Southern Exposure

03.14.14

A Carter Could Turn Georgia Blue

Dramatic population shifts put Georgia on the path to joining North Carolina and Virginia in the electoral toss-up column. Jason Carter, Jimmy’s grandson, wants to lead the way.

As Wendy Davis’s campaign for Texas governor flounders, Democrats in Washington have begun to cast their eyes elsewhere for a good news story in the solid-red South.  

They believe they may have found that in Georgia, where a combination of demographic trends and a
slate full of famous political names is giving Democrats in the state an unfamiliar feeling:  Hope.

Topping the ticket (which Republicans have tagged as "Downton Abbey Democrats" for children seeking their ancestors' titles) is Jason Carter, the 38 year-old state senator and grandson of former president Jimmy Carter, who is challenging Republican Gov. Nathan Deal.  

Along with Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former senator Sam Nunn, and Chris Irvin, the grandson of a four-decade occupant of the state’s powerful Agriculture Commissioner post, Carter is part of the strongest statewide ticket Georgia Democrats have fielded in years.

Add some numbers to those names and you’ll see why Democrats think they could soon see a governor or senator come out of Georgia, even though Republicans hold every statewide office, the state House and the state Senate.

Of the state's 1.5 million new residents between 2000 and 2010, 81 percent were non-white, including 1.2 million African Americans. Since 1990, the state's Hispanic population has increased eight-fold, while the Asian-American population has quadrupled.

Democrats point to those population changes as the reason behind President Barack Obama’s performance there in 2012, when his campaign spent no money but still managed to keep Mitt Romney to his second narrowest victory of any state in the country.

Beyond that, Georgia was the second largest single source of electoral votes for Romney behind, yes, Texas.

A poll released Wednesday night showed Carter pulling aheadof Deal in a head-to-head match-up.

“There is data-driven evidence that the same trends that put North Carolina and Virginia in the battleground column from a presidential perspective are transpiring in Georgia,” said Zac McCrary, a pollster with Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, pollsters for Carter’s campaign.  “The growth in Georgia over the last 10 years is disproportionately among types of voters that data indicates are more likely to vote Democratic-- African American, Hispanic, Asian, and like in northern Virginia and Charlotte, high-income, highly educated white voters coming from outside of the south.”

While the population changes are undeniable, the real question is when they’ll reach enough of a crescendo to create a true tipping point for Democrats.

For a presidential race, McCrary says Georgia will probably look like a true swing state in 2020 and could be a sleeper in 2016. Before that, Democrats will need more to win, and McCrary believes they have that in Carter this year.

Others aren't so sure.

“It’s a real long shot for Carter in 2014,” said Dr. Charles Bullock, a longtime political science professor at
 the University of Georgia.  “The state is changing, but I don’t think it’s changed enough to make it likely
 for Carter to win. Barring some huge scandal, Deal should be in good shape for reelection.”

In order for Deal to win, he’ll need to get past two primary challengers in May and then face-off with Carter, who raised a cool $1.7 million in the seven weeks between his November announcement and the beginning of the state Senate’s legislative session, when no fundraising is allowed.

But rather than put his campaign to the side, Carter has used the Senate’s two-month session to hammer Gov. Deal on everything from his budget, which Carter voted against, to his colossally bad handling of Georgia’s first run-in with the dreaded Polar Vortex to Deal’s refusal to accept federal funding for a Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which several poor rural hospitals in
Georgia have blamed for forcing them to close their doors or face bankruptcy.

Carter’s attacks may be working.  An Insider Advantage poll released Wednesday night showed him pulling ahead of Deal in a head-to-head match-up.  The online poll shows Carter with 41% of the vote, Deal with 38%, and 21% of voters still undecided.

Georgia Republicans say their own internal polling shows Deal well ahead of Carter, while history shows mid-term elections to be especially tough territory for Democrats in the state.  While nearly 4 million Georgians voted in the 2012 presidential election, just 2.5 million Georgians turned out in 2010 when Deal won his seat by 10 points.

Further complicating Carter’s 2014 efforts is the state Democratic Party, an organization that “was on life support” as recently as last year, according to Prof. Bullock, and still lacks an infrastructure to mount a major Get Out the Vote effort in November.

But above and beyond timing and mechanics, Carter’s greatest challenge to beating Gov. Deal will likely be Gov. Deal himself, an affable former congressman who has left the red-meat rhetoric and outwardly aggressive tactics to other Republicans in the state.

Instead, Deal has followed a less partisan, pro-business platform, revamping Atlanta public schools, pushing for federal funds to deepen Savannah's port, and pursuing an openly friendly working relationship with Kasim Reed, the fast-rising African American mayor of Atlanta who recently compared his work with Deal to that of Batman and Robin.

When the Deal campaign listed its strengths for the general election, Deal’s work with Reed was near the top of the list.

"To have an example where a Democrat and a Republican are working together in a very red state like Georgia during a hyper-partisan time in politics is nothing but a good thing, not just for  reelection, but for the state,” said Jennifer Talaber, Deal’s campaign spokeswoman.  "Gov. Deal and Mayor Reed have demonstrated that elected leaders can stay true to their principles but work together at the same time.‎ Their relationship is a huge source of strength for Georgia."

Another source of strength for Deal will be his war chest—he has $4.1 million cash on hand heading into the May 20th primary, which he is expected to win, before heading into the much-anticipated campaign against Carter.

For Carter, the race for 2014 seems to outside observers a no-lose proposition no matter the outcome.  If he wins, he’s the unlikely hero in a red state. If he loses, he'll be well positioned to run for governor in 2018, well-known in the state after his initial effort but without an incumbent on the ballot. 

A longtime Georgia Democrat who asked for anonymity to speak openly about the race described Carter as “very bright,” “very well-liked by Republicans in the capitol,” and someone who “gets along with everybody.”  The Democrat added, “None of us expect Jason to win...but hell, these days anything could happen.”