This article has been updated.
On a Thursday evening in late April, more than 1,000 Georgia Democrats paid $250 a plate to gather in a vast, ugly Atlanta ballroom and toast their party’s unexpected resurrection at the annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. Just two years earlier, the Democratic Party of Georgia was careening toward insolvency, leaderless and rudderless after losing its 130-year grip on power in the early 2000s. Even as the state’s nonwhite population had grown past 40 percent, thanks to an influx of Latinos and a remigration of African Americans from up North, conservative Republicans had seized control of every state office and built untouchable legislative majorities. Georgia Dems were deader than a smushed possum on Route 92.
Now here they were, with big-name candidates for governor and U.S. Senate who had a realistic shot to win, with national Democrats throwing serious cash into the state for the first time in decades, and with Georgia progressives building a voter-mobilizing infrastructure based on successful models in Colorado and Minnesota. More than joy, the black and white faces in the Georgia World Congress Center registered a kind of pinch-me surprise: How in hell did this happen?
But beneath the relief and elation, old underlying tensions—the same uneasiness that has haunted Southern Democrats ever since blacks began voting en masse in the 1960s and whites began to flee to the GOP—still whispered their way around the room. Following a round of applause for those who’d participated (and been arrested in) the Moral Monday protests that commenced in the state this year, one of the more notable arrestees delivered the invocation. The young Reverend Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church, once pastored by Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr., has become a fiery symbol of the Georgia to come. While he hit the theme of the night—“light does overcome darkness”—he also pointedly warned the rising Democrats to beware “lest in our rush for power we crush the poor” and “exchange politics for principle.”
Whether or not this message was aimed at them, two beacons of this sudden Democratic resurgence couldn’t escape the furtive gazes of bowed heads: state Senator Jason Carter, grandson of Jimmy and gubernatorial hopeful, and Michelle Nunn, a first-time candidate who’s in a toss-up race for her father Sam’s old U.S. Senate seat.
In a state whose political future looks not only blue but downright progressive, and in a party where almost all the promising political talent is African American, the standard-bearers of a Democratic renaissance were white legacy candidates running the kinds of old-school campaigns their forebears had used 40 years earlier to keep rural whites from going whole-hog Republican. Just weeks before, as the state General Assembly wound up its yearly revels, Carter—a chipper 38-year-old who’s challenging 71-year-old Republican Governor Nathan Deal—had appalled many Democrats by voting for the so-called “Guns Everywhere” law, which made virtually every public space in Georgia, including bars and churches, a legal place to pack heat. He was, Carter had explained, just being himself: an “NRA Democrat” as opposed to a “national Democrat.” Nunn, who’s 47, was conducting a classic “Republican Lite” campaign straight out of her father’s old playbook, calling for cutting corporate taxes, military strikes in Syria, and “reforming” Obamacare.
As she traveled the state, Nunn had begun to hear the same question repeated by voters, journalists, and opponents alike: “Are you actually a Democrat?” Her practiced answer, which she delivered at a primary debate, was really no answer at all: “I think it is self-evident, since I’m standing here on this stage to win the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate that I am a Democrat.” It sounded less like an affirmation of Democratic values than an admission of guilt.
Now that Georgia Democrats are showing signs of life again, they find themselves navigating the same high wire as their compatriots in the other large Southern states—Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Texas—that are trending blue. The “viable” statewide candidates are whites whose politics typically smack more of the 1970s and ’80s than the 21st century. These candidates, meanwhile, can only win by inspiring record numbers of nonwhites to register and turn out in November. It is a delicate dance, one that Nunn and Carter had been performing with all of the clumsiness you might expect. It was lovely to have a future, the assembled Democrats could all agree—but why, some couldn’t help wondering, did it have to look so much like the past?
