The Atlanta Journal-Constitution : Georgia Democrats enter the upcoming 2011 session of the General Assembly reeling from a series of defections and facing an uphill climb toward relevance.
The once-dominant party holds 85 of 236 seats in the House and Senate, Democrats’ lowest ebb since Reconstruction. And the number has been slipping.
Since the November election when the party lost control of all statewide offices, nine Democratic legislators have become Republicans, including Athens Rep. Doug McKillip, who switched less than a month after his colleagues elected him chairman of the House Democrats.
Now party leaders are scrambling to find new growth strategies while attempting to be more than a speed bump for the Republican majority.
The task is daunting. Mirroring a trend across the South, much of the state party’s white, rural base has fled to the Republican Party and Democrats have struggled to find attractive candidates for statewide posts they held for generations.
Newly elected House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, admits her party’s primary function in the short term will be as a check on the Republican majority’s power. Beyond that, she said her challenge is to make the Democrats’ message of job creation, transportation improvements and better schools “rigorously clear” to voters.
“The opportunity that we have as Democrats in Georgia is to introduce ourselves again to Georgians,” she said.
To that end, leaders have been brainstorming how to rebuild the state party, using successful efforts in Colorado and Virginia as templates.
“There is a lot of frantic energy to figure out what is wrong,” said Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.
Democratic leaders agreed they need to regain the attention of voters by hammering home a message that they are the voice of the working and the middle classes while painting Republicans as beholden to special interests.
Take, for instance, incoming Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to cut corporate income tax, Abrams said. She said Democrats need to get the message to voters that such a plan would be paid for with more cuts to public education.
“My job is to prove our case,” she said.
That may be tough. In a Mason-Dixon poll taken for the AJC in the fall, only a third of Georgia voters identified themselves as Democrats — a number that had declined from previous polls. Republicans say the party is simply out of step with state voters.
Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz said conservative, largely white voters are unimpressed with the party. “The electoral base, over time, for the Democratic Party in Georgia is pretty similar to the base of the national party,” he said.
The defections by rural, white Democrats continue a trend that’s made the Georgia Democrats a more urban and African-American party. As a result, the power of its African-American Democratic leaders has grown while the party’s statewide influence has dwindled.
Sen. Emanuel Jones is chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, which bills itself as the largest such state caucus in the nation. “We increased our membership in November,” said Jones, D-Decatur.
Fifteen years ago, African-Americans made up a third of Democrats in the House. Now they are a two-thirds majority in the House Democratic Caucus and hold most of the leadership positions. In the Senate, African-Americans make up more than half of Democrats compared to one in four in 1996.
At the same time, Jones said the party needs to figure out how to attract more white voters. “We have to make sure that the message we are communicating is one of inclusion,” he said. “The white Democrats did that many, many years ago when they gained the support of African-Americans to hold on to power.”
Jones said the party needs to do a better job of reaching its base. But what is the Democratic base in Georgia?
“That’s a good question,” he said. “There is no one, good description of the base of the Democratic Party.”
Whatever it is, Rep. Chuck Sims was convinced it did not include him or most of his South Georgia constituents. Sims, R-Ambrose, left the Democratic party in 2004.
Sims said Democrats earned their minority status by ignoring the wishes of ordinary people. Instead, he said, the party pushed an agenda supporting gay and abortion rights and kowtowed to the desires of its urban power brokers with actions like changing the state flag in 2001.
“Some of us just didn’t want to go that way,” he said. “We were told we were bigoted or racist or whatever.”
Abramowitz said Georgia Democrats need to attract more white voters to be competitive. In the November election, Democrats got around 25 percent of the white vote in Georgia, about 10 percentage points shy of what they need to be competitive in statewide races if they get a large African-American turnout, Abramowitz said.
Democratic leaders say their target voter is someone like Carl Tackett, an HVAC mechanic from Smyrna. He is middle class, concerned about jobs and economic growth and relatively engaged in politics. The problem is he is a solid Reagan Republican.
“To me, it’s all about smaller, more responsive government that says, ‘We’re not in your way,’ ” Tackett said. That’s not what comes to mind when he thinks of the Democrats.
However, Tackett said he does not really keep up with politics at the state level. His impression of Democrats is guided more by what he sees in the national media.
The AJC’s poll found that Georgia voters did not trust President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress, a feeling that influenced attitudes about local Democrats. Nearly half of those polled said they likely would not vote for a Democrat in a state race because of their feelings about Washington.
DuBose Porter, a Dublin Democrat who served in the Legislature for 28 years before stepping down in 2010 in an unsuccessful run for governor, said conflation of Georgia Democrats with the national party is a problem.
“When I was running for governor, many people thought the state Legislature was controlled by Democrats,” he said.
Porter said Democrats should be pushing the message that state budget cuts to education are forcing local school districts to raise property taxes to make up the difference. Republicans made those cuts, he said.
“But we are fighting against Fox News railing against Nancy Pelosi,” he said.
Abramowitz said some long-term demographic trends may help the Democrats out of their electoral hole.
“Most of the population growth in the state is in metro Atlanta and a lot is in the minority population” where Democrats historically have done well, he said, adding that Republicans may have “maxed out” on the white vote.
The question is whether they can get Georgia’s growing African-American and Hispanic populations to vote in large numbers — and for Democrats, he said. To do that, you have to run attractive candidates, and the Democrats have failed on that score, he said.
Take former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat who lost in his bid to return to the state’s top post in November.
“It says something when the best you can do is put up a guy who was rejected by voters eight years earlier,” Abramowitz said.
Jane Bradshaw, president of the Young Democrats of Georgia, said the party is building a “farm team.” She points to 36-year-old Abrams and 32-year-old newly elected Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, as examples.
“We now have a seat at the table,” she said. It is just a much smaller table these days.
Reported By: Chris Joyner NewYork Times