Campaigns

Why Georgia matters to Democrats in 2020

Democrats think they can make the state a presidential, Senate and House battleground

Taking the stage before the Nov. 20 Democratic presidential debate were Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, and businessmen Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer. (MSNBC Photo)

Several of the presidential candidates who debated Wednesday night in Atlanta were sticking around on Thursday, even though some of them will be out of the race by the time Georgia holds its March 24 primary and the state has not backed a Democrat for president since 1992.

The reason for that is that Democrats up and down the ballot are expecting intense contests in Georgia next year, including two for Senate seats that could determine which party controls the chamber.

[States in the South with outsize roles in the 2020 elections]

It’s also home to the kinds of voters, especially African Americans and suburban swing voters, who will be key to contests around the country.

“Candidates have taken for granted constituencies that have been the backbone of the Democratic Party,” California Sen. Kamala Harris said Wednesday night.

“They show up when it’s, you know, close to election time, show up in a black church and want to get the vote, but just haven’t been there before,” said Harris, who’s attending a “Black Women Power Breakfast” in Atlanta on Thursday morning.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who will also be in Atlanta on Thursday morning, made the rare reference to what Georgia can offer Senate Democrats.

“The next president of the United States is going to have to do two things: Defeat Donald Trump, that’s No. 1,” he said. The second thing, he said, is to “be able to go into states like Georgia and North Carolina and other places and get a Senate majority.”

Democrats need a net gain of four Senate seats (or three if they win the White House, since the vice president can break 50-50 ties) to flip the chamber, and Georgia is the only state with two Senate races next year. 

One of the biggest Democratic stars of the night wasn’t onstage. But candidates were quick to name-drop Stacey Abrams, the former state legislator who narrowly lost last year’s gubernatorial race. Democrats have maintained that her loss was unfair, given that GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, who was then the secretary of state, enforced restrictive voting measures.

Abrams passed on running for president and Senate. In the wake of her 1-point loss to Kemp, she’s focused on voting rights — which the candidates addressed when asked about it during the debate. 

“Right here in this great state of Georgia, it was the voter suppression, particularly of African American communities, that prevented us from having a Gov. Stacey Abrams right now,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said.

The White House

Georgia is a must-win state for Trump. He carried the state by 5 points in 2016.

“Let’s understand what a battleground state is,” Abrams said at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C., last week. “A battleground state is a state where you have to compete to win.

“And the Republican Party, the Trump reelection campaign, put Georgia on their top-tier list of places where they have to fight. They’re not fighting because they think they’ve got it sewn up,” she said.

The Trump campaign ran a full-page ad in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday, featuring photos of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, with the message: “Democrats will kill Atlanta jobs.” The campaign also paid for banners pulled by planes flying around the city that read: “Democrats’ socialism will destroy Atlanta jobs.”

National Democrats have been touting their recent victories in states like Louisiana and Kentucky, where the party won races for governor, and in Virginia, where it won full legislative control. And while individual races in those states are hardly indicative of the party’s 2020 fortunes, they have given Democrats momentum heading to next year — and renewed GOP headaches about their ability to carry suburban voters

Women for Trump held an “Empower Hour” on Tuesday in Sandy Springs, one of the suburban metro Atlanta communities where women’s dislike of the president has turned the area more blue.

Abrams’ narrow loss — she fell short by just 55,000 votes, or 1 percentage point — has given many Democrats hope that they can compete statewide. 

“We wrote a new playbook,” Abrams said last week about how her 2018 campaign increased minority and youth turnout.  

And Democrats are encouraged that Georgia is becoming even more hospitable. More than 300,000 Georgians have registered to vote so far in 2019, and nearly half of those new voters are people of color and under age 30, according to Fair Fight, the voting rights group Abrams started after her 2018 loss. 

The Senate

At the Senate level, Georgia presents two opportunities for Democrats to pick up seats, or at the very least force national Republicans to spend money on what were once safe seats. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates both races Likely Republican. 

Several Democrats are trying to challenge GOP Sen. David Perdue, a close ally of the president who’s No. 8 on CQ Roll Call’s ranking of the 10 most vulnerable senators. The Democratic field includes Jon Ossoff, who lost the most expensive House special election in history in the 6th District in 2017. Also running are 2018 lieutenant governor nominee Sarah Riggs Amico and former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson.

So far, just one Democrat has come forward to run in the other Senate race, which will be a special election to fill out the remainder of Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. The three-term GOP lawmaker is resigning at the end of the year because of health reasons. 

Kemp will appoint someone to fill the seat for most of 2020, and that appointee would then have to run for the remainder of Isakson’s term in November. One of the 500 applicants for the appointment, Republican Rep. Doug Collins, has suggested he may run next fall even if he’s not Kemp’s pick.

All candidates for Isakson’s seat, regardless of party, will run together on one ballot. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will advance to a January 2021 runoff. 

The House

Democrats are trying to keep and expand their House majority heading into 2020. To that end, the party needs to hold on to Georgia’s 6th District, which Democrat Lucy McBath won last fall, and flip the 7th District, which saw the closest margin of any House race in the country last fall. 

McBath last year did what Ossoff could not, defeating Republican Karen Handel in a suburban Atlanta district that backed Trump by just 1 point. Handel is running again and secured the endorsement of both of the state’s senators this week after several of her primary opponents dropped out. Inside Elections rates the race Tilts Democratic. 

The 7th District was an early Democratic target for 2020 given how close last year’s race was. GOP Rep. Rob Woodall prevailed in a recount by just 433 votes. But when he announced he wouldn’t seek reelection, Democrats saw an even more attractive pickup opportunity in a diversifying district that Trump won by a bigger margin but shares some of the 6th District’s affluent, suburban characteristics.

Plenty of candidates have lined up to run on both sides of the aisle in this open-seat race, including professor Carolyn Bourdeaux, who lost last year’s recount. Some Republicans, however, think they have a better shot at holding the seat without Woodall, who was criticized for running a lackluster campaign in 2018. Inside Elections rates it a Toss-up race.  

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