Georgia Democrats have never recovered from the 2002 election. That year, Republican Sonny Perdue, formerly one of the Democrats’ own, challenged Governor Roy Barnes. The Democrats, knowing the tide was finally turning against them, had used redistricting to carve up state and congressional legislative districts in advantageous ways. Georgia senate districts ran across the state. Representatives for the Georgia house were packed into multi-member districts. The 11th Congressional District was twisted up inside itself in such a fashion that a person could pole-vault from one side of it to another, crossing over a different congressional district. The 1st ran along the coast, halfway across the southern state line, then up I-75 to Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins—nearly the geographic center of Georgia.
Democrats, worried about their legislative hold, were confident of keeping the governor’s mansion. All the polling confirmed it. Then election night hit. Not only did their hold on the state legislature crumble, but Perdue was elected the first Republican governor since reconstruction. The GOP expanded its legislative majority two years later, and in 2006, when the nation turned its back on Republicans, Georgia turned its back on Democrats. Not a single Democrat won statewide. Republicans controlled the executive branch, state legislature, the congressional delegation, and both U.S. Senate seats.
By 2013, Democratic Party of Georgia executives were suing each other as various factions leaked embarrassing information to the press. Last summer, they met to elect a new chairman, and through a series of odd-ball bylaws designed to increase diversity—the chair and vice-chair must be of opposite gender, any racial group that constitutes 20 percent of voters must be represented in the officers—the party determined that only a white man would be eligible. But along the way, the share of voting-age Georgians who are black crept above thirty percent, a sign to the Democrats that the state is shifting back their way.
It speaks volumes about Georgia’s Democrats that in 2014 they have gone back to the seventies for the familiar. Their gubernatorial nominee is Jason Carter, former President Jimmy Carter’s grandson. Their Senate candidate is Michelle Nunn, former Senator Sam Nunn’s daughter. Though there are other candidates who will fight in the Democratic primaries, voters, polls show, have largely rallied to quickly consolidate the field.
GOP voters, meanwhile, face a cavalcade of candidates. In the Republican primary for the Senate—open because Saxby Chambliss is retiring—the count stands at seven. Five are legitimate contenders. Of those, three are sitting congressmen. Jack Kingston leads the bunch in fundraising and establishment support. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey are running as the “authentic” conservatives. Broun truly is. Gingrey is during election years, when he often waits for Broun to pronounce on a subject, then copies that stance.
Between the two, Gingrey is slightly ahead, but this is largely because he has higher name identification. Gingrey’s 11th Congressional District, the one so favorable to pole-vaulters, has shifted repeatedly over the past decade. He once represented western Georgia into metro Atlanta. The district moved north, then east, and now covers the northwestern metro-Atlanta area, with a finger into Buckhead, the rich Republican area uptown. That’s not to say he has enjoyed smooth sailing: Late last year much of his campaign team, including the manager, jumped ship. “I wish him nothing but the best,” one told Roll Call, “but when you reach that point in a campaign where you’re at the crossroads, something’s got to give.”
If conservatives could will a man into the Senate, it would be Paul Broun, who would charge into the upper chamber and make Ted Cruz look liberal. Yet privately, Republicans fret that Broun could be 2014’s Todd Akin. He once said evolution and the big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell”—the kind of remark that gives donors at country clubs heart palpitations. When he goes off script, he is prone to making unfortunate headlines in the next day’s paper. But every one of Paul Broun’s electoral victories has been a hard-fought slog. He knows how to win.
Kingston represents South Georgia’s military and coastal country, and he has never faced seriously challenging primaries or general elections. He is a terrific social conservative, but on fiscal issues his scorecards from Washington groups are no better than Saxby Chambliss’s rather poor showing, which puts him outside the consensus of the Republican base. Kingston is an objectively wonderful person, whose easy-going manner puts constituents at ease—but he is also the establishment.
