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Tom Baxter

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

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.



  1. The Last Democrat in Georgia April 9, 2013 1:18 am

    Good article, Mr. Baxter.

    {{“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.”}}

    State Representative and House Minority Leader Abrams is correct that demographics need help…help in the form of extremely-active fundraising efforts statewide.

    One of the very main reasons that Georgia Democrats are in such a state of extreme disarray is because their fundraising efforts have been pretty much completely non-existent since the party got lost in the political wilderness a decade ago.

    For a political party for which finding the political wilderness would be a VAST improvement over their current state of total political oblivion at the statewide level, Georgia Democrats sure don’t seem to show much of a desire to compete in state politics.

    A party that is in the very-disadvantageous position that Georgia Democrats are in should be raising money like money is going out-of-style (or at-least making a very-minimal attempt to raise money) and using that money to build a statewide organization, especially with the state’s demographics increasingly working to their advantage.

    Why Georgia Democrats have elected to take an entire decade off from everything and anything that even remotely looks like fundraising or meaningful political competition is completely puzzling, especially in light of a Georgia Republican Party that has done a completely abysmal job of governing the state (but has done an EXCEPTIONAL job of fundraising) during its decade of increasing domination over the state’s political scene.

    Georgians have been the biggest losers by far in a political equation in which one party (the GOP) only cares about raising money and receiving gifts from powerful political interests while pandering to its most extreme political factions while the so-called opposition party (the Georgia Democratic Party) seemingly doesn’t even care to compete at the state level (while also pandering to its most extreme political factions in the process and having nothing to show for it).Report

  2. Ted Stevens April 9, 2013 2:39 pm

    I agree. The Georgia Democratic Party also suffers from chronic in fighting. They attack each other and would be members harder than Republicans. Georgia Dems are good at beating each other in primaries but not at attracting new voters in the fall. Also Get your voters Registered you Nimrods! Gwinnett County is a prime example of what is wrong with Democrats, all those unregistered potential Dems.Report

    1. The Last Democrat in Georgia April 9, 2013 3:18 pm

      @ Ted Stevens, April 9, 2013 at 2:39 pm-

      {{“Also Get your voters Registered you Nimrods! Gwinnett County is a prime example of what is wrong with Democrats, all those unregistered potential Dems.”}}

      …Exactly…Gwinnett County is a prime example, if not THE prime example of what is wrong with Georgia Democrats.

      There is no way that the Georgia Democratic Party should not have a much more visible and higher-profile presence in a fast-growing county like Gwinnett where an overwhelming majority of voters are disillusioned with the repeated unethical actions of the county’s Republican-dominated leadership and 57% of the population is made up of minorities, a figure that is up nearly six-fold from 20 years ago when minorities only made up 10% of Gwinnett’s population.

      With Georgia also having a demographic makeup that is similar to the Democrat Party-dominated Mid-Atlantic state of Maryland (but with a population that is roughly 70% higher than Maryland), Georgia Democrats should also be making inroads into other increasingly-diverse Republican-dominated suburban areas like Cobb County where the county’s growing population of moderate voters is becoming increasingly turned-off with the long-held tendency of Cobb Republicans to at times pander solely to an increasingly narrow demographic of extreme voters on the far-right of the political spectrum.Report

  3. David Farrar April 9, 2013 8:43 pm

    As I just stated, for Georgians who need to ‘know’, rather than ‘believe’, Barack Obama has met his Constitutional burdens; there will be a “Birther” candidate in this race to carry this message to the U.S. Senate. We can think of no other way to attack this injustice and thereby escape the judgement of history than to run a birther candidate for Sen. Chambliss’ seat as a public statement of that resolve.

    ex animo

  4. Burroughston Broch April 10, 2013 7:46 am

    All Georgia Democrats need to elect a US Senator:
    1. Select a viable candidate who will appeal to voters statewide.
    2. Establish a party platform that will appeal to voters statewide.
    3. Rescue the State Party from financial bankruptcy so it can support the candidate.
    4. Establish new State Party leadership more interested in statewide politics than racial politics, Fulton/DeKalb/Clayton/City of Atlanta politics, and settling old scores.
    5. Convince State Party members to support their candidate.
    6. Convince the National Party they are worthy of financial and political support.

    All six are necessary to win, but I only foresee one being accomplished this year. Maybe the Democrats should wait until Johnny Isakson is up for re-election in 2016.Report

    1. The Last Democrat in Georgia April 10, 2013 5:37 pm

      Burroughston Broch, April 10, 2013 at 7:46 am-

      Those are all excellent points, but before they can execute any of your recommendations, Georgia Democrats first have to start raising money, relentlessly.

