By James Ferencsik.
On November 7th, Georgia voters learned Senate candidate Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, was not the only relative of a former Democratic heavyweight running for statewide office in 2014. Jason Carter, grandson of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, announced that he would challenge Gov. Nathan Deal in his bid for reelection. Neither candidate has an edge in the polls, but both appear to be within striking distance. Both campaigns have stepped into the arena with talking points in hand. Democrats, however, cannot evade the fact that the core issue of 2014 will be the broader role of government – and they are fighting on unfriendly territory. While I highly doubt either candidate will win, these races will set the stage for not only the future of the Democratic Party in the South but also the future of the Party as a whole.
In Georgia, like the rest of the South, you are a Democrat by choice, a Republican by default. Republicans currently hold a 14-point party registration advantage, and Mitt Romney won the state by 9 points in 2012, marking two decades since the state voted for a Democratic President. On the state level, Republicans compete every election cycle for supermajorities in each house of the General Assembly. Furthermore, the reach of the Democratic Party is limited with the preponderance of Democratic voters isolated in metropolitan Atlanta with some blue specks in Savannah, Columbus, Augusta, and Macon. The Party has little rapport with white, working class voters who often determine elections. Despite these numbers and the obvious uphill battle for Carter and Nunn, Democrats are optimistic.
The state party is the beneficiary of a demographic shift and inane Republican Party politics. The Hispanic population, which voted nationally 2 for 1 for Obama in 2012, doubled between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses. Sustained voter registration drives targeted at Hispanics and immigration reform would convert this demographic shift into a notable electoral one. Despite the White House’s recent faltering on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the recklessness of House Republicans in the debt ceiling debacle still resonates with Georgia voters.
In addition, the three top contenders for the Republican Senate nomination will also give the Democratic base ample motivation to hit the polls. Frontrunner Paul Brown touts a notable list of absurd statements and is best known for calling science, evolution, and the Big Bang Theory “lies straight from the Pit of Hell.” Phil Gingrey, not to be outdone, responded to infamous Senate candidate Todd Akin’s legitimate rape comments by saying Akin is “partly right.” Rounding out the trio, Jack Kingston seems to be the most moderate and sane of the three but, nonetheless, still pushes very conservative fiscal and social policies.
Democrats are banking on these hard-right candidates souring the middle of the electorate’s trend to vote Republican. Both Nunn and Carter have tried to establish reputations as business-friendly and focused on education. Nunn, who has a much more thorough and developed platform at this time, talks about striking a grand bargain on entitlements, investing in research and development, and expanding access to college. While this strategy appears to be a sound one, Nunn will have to contend with the fact that she is running to go to Washington. If successful, she will enter a highly polarized world and be forced to take extremely difficult votes, potentially ranging from gun control to immigration to the Affordable Care Act. Voters and reporters will press her harder on these issues than Carter.
Running on the state level allows Carter to distance himself from Washington Democrats and the President. He, unlike Nunn, can claim that many difficult issues, especially social ones, would not be on his plate as Governor, effectively allowing him to side-step serious discussion of them. It is then little surprise that Carter recently claimed that “Georgia is at its best” when it “stays away from Washington politics.” He has also begun to take calculated jabs at Washington Democrats. Last week, he said that “Georgians think the [Affordable Care Act] is a mess.”
The Gubernatorial Campaign is also more likely to focus on issues like education that are friendly territory to Carter. For example, state expenditure on education is supposed to be determined by a set formula. Gov. Deal currently plans to fund the school system with only 80% of that. While Deal claims he is doing his best to dig schools out of a financial hole, cutting education is not a political winner. Ultimately, Carter, and Nunn to a lesser extent, has an opportunity to win, but the more likely outcome is a new effort to rebrand the Democratic Party, especially in the South.
The President and his Party are inextricably linked. He defines the major issues for the Party and its legislative agenda. However, in one year, the President will be a lame-duck, and the Democratic Party seriously needs to reevaluate its identity for the upcoming Presidential election. There is a decent shot that it will become less concerned with the social justice issues that the Obama Administration pushed, following its efforts to mitigate the Great Recession of 2008. A viable candidate to fill that gap is the focus on growth and education, exemplified by the platforms of Nunn and Carter.
The fiscal cuts following the Great Recession have taken a toll on investment, research, and education – the pillars of innovation and a 21st century economy. Democrats can claim that this is an issue of staying competitive as a nation, preserving the America Dream, and remaining that “city on a hill.” Now, increased funding for this would come at the expense of Democrat’s shifting on entitlements, meaning the red line of “no entitlement cuts” would have to be eliminated. While this may not result in Carter or Nunn winning, it is a path Democrats should seriously explore for 2016. It would win with moderates and establish the Democratic Party as the party of the future. Therefore, Democrats across the country should watch Georgia’s elections next year with keen interest, because the state of cotton, peaches, and pecan pie may be where the future of the Party lies.