Beyond the congressmen is Karen Handel, formerly Georgia’s secretary of state. She won statewide in 2006, but in a bid for governor in 2010 lost in a runoff to Nathan Deal. She went on to work for the Komen Foundation, and helped convince the breast-cancer advocacy group to defund Planned Parenthood. Komen, of course, reversed itself (based in part on Karl Rove’s advice, according to Handel). Amid the controversy Handel walked the plank. Her campaign has not raised much money, and she is tied for third in polling, but she has higher name recognition than other candidates and has, unlike any of her opponents, already won a statewide race. On top of that, some Republicans fancy nominating a pro-life woman to challenge all this “War on Women” nonsense.
That leaves the wild card: David Perdue, former Governor Sonny Perdue’s cousin. He built a career as a CEO, having turned around both the Reebok and Dollar General brands. Perdue has much of his cousin’s campaign team behind him and currently leads in the polls, courtesy of a massive name-building advertising campaign painting him as a true outsider and his opponents as career politicians. The ad features crying babies with diapers labeled Jack, Karen, Phil, and Paul. However, in a world of celebrity politicians, it remains to be seen if a man who lives in a gated community on Sea Island, itself a gated, private island, can relate to the average Georgian. CEOs have a tendency to be bad candidates and worse senators. For now, Perdue is hitting all the right notes, has pleasantly surprised early critics with his personality and soft-spoken manner, and did well in a Middle Georgia debate. Where he stands on the issues is another matter. He has made a few missteps, most notably on Common Core, which he seemed to endorse, and Dodd-Frank, which he said he wouldn’t repeal.
Whichever Republican wins the nomination will face Michelle Nunn, daughter of a senator and CEO of the Points of Light Foundation, an organization, inspired by George H.W. Bush, that encourages volunteerism. Nunn is playing to her strength: aloofness from politics. She has refused to participate in debates with the other Democrats. She has refused to grant significant access to reporters. She has spent her time quietly raising money from liberals across the country. What we know so far is that she supports Obamacare, gun control, and abortion rights.
Democrats, recognizing the slow but steady shift in Georgia’s demographics, hope to make the state competitive. Their problem is that Georgia is not there yet. The Georgia Democratic Party is not up to snuff. It does not have the money or operation to make itself viable. Michelle Nunn’s name recognition is based on her father, not herself. Consequently, Georgia’s Democrats intend to rely on Organizing for Action. They believe the president’s campaign operation, which did not win him Georgia, will now win them Georgia. They hope outside liberal groups like Better Georgia, a hysterical left-wing operation prone to histrionics and self-parody, will whip white liberals into a get-out-the-vote frenzy. They hope the winds will shift in their favor. But most of all, Democrats in Georgia pin their hopes on two long shots.
First, they hope Jason Carter can run a competitive, personality-driven campaign against Governor Nathan Deal. The governor is old—seventy-one to be exact. He is under a cloud of suspicion after the FBI subpoenaed employees at the state’s ethics commission over its handling of an investigation into him. And though he may be a Republican governor, he seems to get support based on the “R” next to his name and not because of his personality. Democrats hope a youthful Carter can toss off his grandfather’s baggage and turn out those voters Michelle Nunn cannot.
Second, Democrats privately and not so privately hope that Republicans nominate either Paul Broun or Phil Gingrey. Whether true or fair, Democrats have convinced themselves that conservatives will choose one of the two, and that either man will turn into a non-stop gaffe machine. Democrats hope to embarrass the state into Nunn’s waiting arms.
Thus far there is no evidence the Georgia Republicans are contemplating suicide. To forestall the bloodletting, the Georgia GOP smartly moved up its primary from mid-July to May 20. There is also no evidence Jason Carter can run the campaign Democrats want. His most illuminating statement on policy thus far came during a Huffington Post interview wherein he refused to answer a question on education policy, in his words, “because I have, like, brisket in my teeth.”
If Democrats win, it will more likely be because Republicans threw it all away than because Democrats mounted a competent, credible campaign. Their star, Michelle Nunn, remains mostly hidden from view and untested. Primaries make candidates stronger, but only if the candidates engage. The Republicans are engaging. Nunn stays in the shadows waiting.