For now, most progressives are practicing patience with their ticket-toppers. “You have to realize: Michelle and Jason stepped up almost in spite of the Democratic Party,” says Bryan Long, who runs the progressive propaganda group Better Georgia. A former CNN reporter and PR specialist who’s outspokenly queer and liberal, Long is sharply critical of Carter’s gun vote and Nunn’s conservative positions. But he’s been in Georgia long enough—he arrived in 2000, just before the Democrats started cracking up—to have some perspective on the baby steps the party will have to take as it edges toward the more progressive future that demographics promise to make possible.
“People might be disappointed,” Long says, “but we finally have a fair fight in Georgia. We can finally make the conversation about something other than how far right we can move the state.” For Georgia Democrats, whatever their qualms and questions about the future, that surprising fact still resonates as a kind of secular miracle.
Georgia Democrats took a longer time to crash and burn than most of their Southern counterparts. As recently as 2002, they still controlled both houses of the General Assembly and had what looked like a lock on the governorship. But then Governor Roy Barnes was unseated by Republican state senator Sonny Perdue, despite boasting a six-to-one fundraising edge and a consistent lead in the polls. That same November, Democrat Max Cleland, the U.S. senator and war veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam, lost to Saxby Chambliss in a campaign that saw Cleland smeared as unpatriotic.
After losing the governor’s office for the first time since 1871, the party swooned into a death spiral. “We’d never had to have an organized Democratic Party here,” says Krista Brewer, a longtime activist who started the civic mobilization group ProGeorgia—one of the 22 “state table” coalitions of progressive activists funded and advised by the national group State Voices. “The governor was always the titular head of the party. Without the governor’s office, they didn’t know how to move forward. Democrats were just sort of flailing around.”
In 2004, with conservative turnout turbocharged by an anti-same-sex-marriage amendment on the ballot, Democrats lost their last hold on power as the GOP gained a majority in the legislature. The ranks of rural Democratic lawmakers were decimated. By 2010, when Barnes lost a comeback bid by ten points—and Republicans locked down General Assembly majorities so powerful they could gerrymander to their hearts’ content—it looked like Democrats would be relegated for the rest of the decade to registering nonvoters and watching the demographics continue to swing in their favor. By 2018, with some party-building and movement-building, they might be able to field a competitive candidate for governor—most thought it would be popular, savvy Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. By 2020, they’d hope to stir up enough new voters to win back the General Assembly and do some redistricting of their own. But only if everything went absolutely swimmingly.
While Georgia Democrats looked long-term, however, national Democrats had noticed the narrowness of President Obama’s defeats in the state—it was the second-closest state he lost in both 2008 and 2012, despite the absence of any Democratic campaign. Meanwhile in Atlanta, young volunteers, most of them African American, were keeping the troubled party’s operations afloat and devising new get-out-the-vote strategies. “Young Democrats did the work when the party was in trouble,” says T.J. Copeland, president of the Young Democrats of Atlanta. Old and (mostly) new groups—Better Georgia, ProGeorgia, Moral Monday, the NAACP, the New Georgia Project—were building the scaffolding for a statewide progressive network.
Then time sped up. Chambliss announced his retirement, leaving a vacant U.S. Senate seat that was too tempting for Michelle Nunn to pass up. Jason Carter took a flying leap into the governor’s race—partly, speculation has it, to get the jump on Reed for 2018. “I think we were all surprised to have two candidates of this caliber in 2014,” Copeland says. A former college-football player who lost a primary runoff for the state house in 2012, Copeland has been a party volunteer since things went bad in 2002. He smiles recalling one awful election night—was it 2006?—when he and Nikema Williams, now the state party’s vice chair, got sick of being around their mournful comrades. “We crashed a Republican victory party,” Copeland says. “We wanted to know what that was like. Maybe this year we’ll have one.”
But can Georgia Democrats reverse their fortunes so quickly—especially in a midterm election, which many of their voters tend to sit out? The numbers needed for a Democratic surge are certainly there: Statewide, some 800,000 nonwhites are nonvoters—four times the number that Obama would have needed to carry the state in 2008. If Georgians of color registered and turned out in equivalent numbers to whites, they’d put the Democrats over the top. But they’re nowhere close. “In Texas, they say we don’t have a registration problem, we have a turnout problem,” Brewer says. “In Georgia, we have both.”
