Politics

Democrats Think Georgia Is Starting to Lean Their Way

Will Clinton's rising fortunes in southern state help party's Senate candidate?

Hillary Clinton is starting to look competitive in Georgia. Her husband Bill was the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As the Hillary Clinton campaign shows signs that it thinks Georgia is in play, the state's Democratic Senate candidate hopes that the increased interest in the Peach State could do for his campaign what Barack Obama's did for Kay Hagan's in North Carolina in 2008.

The Clinton campaign is expanding in Georgia, dispatching a campaign veteran to the state to coordinate grass-roots organizing and get out the vote efforts. 

[Clinton Campaign Expanding in Georgia]

That follows an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll from earlier this month that showed the Democrat with a small lead over Republican nominee Donald Trump. The last Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state was Clinton's husband Bill, who won there in his first presidential race in 1992. Mitt Romney carried the state by about 8 points in 2012.

The same poll showed the Democratic Senate candidate, businessman Jim Barksdale, trailing incumbent Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson by only 6 points.

That surprised even Barksdale.

"The fact we're in single digits is pretty amazing, too," he said. "We're not as well known as Hillary Clinton."

The Obama campaign and affiliated outside groups spent more than $15 million in North Carolina in 2008, in part helping Kay Hagan beat incumbent Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

[Can This North Carolina Democrat Become the Next Kay Hagan?]

Democratic state Rep. Stacey Abrams, who founded the New Georgia Project to increase voter registration in the state, said Georgia is better positioned to turn for the Democrats than North Carolina was in 2008.

Abrams, the minority leader in the State House, said the main difference between Georgia and North Carolina is the amount of investment from national Democrats. While Democrats were spending money in the 2008 presidential race in North Carolina to help Obama win by just over 14,000 votes, they spent $4.1 million in Georgia and lost by around 205,000 votes.

Throughout the campaign, Trump has made disparaging comments about a number of groups, from referring to immigrants from Mexico as drug dealers and rapists to insulting a female debate moderator. There have also been clashes between Trump supporters and African Americans at the GOP nominee's rallies

That could motivate some key Democratic constituencies to turn out at higher rates. And the fact that many Republicans aren't happy with their presidential candidate could push turnout down on the GOP side.

While a new Georgia poll from CBS News and YouGov had Clinton trailing Trump by 4 percentage points, it also showed that Democrats are slightly more motivated to vote this year than previous years. Furthermore, 15 percent of Republicans said they were less motivated to vote compared to 9 percent of Democrats.

"Donald Trump is making it much more likely that populations comprised of people of color and women will turn out," Abrams said.

"That turnout work is going to be very expensive but is very doable," Abrams said. "If the Clinton campaign invests in Georgia, we have infrastructure."

[Reid Says Clinton Will Win Georgia]

Barksdale said that while he himself hasn't been in contact with Clinton's staff, he knows people in his campaign who have.

Chip Lake, a Republican political consultant in Georgia, conceded that there are shifts taking place in the Peach State.

"As a Republican, I don't think we can be complacent that Georgia is going to be a red state in perpetuity," he said.

Black voters not of Hispanic origin make up about 29 percent of active voters, according to voter registration statistics from the Georgia secretary of state. 

While the same data shows Latinos make up about 2 percent of all active registered voters in Georgia, that's about twice as high as in North Carolina in 2008. 

Still, David Cooke, a Democratic district attorney for the Macon Judicial Circuit, acknowledged that Barksdale faced significant challenges.

"One, people don't know him," Cooke said. "The second challenge is, regardless of policy, everyone knows Isakson is a nice guy."

The lack of name recognition could be costly for Barksdale.

[How David Perdue Knew He Would Win]

In 2014, Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn lost her race to Sen. David Perdue by about 8 points despite being the daughter of former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn and being on the same ticket as former state Sen. Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.

And Isakson already has the support of some Democrats. The older Nunn donated $500 to Isakson's campaign in May, and former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes recently made a $2,700 contribution. Rep. David Scott also said he would be voting for the Republican incumbent.

Isakson attributed his cross-party support to his history of working with Democrats — he and Barnes served in the state legislature together and he has known Nunn since 1972.

"My entire career I have always been a bipartisan guy," he said. But Cooke said Isakson's reputation as a nice guy might damage him when it comes to his support of Trump.

"People are wondering why Johnny hasn't disavowed Trump," Cooke said. "It's completely inconsistent with his personality."

[Senator Discloses Parkinson's, Still Plans to Run in '16]

Isakson disclosed last year that he had Parkinson's disease. Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said not many people were concerned by the revelation because he was forthcoming about it.

"He acknowledged it right off," Bullock said. "He's able to carry out his responsibilities."

Bryan Long, executive director of the progressive group Better Georgia, said the key to victory in Georgia is not as much registering new voters as it is encouraging inactive voters.

"I think Georgia could be a blue state without registering a single voter," he said. "There's a huge number of registered Democrats who simply don't vote."

Long also said a big challenge is how much it costs to campaign in the state given that there are three major media markets: Atlanta, the middle market around the Macon and Athens area, and the media market for both Savannah and the Jacksonville, Florida, area.

"The Atlanta media market is enormously expensive," he said. "When you're spending that kind of major money in Atlanta, you're still only reaching about half the state."

Barksdale said his campaign is going to have the resources to be competitive. 

But Isakson has considerably more, having reported $5.7 million in cash on hand in his most recent Federal Election Commission report. Barksdale's July quarterly FEC report is not posted online but his April report shows he had just under $1.6 million in cash on hand.

"We've challenged them to a series of debates in all the media markets and all the economic markets," Barksdale said.

Contact Garcia at EricGarcia@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter @EricMGarcia.

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