      Until they dedicate themselves to raising insane amounts of money and then subsequently building out some semblance of a robust statewide organization like their Republican counterparts, Georgia Democrats will continue to be resigned to political oblivion while wandering aimlessly in search of legitimacy in a state in which they are no longer considered a legitimate factor in politics at the statewide.

      Georgia Democrats will never again be competitive in state politics no matter how much the demographics may be in their favor if they don’t dedicate themselves to relentlessly and consistently raising money.

      People can say what they want about the highly-flawed governing style of the Republican supermajority in Georgia as no matter how bad of a job Georgia Republicans have done at governing the state, at least they have had enough political sense to continuously raise money as if money is about to go completely extinct, because as we all know, ‘Money is the Mother’s Milk of Politics’.

      Without money, there are no politics for any party.Report

      1. Burroughston Broch April 10, 2013 8:31 pm

        You misinterpreted my observations (intended as sarcasm) as recommendations. I think there is little chance they could accomplish any of the six within two years, much less all six inside a year.

        The situation reminds me of the joke “How many Californians does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer is only one, but the light bulb really has to want to change. That sums up the dim-bulb Georgia Democratic Party: They don’t want to change anything, other than magically get statewide candidates elected.

        I agree with you that the State Republicans having more political sense than the State Democrats. I wish we had a viable, reasonable alternative to them both. As my mother said, “A pox on both their houses.”Report

  5. The Last Democrat in Georgia April 10, 2013 9:18 pm

    Burroughston Broch, April 10, 2013 at 8:31 pm-

    Sorry, sarcasm doesn’t always come through the computer well, especially when every one of the six items that you cited is REALLY what is seriously wrong with the Georgia Democratic Party.

    I also agree with your assessment of the Georgia Democratic Party that they don’t want to change anything other than magically get candidates elected statewide, though with their actions (and/or glaring lack thereof) I’m not so sure that they seem to want even that much.

    {{“I wish we had a viable, reasonable alternative to them both. As my mother said, “A pox on both their houses.”}}

    …Very much agreed.Report

    1. Burroughston Broch April 11, 2013 1:59 am

      @ The Last Democrat in Georgia
      No apology needed – sarcasm too often depends on visual clues that I seem unable to provide in a blog

      Part of the reason the State Democratic Party is in such as state is they are elitists. They portray themselves as champions of Everyman because they want Everyman’s vote to give them power, but they really don’t like Everyman. Instead, they look down their noses at Everyman and think they are better – smarter, better educated, more focused, more able to lead. Remember the parody song “Putting on the Fritz” popular when Walter Mondale ran for President? “If you go for Democrats who court the poor in tails and spats then it’s the pits – putting on the Fritz.” Of course, both parties and indeed most politicians exhibit this attitude to a degree, but it seems more prevalent and powerful with Democrats.


  6. ScottNAtlanta April 11, 2013 7:36 pm

    I dont think Democrats are any more elitist than Republicans. In fact the republicans (screw the poor at every turn) might have an edge there. Republicans (national) are secretly quite worried about a viable D candidate in Georgia because they know that this group will be going at full speed to the fringe right. Broun is already pushing potential candidates that way. All you have to do is check the recent votes of the GA (R) delegation in congress. A large percentage of voters are conservative, but they are not that far right. Also, Gingrey and Broun are highly “gaffe prone” and have a plethora of video out there to be used against them. This is no lock for the republicans and they assume that at their own peril…and nationally, republicans are doing GA R’s no favors eitherReport

  7. Burroughston Broch April 12, 2013 1:58 am

    @ ScottNAtlanta
    None are so blind as those who will not see. You ignore the Democrat’s problems by saying the Republicans are really worse. But you conveniently ignore which party is on top and which is on bottom, with the Democrats falling further behind each year.
    Don’t forget, for 130 years the Democratic Party dominated Georgia state and local politics. From 1872 to 2002, the Democratic Party controlled the Governor’s Mansion, both houses of the state legislature and most statewide offices. In 11 short years the situation has turned 180 degrees the other direction. This change has not occurred because the Democrats are doing things right – just the opposite.
    If you really believe what you post, then help the Democrats win the seat – see my April 10, 2013 at 7:46 AM post for an action plan.Report

  8. scfranklin April 26, 2013 8:26 pm

    Luck counts in politics.Report


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