Some of that trouble stems from the very formula that gave Democrats staying power in Georgia from the ’70s to the ’00s. Jimmy Carter, elected governor on his second try in 1970, and Sam Nunn, who shoe-leathered his way to a surprising U.S. Senate victory two years later, were early practitioners of the fusion politics that would later be derided as Republican Lite—or, to use Bill Clinton’s preferred term of art, “New Democrat.” This involved incessant, almost obsessive, courting of white conservatives and Chamber of Commerce types. Democrats took black voters’ loyalties largely for granted while campaigning on fiscal discipline, military hawkishness, and across-the-aisle “problem-solving.” Add generous doses of culture-war pandering to the white right, and you were ready to keep Georgia, or Arkansas, or South Carolina, safely Democratic. For a while.
These Democrats left economic populism—always the heart of Southern liberalism—out of the equation. Nonwhites had ample reason to raise a middle finger to the whole useless process. The Democrats weren’t courting them, and to judge by their TV ads, they didn’t seem to care about anybody except white dudes in suburbia.
It’s long past the time when Democrats in states like Georgia can win by pandering to rural whites while merely grinning and waving to their base. There’s no question what Georgia’s rising electorate looks like: 54 percent of the state’s public-school kids are already nonwhite. In the ’00s, the number of black Georgians rose 26 percent—with more than 500,000 moving from Northern cities like Cleveland and Detroit—against just 6-percent growth among whites. The Latino population doubled to 9 percent. With these new demographics, the formula that Jimmy Carter and Sam Nunn helped to concoct no longer looks like a winning one. But it’s the one that Carter’s grandson and Nunn’s daughter are trusting to carry them to victory.
Ten seconds into Michelle Nunn’s first TV ad, Georgians knew exactly what kind of campaign to expect. In the gauzy spot, one of several designed to introduce the younger, female version of Sam Nunn to her potential constituents, Nunn displays a photo of herself with George H.W. Bush and boasts, “While leading President Bush’s Points of Light Foundation, we grew it into the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service.” In case that doesn’t scream “Republican Lite” loudly enough, Nunn’s second commercial echoes the rhetoric and reform ideas—and the populist visual trappings—used by Republican “outsider” candidates from time immemorial.
“What’s going on in Washington has to stop,” Nunn says, striding across her family’s farm. “Politicians fighting and bickering and too often forgetting about the people they’re supposed to represent.” (Why, I declare: Who ever heard of such a thing?) “That’s why I’m for banning members of Congress from ever becoming lobbyists. I don’t think congressmen should get paid unless they pass a budget. And no one in Congress should get a subsidy to pay for their own health care.” Neither ad tips off viewers to the fact that Nunn is a (hush your mouth!) Democrat.
When Nunn comes across as super-serious, super-sober, and super-centrist, she’s apparently not acting. Earlier this year, Ed Kilgore—Democratic strategist, blogger, and former Sam Nunn aide—told MSNBC about a time he went with the family to a conference in New Orleans when Michelle was in her twenties. Kilgore asked her mother what Michelle might want to do while in the Crescent City. “Michelle?” Colleen Nunn said. “She doesn’t like to have fun.”
Despite her dubious claim to being a Washington outsider, Nunn’s campaign could hardly be more establishmentarian. Her money comes from the likes of Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffett, and former Republican Senators Richard Lugar and John Warner. Her campaign, chaired by former Ambassador Gordon Giffin, has a senior vice president of Coca-Cola as treasurer and Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot and Atlanta Falcons owner, as an honorary chair. Though she’s pro-choice and tepidly supports marriage equality, she doesn’t want to talk about any of that. She’s running as a deficit hawk who thinks Democrats should be more flexible when it comes to “entitlement” reforms. When an MSNBC reporter demanded to know whether she’d have voted for Obamacare, Nunn attempted an awkward dodge: “I think it’s impossible to look back retrospectively and say, ‘What would you have done when you were there?’”
