If 2016 were just another presidential election year, the still-red Georgia would likely still be at least four, if not eight, years away from being a genuinely competitive general election state. As it now stands, every statewide office in Georgia is currently held by a Republican, as are both houses of the General Assembly and 10 of the state’s 14 congressional seats.
But 2016 is not just another year and Democrats may have finally found an ahead-of-schedule source of hope in the form of one Donald J. Trump.
The last time Georgia voted for a Democrat for president the Internet had barely been invented. It was 1992 and goofy Texas billionaire Ross Perot pulled in 13 percent of the vote to deliver a one-point margin of victory to Bill Clinton over President George H.W. Bush. Four years later, Clinton lost Georgia, and the state has gone Republican every presidential election year ever since.
An increasing minority population in the state and a better-than-expected result for Barack Obama in 2012 (he only lost by 8 points, y’all!) have fueled a now bi-annual ritual of Democrats promising that This Could Be the Year We Win, while the day-after sun always seems to rise on yet another win for Republican candidates.
The 2014 cycle brought another round of hype for a pair of Georgia Democratic scions: Jason Carter (grandson of the president) and Michelle Nunn (daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, a popular Democrat who hasn’t been active in politics since he retired in 1996.) Republicans won those races by 8 points, too.
But Trump could change everything.
Although the New York moguldominated the state’s GOP primary with 52% of the vote, an early August Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed Trump losing the state to Hillary Clinton by four points. A Fox 5 poll two weeks later had Trump and Clinton exactly tied.
The AJC poll also showed the otherwise well-liked Sen. Johnny Isakson polling under 40% for his November reelection. Something is different in Georgia this year and both parties know what it is.
Rebecca DeHart, executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia, said that Democrats have long believed their fortunes in the state could change in 2016. Latino voter registration is up 20%, while the African-American vote jumped from 23% of the electorate in 2000 to 30% in 2012. Turnout in November is expected to be over 75%, compared to the 50% turnout in 2014, another metric Democrats believe will break in their favor.
But DeHart described the Trump factor is something no metric or statistic can truly capture. “That it is 2016 and that we are running against a campaign with ties to white supremacy movements and white nationalist movements is almost difficult to comprehend,” she said. “I don’t think we could find a candidate who is more antithetical to the working families of Georgia. So it is up to us to give them a clear alternative.”
State Democrats have opened eight field offices around the state as a part of a major turn-out operation, which the Clinton campaign will supplement with its own staff and a recently announced, but undisclosed, investment, to turn out as many Democratic voters as possible.
But the real key to Georgia may ultimately be how many Republicans, especially Republican women in the Cobb and Gwinnett County suburbs of Atlanta, Clinton can pull over to her side. The cross tabs of the AJC poll that showed Clinton beating Trump revealed a major weakness for the New Yorker among Georgia women, who will make up 55% of the vote in November. While Trump beat Clinton among men by 9 points, Georgia women went for Clinton by 16%.
Eric Tanenblatt, a longtime Republican in the state who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 winning Georgia campaign supported Jeb Bush, not Trump, in primary. But he still sees Republicans holding the state in November.
“With suburban women, I believe Trump’s rhetoric has made them feel uncomfortable, which is why they’re saying they’re not going to vote or not going to vote for Trump. But they don’t like Hillary Clinton.”
Tanenblatt said he thought Trump’s outreach to African American voters and potential softening on immigration could make the difference. “I think those kinds of signals will make a Republican woman who is not enamored with Trump say I’m a Republican woman, I’m going to vote Republican. I see them coming home, but it’s not showing up in the polls right now.”
Those very suburban Republican women were the audience Trump’s VP pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, was speaking to Monday night at a Cobb County rally, part of a two-day swing through the state.
Unlike states like Utah, where some high profile Republicans have denounced Trump, the nominee has been mostly embraced by Republicans’ top brass. Pence was introduced Monday by a Sen. David Perdue, Rep. Tom Price, and local favorite and former White House hopeful Herman Cain. Both Price and Cain roundly dismissed the polls that show the state up for grabs in November. “To those that believe that Georgia may vote Democrat in 2016,” Cain yelled, “bull feathers!”
With the crowd warmed up, Pence made the case for rebuilding the military, restarting the economy, and keeping the White House in Republican hands to make sure the next Supreme Court appointments don’t come from Hillary Clinton.
He ended on a note of political and racial unity that any Georgia soccer mom could love.
But throughout his remarks, the mild-mannered Pence had to speak over a male-dominated array of mostly white, occasionally angry, intensely anti-Clinton, screaming Trump fans yelling everything from “Lock her up!” to “Hillary Lies!” to “Bring back waterboarding!”
As Pence spoke over the chants, some members of the crowd quietly made their way for the exits, grimacing from the sheer volume of it all.
Most of them were women and therein lies the rub for Republicans in in Georgia in 2016.