Is Georgia a swing state? Democrats think so, and some trends are on their side
ATLANTA — When political pundits talk about swing states in the 2020 election, they generally mention Florida, several states in the Midwest, and maybe a couple states in the West or on the Atlantic coast.
Georgia isn’t often on that list.
But a changing population, strong performances from Democrats in U.S. House, statehouse and statewide races, and increased attention from national voter groups has Democrats hopeful they can flip the traditionally red state blue in 2020. A Democrat hasn’t won Georgia since former President Bill Clinton in 1992.
“There is no denying that Georgia is poised as a swing state and will play an important role in the upcoming election,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a September letter to Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez. “With people of color being the cornerstone of the Democratic party, Atlanta remains set to provide a large portion of votes for our eventual nominee.”
In a clear sign of confidence in that assertion, Democrats chose Atlanta to host the fifth presidential debate of the cycle. Ten Democrats will take the stage Wednesday at Tyler Perry Studios, a film and production facility founded by the black actor and filmmaker at the site of a former Confederate Army base in heavily Democratic southwest Atlanta.
Atlanta leaders, Bottoms said in the letter, have long been tied to the Democratic party, and the city has a rich civil rights history as home to icons including Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
Tyler Perry, Stacey Abrams, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., pose for a photo on the red carpet at the grand opening of Tyler Perry Studios, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Atlanta. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage, Elijah Nouvelage/Invision/AP)
“I can’t think of a better place to showcase the Democratic field in one of the most diverse cities in this critical battleground state,” Perez said in a statement provided to USA TODAY.
The Stacey Abrams effect
You can’t talk about Georgia politics without talking about Stacey Abrams.
Abrams’ narrow defeat in the 2018 gubernatorial election was a clear sign to some that the state was no longer a sure thing for Republicans. She won the most votes of any Democratic candidate in Georgia history, but lost the bitterly fought election to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp by 1.39 percentage points.
Speaking at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C., last week, Abrams acknowledged that Georgia was now a battleground state.
“If you look at the 2018 election, I received the highest number of votes for any Democrat in Georgia history,” Abrams said. “I spent a fraction of what is spent in a presidential campaign. And so if I can get here based on what I had, a presidential nominee can win the state of Georgia if they’re a Democrat and willing to make the investment.”
Abrams was successful in part because she engaged voters — particularly young people and people of color — who weren’t previously registered or hadn’t voted in previous elections, said Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie.
Gillespie noted that Abrams used the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit she launched in 2014, to register tens of thousands of voters from communities of color. The nonprofit also worked to educate voters about the voting process and voting rights.
“She’s been doing it for years and growing the electorate,” Gillespie said.
The Democratic nominee for president will need to use that same strategy to win Georgia, Gillespie said.
“A Democratic candidate in a state that is newly competitive can’t take voter mobilization for granted,” Gillespie said. “It’s not doing passive stuff like putting ads on TV or sending out robotic calls. You have to do the hard work of engaging people in a personal way.”
Changing voter base
Georgia’s expanding liberal base and the fast-growing black population of metropolitan Atlanta have already flipped some Republican-held House districts near the city and are positive trends for Democrats, political experts say.
In 2018, Democrats flipped 14 state House seats in the Atlanta area but lost three elsewhere for a net gain of 11 seats. In the state Senate, Democrats gained two Atlanta-area seats.
The Brady Campaign's Mattie Scott (C) and Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA), both of who lost sons to gun violence, pose for photographs before a hearing on gun violence legislation on February 06, 2019. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)
In 2016, black voters supported Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump 89% to 8% nationally, according to exit polls. And in 2018, black voters made up 30 percent of Georgia voters, up slightly from 29 percent in 2014, Gillespie said.
At the same time, the state’s majority white voting base is shrinking, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist. In 2018, 59 percent of Georgia voters were white, down from 1996 when 78 percent were white, he said.
Bottoms lobbied for Wednesday’s debate to take place in the heart of Atlanta instead of the suburb Sandy Springs, which organizers were also considering. Sandy Springs is part of the long held Republican district that was flipped by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath last year.
McBath won the 6th congressional district by about 3,200 votes, a significant shift from 2014, when Republican former U.S. Rep. Tom Price won by 210,500 votes.
Gillespie said the changing political landscape is likely a result of the northern Atlanta suburbs becoming more diverse, and college-educated white women moving away from Republicans, which is also a national trend.
“Some well-educated, affluent enclaves are becoming less conservative,” Gillespie said.
Poll worker Sarah Thomas places signs outside a precinct before polls open on election day in Atlanta, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo: David Goldman, AP)
More attention from advocacy groups
After Abrams’ strong showing and McBath’s election in the Atlanta suburbs, political advocacy groups also are focusing more attention on Georgia.
A’shanti F. Gholar, political director of Emerge America, a national organization that supports Democratic women candidates, recently launched a state affiliate in Georgia.
The group has been expanding its efforts across southern states due to the influx of people of color, Gholar said.
“You cannot take any place for granted, even the South,’’ Gholar said. “We wanted to make investments early on because we knew that the South was changing … we wanted to be on the ground and ready for those changes as they took impact.”
Groups are also lobbying to protect voting rights in Georgia. State elections officials have come under fire for purging voter rolls and closing hundreds of voting precincts in black neighborhoods in recent years.
The Leadership Conference Education Fund is calling on lawmakers to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the Department of Justice’s mandate to approve local voting practice changes.
Many Democratic candidates have skipped heavy campaigning in Georgia in the past because it was considered reliably Republican, Bullock said. He said he expects the debate to create enthusiasm around the Democratic party in Georgia, and candidates should use their time in the city to get out and shake hands with voters.
“If Democrats want to carry the state,” Bullock said, “they need to put (Georgia) in the 10-12 states that they view as being decisive.”
Contributing: Rebecca Morin and Deborah Barfield Berry.
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