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July 21, 2014 1:27 PM Agony and Ecstasy of Georgia Democrats

By Ed Kilgore

At the American Prospect, Bob Moser publishes an overview of the promising general election candidacies of Georgia Democrats Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter from the perspective of the progressive faithful and the state’s strong demographic trends. Having talked to Bob earlier, I wasn’t surprised that he focused on the dilemma of victory-starved Democrats who see a true blue promised land not far ahead, and are frustrated that their current champions seem to be following the old Blue Dog path to southern victory (Nunn via what Moser calls a “Republican Lite” position mix, Carter by proclaiming himself a “NRA Democrat” and voting for the state’s new “Guns Everywhere” law).

While Moser’s take is insightful, he does make the standard ideological error in assuming that Nunn and Carter could only be taking these heterodox positions out of pure political calculation; the possibility that they actually believe in what they are saying is more or less ruled out a priori. Having said that, he does accurately capture the mixed feelings of hard-core progressives about their candidates.

To add some additional background to Bob’s account, it’s helpful to understand that Georgia was the very last ex-Confederate state to fall to a GOP state-level uprising (Arkansas is usually thought of as the last redoubt of white Democratic voting, but it elected a Republican governor in the 60s and again in 1980). Until 2002, the only statewide Republican winner in GA at the subpresidential level was Mack Mattingly, who very narrowly won a Senate seat against former Dixiecrat Herman Talmadge in 1980 after the old man was hospitalized for alcoholism and then had to survive a tough primary and runoff (beating, ironically, then-“populist” but future apostate Zell Miller). Mattingly was dispatched after one term.

Then in 2002, the roof caved in, with Max Cleland losing to Saxby Chambliss (an outcome that in truth owed more to demographic change than to the smearing of Cleland as unpatriotic, which Democrats everywhere still talk about), and more shockingly, Gov. Roy Barnes losing to an ex-Democrat named Sonny Perdue despite a massive financial advantage and a big lead in the polls. Though not noted much nationally, another Democratic victim of the wave was Tom Murphy, who had been Speaker of the State House for nearly thirty years. Party-switchers gave Republicans control of the State Senate in 2003 and of the House in 2005. At the moment, Republicans have close to a two-to-one majority in the legislature and control all 13 statewide constitutional offices.

The suddenness and depth of the Republican takeover of Georgia (which basically compressed decades of recent southern political history into a few brief years) devastated Democratic morale. Yes, bolstered by the Obama-generated rise in nonwhite turnout, Democrat Jim Martin knocked Chambliss into a rare general election runoff (Georgia has an atavistic majority requirement for general elections, which could be a problem for Nunn or Carter this year), but he predictably lost by a sizeable margin once Obama was no longer on the ballot. And once indomitable statewide Democrats Mark Taylor and Roy Barnes lost the gubernatorial elections in 2006 and 2010 by wide margins.

So you can understand why (as I noted on Friday about Georgia attendees of the 2013 Netroots Nation conference) Democrats entered this cycle optimistic about future demographic trends but very pessimistic about 2014, with Republicans entitled to expect the same turnout advantage they recently obtained in midterms nationwide, and Democrats having no real “bench.” Then the “legacy candidates” Nunn and subsequently Carter declared, with their high name ID and access to serious money, and that brings us to where we are today.

At this point, I’d say ideological concerns about these Democratic candidates are taking a back seat to the earlier-than-expected comeback they represent, particularly in Nunn’s case, where an upset win could well derail GOP prospects for a Senate takeover. I’ll have more to say about the general election landscape here in the Empire State of the South after tomorrow’s runoffs.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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