Why the U.S. Senate race matters to Democrats, win or lose

By Tom Baxter

It’s a fact not much remarked on that the closest thing to a frontrunner we have so far in the squishy-soft field for next year’s U.S. Senate race in Georgia is a Democrat.

In a survey conducted in February, Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, had former Sen. Max Cleland leading  all five of the Republicans it polled (Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey, Karen Handel, Jack Kingston and Tom Price). Harper Polling, a Republican firm, was in the field about the same time and had Cleland leading  his strongest Republican rival (Kingston, according to their numbers) by a wider margin than PPP.

There’s good reason no one pays this much attention. Cleland, who would be 72 by the time the election rolls around, has expressed no interest in the race. As a widely recognized name, his lead is simply a reflection of the low name-ID of all the interested Republicans, who in the more recent Insider Advantage/Morris New Service poll continue to be bunched up in the mid-teens.

Neither of the two Democrats who are the object of most of the serious speculation, U.S. Rep. John Barrow and Michelle Nunn, CEO of Points of Light, the world’s largest volunteer organization, and daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, has yet to express anything more than an interest in running. When the field firms up, the likelihood is that either of them or any other Democrat would move into the status of a longshot, in a state which hasn’t elected one of their party to statewide office since the turn of the century. It’s telling that in the other big race next year, there’s been more talk about the possibility of incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal drawing a primary challenge than who his Democratic opponent will be in the fall.

And yet there are several reasons why next year’s Senate race may be more important in the long run for the Democrats than the Republicans, win or lose.

This is the first time the national Democratic Party has taken the lead in attempting to recruit a Senate candidate in the state, which is also a sign of its willingness to spend money here next year if it can get a competitive race. Of the states that went to Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential election, Georgia had the second-highest percentage of support for Barack Obama behind North Carolina, and that was with without any support from the Obama campaign. With Democrats facing a tough challenge defending their Senate majority, that’s evidence enough for the party to devote more resources to Georgia in 2014 than it has in years.

“You’re going to see a lot of effort in 2014 and 2016 in the South because it’s the only place where Democrats can get Senate pickups,” said Georgia Democratic Chairman Mike Berlon, who thinks his party could have a candidate by the end of May.

With Republicans in sight of gaining a super majority in both chambers of the General Assembly next year, the ripple-down effect of that national money and organizational clout could be crucial for Democrats in the state. One big reason Sonny Perdue was able to break the Democrats’ lock on the governor’s office in 2002 was the Bush Administration’s determination in helping Saxby Chambliss unseat Cleland in that year’s Senate race. The Democrats have to be more modest about their expectations next year, but the synergy of a competitive U.S. Senate race could be significant for them all down the ballot.

Just as important for the Democrats’ future is the ripple of Republican ambition that this open-seat Senate race is likely to cause.

Already two members of the Republican congressional delegation — Broun and Gingrey – have announced for the Senate race. Jack Kingston, the last remaining member of the breakthrough Class of ’94, is poised to join them, and Tom Price is still looking hard at his prospects. None of those House seats would be easy for a Democrat to win, and if Barrow ran for the Senate his district would move even higher up on the national Republican pickup list, if that’s possible.

But turbulence creates opportunity. Every House seat that opens up in the wake of the Senate race is likely to draw some Republican candidates from the legislature, and another open seat for Democrats to contest.

For some years while they’ve been out in the wilderness, Democrats have talked of how changing demographics will inevitably cause many areas of the state to move back in their direction. But thus far, that has been pretty much a Kingdom Come kind of conversation.

“Demographics is helping Democrats, but demographics needs help,” said Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams.

Abrams believes the ripple-down effect of the Senate race will provide that kind of help, creating opportunities in districts that would have been out of reach for another election cycle or two.

It isn’t likely Democrats will be able to capitalize on many of these opportunities, just as it’s a long shot they can win the Senate race. But the cumulative effect of all these races should be to generate Democratic candidates, at least some of whom will play in the evolution of the party in coming years.

That’s the biggest reason the Senate race could mean more to the Democrats than the more solidly entrenched Republicans. Besides, they could get lucky.

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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