Going into the 2014 midterm election, hopes were high as Georgia Democrats fielded two of the best-qualified, best-funded candidates to head the ticket in more than a decade. National donors were inspired to invest heavily in Georgia and began to build a permanent progressive infrastructure to support communication, voter registration and nonprofit collaboration.
Even though most viewed 2014 as a building year for the emerging progressive movement in Georgia, as both Carter and Nunn repeatedly exceeded expectations, victory this year seemed possible – if all of the pieces fell into place.
On election day, while both Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter lost, they notched the best midterm performances by Democratic candidates for those offices since 2002. Nevertheless, Republicans eagerly declared the election a devastating defeat for Democrats, foretelling years of Republican dominance. That narrative, though expedient for conservatives hoping to discourage any further investment in the Southern state, is false.
Republicans will continue to dominate in Georgia only if Democrats refuse to learn from mistakes, fail to build on strengths and stop fighting for change.
Gains for Georgia Democrats
Georgia remains a good investment for progressive donors.
In Georgia, there is reason for progressives to be optimistic. Progressive ballot initiatives prevailed even in the state’s most conservative counties, and exit polls showed that most voters favored increasing the minimum wage.
Although many Democrats counseled against even trying to challenge incumbent Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, Jason Carter ran competitively against him to the very end, forcing Republicans to spend in excess of $20 million dollars – that we know about – just to hold the seat.
Likewise, Michelle Nunn ran neck-and-neck with David Perdue, turning in the most impressive performance by a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in a non-presidential year in more than a decade.
Over the last decade, Democratic performance in midterm contests has steadily improved. This year Jason Carter did a full 6.58 points better than Mark Taylor, the last Democrat to challenge an incumbent Republican governor, and Michelle Nunn out-performed Michael Thurmond, the last Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate during a midterm election, by 6.1 points.
Fielding quality, well-funded candidates who ran good campaigns supported by an emerging progressive infrastructure paid off – not with wins, but with gains.
This week, Democratic strategist, Jim Messina, who helped mastermind President Obama’s two successful campaigns, said Georgia could be a battleground state in 2016:
“Barack Obama didn’t spend a single dollar in Georgia either time and got 45 and 46 percent. And if you just look at the demographics — I’m a math geek, right, I love data — and data says that Georgia is going to make the same move that North Carolina made.”
If progressives continue to invest in data-driven best practices, there is every reason to believe that Georgia will be a presidential battleground state in 2016 when a larger more diverse electorate is likely to endorse more Democratic candidates.
Lessons for the Future
Are there lessons to learn from this election? Certainly.
- Building the Progressive Base: Exit polls show that 73% of white women voted against Michelle Nunn, with Carter and Nunn each taking only about 23% of the total white vote. To win, the progressive base must expand, including more robust investment in reaching Georgia’s growing Hispanic community.
- Voter Turnout: Despite substantial investment, overall voter turnout was on par with 2010. Exit polling showed increased diversity in the electorate, but a more thorough analysis of the data is needed. Pairing ongoing voter registration with voter engagement is key to progressive wins in Georgia.
- Voter Data: Georgia progressives need better, more sophisticated voter data. The information available in the current voter data system is often incorrect or unreliable. For voter targeting, Georgia’s open primary system poses a special challenge, making it more difficult to identify progressive-leaning voters. A long-term investment in improving and maintaining the voter file is essential.
- Money, Money, Money. Democrats were outspent at least two to one — probably more like 10 to one. If we want to win Georgia back, we must be realistic about the cost. A robust, well-funded progressive infrastructure is needed – not just well-funded campaigns.
- The Machine. Especially during the the last two weeks before the election, Republicans used polling and well-timed articles in publications they controlled, like Site Selection Magazine, to serve as third party validators and set the narrative for the election. Conversely, despite an investigation by a federal grand jury, polls showed that most Georgia voters were unaware of Gov. Nathan Deal’s ethics problems. These issues were reported on almost exclusively in the AJC and by metro Atlanta television. Progressives must find a way to routinely provide information to more voters.
- Missed Opportunities. Focusing on the top of the ticket, Democrats failed to pick up down-ballot and legislative seats that could have been winnable with a comparably small investment. Planning for victory in targeted seats should be a 2016 priority, so candidate recruitment and training is a top priority.
In 2014, Democrats lost, and it hurt. But we took important steps forward, closing the margins and forcing Republicans to invest heavily to win. Now, we need to bandage our wounds, act on the lessons of this fight and continue to build toward a more progressive Georgia.
Amy Morton is Chair of Better Georgia. She served as Chair of Georgia’s WIN List, Vice Chair of the Victory 2010 Coordinated Campaign of the Democratic Party of Georgia and has consulted on multiple candidate committees and independent expenditure campaigns.