African-American women candidates could be big part of ground game

By Tom Baxter

We’re in the year of the ground game. Campaigns still spend tons of money flailing at each other on television, but it was the ground game that ambushed Eric Cantor in Virginia, and saved the day for Thad Cochran in Mississippi.

And in Georgia, it was the strength of David Perdue’s ground game which gave him the winning edge in the U.S. Senate primary runoff.

With the ground game’s importance in mind, perhaps the biggest story that didn’t get a lot of attention last week was the consolidation of a Democratic ticket which is a first in the nation’s history.

The names of Connie Stokes, Valarie Wilson, Doreen Carter, Liz Johnson and Robbin Shipp haven’t generated as many headlines, combined, as the sixth Democratic woman on the ticket, Michelle Nunn. But these five African-American women candidates — for lieutenant governor, superintendent of education, secretary of state, insurance commissioner and labor commissioner, respectively — could potentially have a big impact on Nunn’s race, as well as Jason Carter’s bid for governor.

The benchmark for comparison is 1998, when the first-time nature of Thurbert Baker’s race for attorney general and Michael Thurmond’s for secretary of state increased African-American turnout to the benefit of Roy Barnes in the governor’s race. African-American women voters comprise the heart of the Democratic base, and they should be key to the party’s ground game this year.

Democrats are planning a statewide tour to showcase these candidates, but to have a real impact on turnout, the Democrats have to seriously contest some races they aren’t considered to have a shot at. And they should: Perdue and Nathan Deal aren’t taking anything for granted in their races, but a good deal of complacency has settled in down ticket among the Republicans.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has made a major ground-game investment in Nunn’s race. Georgia is one of 10 states on which the committee is focusing its Bannock Street Project, an ambitious effort to replicate the successful turnout efforts of the last two presidential campaigns with high-tech voter targeting and a lot of field staff on the ground.

Against this data-driven blitz will be pitted an operation which already has surprised a lot of Republicans with its ability to turn out crucial votes. The fact that Perdue got the most votes in the first primary was generally forgotten in the wave of endorsements for U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, and the polls which seemed to show the congressman pulling ahead in a tight race. But Perdue benefited from a turnout operation which has been honed now over three statewide elections — his, and his cousin Sonny’s two races for governor. This could be a classic matchup of two different styles of ground game.

Perdue also benefited from a tendency which shows up all across the ballot, and bears strong similarities to races elsewhere in the country this year. There have been a number of efforts to analyze it through the complicated filter of tea party politics, but this tendency can be expressed more simply.

It’s the preference of many Republican primary voters for a fresh face over a known quantity, even if the politics of the known quantity they’re rejecting are pretty much like theirs.

That hasn’t been universally true, and there are special factors in every race. But the outcomes in the Barry Loudermilk-Bob Barr and the Jody Hice-Mike Collins congressional races (Collins being a newcomer but more a known quantity by virtue of his father) point strongly to this tendency. Perdue had just enough distance from his cousin, and Kingston had enough baggage from being in Congress, for the effect to play out in the Senate race, also.

About Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.
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