Democrats aban­don any shot if they nom­i­nate a pro­gres­sive like El­iz­a­beth War­ren or Bernie Sanders. Williams said it’s more about do­ing the work to as­sem­ble a di­verse coali­tion, re­gard­less of ide­ol­ogy. And there’s cer­tainly a wild card if Abrams ends up as the nom­i­nee’s run­ning mate, a prospect she has said she’s open to.

Democrats see a path to vic­tory in new voter regis­tra­tions — more than 300,000 since the 2018 elec­tion, thanks to the state’s au­to­matic regis­tra­tion law when res­i­dents ap­ply for driver’s li­censes. Most of the new reg­is­trants are in ur­ban coun­ties where Abrams out­paced Kemp and Clin­ton led Trump.

Fur­ther, Democrats and ad­vo­cacy groups are ask­ing courts to or­der changes to some Ge­or­gia elec­tion pro­ce­dures and block the Repub­li­can sec­re­tary of state from strip­ping thou­sands of “in­ac­tive” vot­ers from the rolls.

Be­yond the sub­ur­ban swings, those ir­reg­u­lar vot­ers could hold keys for both par­ties.

Ma­honey ar­gued that Trump and Repub­li­cans have left plenty of votes on the ta­ble. “There’s a wide swath out there that comes out only in elec­tions with Don­ald Trump on the ticket,” he said.

Moore, mean­while, said she’s look­ing for at least one more Demo­cratic vote at home: her Repub­li­can hus­band. “He’s not happy with them,” she said, de­scrib­ing him as an­other sub­ur­ban Repub­li­can dis­en­chanted with Trump. “He’s look­ing for an op­tion.”

MICHAEL A. MCCOY — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

For­mer Ge­or­gia House Demo­cratic Leader Stacey Abrams speaks at the Na­tional Press Club in Wash­ing­ton. Growth and ur­ban­iza­tion has made Ge­or­gia’s pop­u­la­tion younger, less na­tive to the state and less white. That, com­bined with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s strug­gles among pre­vi­ously GOP-lean­ing white col­lege grad­u­ates, has put Ge­or­gia on the cusp of pres­i­den­tial bat­tle­ground sta­tus. The ques­tion is how close.

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