By Saba Long
The Democratic Party of Georgia has a relevancy problem.
Since Georgia elected its first Republican governor since Reconstruction, the Georgia GOP has made steady gains in both houses of the General Assembly. Redistricting eliminated competitive seats and pitted popular Democrats against each other in the newly-drawn seats. A majority Republican legislative delegation represents Fulton County, a majority Democratic voting county.
Following former Gov. Roy Barnes’ 2002 defeat, the Party has been drifting in the wind, with single individuals and other organizations holding up the blue flag.
The New Georgia Project, Better Georgia, Moral Monday and Young Democrats of Atlanta – these groups arguably have done more in recent memory to advance the left’s agenda than the Democratic Party itself.
Rewind the clock 16 months to the special election for Party Chair held on a holiday weekend following the shambolic resignation in Mike Berlon. At the time, Atlanta Democrat Stefan Turkheimer forewarned it was “the most important election” we were unaware of.
With the ballots tallied, former state Sen. Doug Stoner lost to former House Minority Leader DuBose Porter. Stone lost despite having the support of Barnes and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed – two Democrats with a proven track record of raising millions of dollars.
The Democratic Party of Georgia rank and file elected a leader who in his 2010 run for governor came in fourth in the Democratic primary, receiving just shy of 18,000 votes or 4.5 percent. The same Porter who served as Minority Leader for the Democrats from 2005 – 2011, the same time period that relegated Democrats to the legislative sidelines.
With the 2012 presidential election behind them and 2016 ahead in the distance, it appears committee leaders, too focused on washing away the Berlon stain, failed to take into account the “winning the future” part of their mission.
Leading up to the vote, Sen. Saxby Chambliss had already announced his resignation and early national polls hinted at Gov. Deal’s vulnerability. Yet, the Democratic Party seemed to do little to prepare for the next big play – 2014.
Georgia Democrats are still reeling from the decisive defeat of two purebred candidates steeped in state and Party histories. The Democratic Party – and the candidates – made a number of questionable decisions that gifted the elections to Republicans with a nice red bow and left everyone else scratching their heads. Centrists’ beliefs are worth celebrating. A “Peter’s Denial” attitude towards Democratically-elected President Barack Obama – not so much.
Elections have consequences.
Fred Hicks with the nonpartisan firm HEG argues the central question for Democrats is: “Given Porter’s personal record and election results during his tenure as chair, do you trust him with the next 15 years of the Party’s future?”
You may think that’s too far down the road. Not so fast.
The 2016 presidential race is less than two years away, and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson has already declared he will run for re-election in the same year. Lacking a competitive race, he’ll be in office until 2022, likely retiring at age 78.
Next up, the gubernatorial election in 2018, and after that, the next Census counts in 2020.
Demographics are theoretically shifting in favor of Democrats. But Democrats haven’t held the necessary seats to realize that change. Rather, the Democratic Party continues to cede control to the Georgia GOP, an organized group also looking at the same numbers and maps.
And, while Georgia has a seat at the Democratic National Committee in Mayor Reed, the state’s Democrats cannot capitalize on that access if they fail to win elections.
If Republicans win in 2018, the redistricting lines will be similarly drawn, making Georgia Democrats irrelevant until at least 2030.
The Democratic Party Chair’s race is yet again an election too important to ignore. Many Democrats seem befuddled by Porter’s post-election remarks denying the failure of the Party’s strategy.
So, if not Porter, who?
No competitive alternative has declared his or her candidacy. R.J. Hadley previously ran and still lacks name recognition and political muscle. Like last year, Tharon Johnson has again expressed interest in the position, although he remains noncommittal.
While Mayor Reed won’t be supporting Porter, he has stopped short of endorsing a possible opponent, including Johnson.
Thus far, Reed has progressed just fine without an ally in the Democratic Party, and some would say he’s played his politics smartly by maintaining a close relationship with the Republican governor, as evidenced by the recent Fort McPherson vote. He may decide to sit this one out.
If the Democratic Party intends to build a modicum of relevance, the next Chair – be it Porter or his opponent – needs to articulate why he or she should be afforded the monumental task of leading Georgia Democrats through the next few critical elections.
The foreseeable future of Georgia’s Democratic Party is at stake.