Nunn’s mush of a message is what her campaign is built around. With five Republicans, including three hardcore Tea Partiers, mixing it up in the GOP Senate primary, the Democrat’s strategy hinged partly on the chance that she could draw a Todd Akin-style extremist as an opponent. But the contender who emerged from the GOP fisticuffs was the most moderate in the field, former Dollar General CEO (and cousin of former Governor Sonny Perdue) David Perdue, who won the July 22 runoff for the Republican nomination. Unless Nunn finds a populist voice on at least an issue or two, her message will sound like a virtual doppleganger of her opponent’s in the fall: Perdue, whom Kilgore dubs “the Mitt Romney of Georgia,” has sold himself as more of an across-the-aisle problem-
Nunn’s campaign has given Georgia’s African Americans and Latinos little, if anything, to get fired up about. “I’ve told the campaign that the old Blue Dog model doesn’t work anymore,” Kilgore says. “The people you’re appealing to aren’t going to vote for any Democrat anymore. You just don’t go to the right on every conceivable issue.”
Kilgore sees a shred of hope in Georgia Democrats’ hope itself. “Down the stretch, with the national importance of the race, you may see people come alive.” It’s doubtful, he says, that Nunn will throw progressives any bones to make that happen. “The weird thing about her,” he says, “is even though she’s a woman, younger, and on social issues more liberal, she’s so much like the old man. She has his innate caution in abundance.”
While nobody can doubt what Georgians would get from a second Senator Nunn, Jason Carter could prove more of a wild card as governor. Despite his pro-NRA voting record and his support for capital punishment (contradicting his grandfather), Carter backs gay marriage and abortion rights. He opposed the other controversial bill in this year’s General Assembly—a “religious liberties” measure that would have permitted businesses to deny services to LGBT Georgians. His lone term in the state senate has established Carter as a canny champion of public education—always a fruitful theme for a Southern Democrat. (There’s plenty to talk about in Georgia, with $7 billion in education cuts and 9,000 teachers fired since Republicans took control of the state.)
Carter faces a steeper uphill battle than Nunn
This summer, Carter began to find his voice on health care as well. While GOP ads were targeting his (formerly wishy-washy) support for Medicaid expansion, Carter journeyed to a shut-down medical center in the middle Georgia town of Montezuma and decried Republican lawmakers’ rejection of federal funds that could have kept it open. “It’s incredibly important for us to look at the fact that the federal government has $9 million of our tax money they keep every day,” Carter said. “There’s $30 billion in expansion funds that we’ve paid—it’s our money and Nathan Deal wants Washington to keep it. That doesn’t make sense to anyone, certainly not here.”
But Carter faces a steeper uphill battle than Nunn. Despite Deal’s ethical foibles—the state has reached settlements totalling $3 million with four whistleblowers from the state ethics commission—the governor has charted a fairly steady and unremarkable course. Reasonably popular incumbents are next-to-impossible to uproot, especially in a place where Republicans who vote still outnumber Democrats who do. Lengthening Carter’s odds is the fact that the culture-war issues he’s chosen to triangulate on—especially “Guns Everywhere,” which was excoriated by the national NAACP—are turn-offs for a lot of minority voters. “The gun law is just stupid,” says legendary Atlanta civil-rights organizer Lonnie King. “But Carter is a Democrat. People will probably swallow their pride to vote for him. He’s head and shoulders better than Deal.” Pride-swallowing does not usually translate into a stampede to the polls.
Fortunately for Carter and the rest of us, the ideological gymnastics of Republican Lite-ism won’t be necessary much longer in Georgia—if, in fact, they’re necessary now. Whether or not they prevail in November, Carter and Michelle Nunn will not likely become symbols of Georgia’s political future, or the South’s. Instead, they’ll be seen as bridges to that future: the necessary, “acceptable” white candidates who helped break the Republican spell and pave the way for nonwhite Democrats’ rise to dominance—and, at long last, for a new definition of the term “Southern Democrat.”
This article is from the July/August 2014 issue of The American Prospect magazine.