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Democrats' Bench Thin in Georgia

There’s no doubt national Democrats will have Georgia on their mind by the time the 2016 presidential race rolls around.

The state is more African-American, more Hispanic and more Democratic than it was at the beginning of the last decade. Eventually, insiders of both parties agree, it will be a swing state.

But looking ahead to 2014 — when Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Gov. Nathan Deal are up for re-election — Democrats don’t appear to have much of a bench lining up to run statewide.

Chambliss could face a tough primary challenge and potential Democratic candidates are keenly watching how that race develops over the next year. Beating Chambliss would be very hard; beating another Republican might be a less daunting endeavor.

Indiana might serve as a template for victory if Chambliss is unseated by a challenger from the right. Democrat Joe Donnelly won a GOP-held Senate seat there earlier this month after a longtime GOP incumbent was defeated in the primary.

“We’ll have some pretty solid people,” promised Mike Berlon, the chairman of the state Democratic Party. “We’re interested to see what’s going to happen between [Rep.] Tom Price and Saxby Chambliss.”

Speculation has been swirling in Georgia GOP circles that Price is mulling a Senate bid, but he has not taken any steps toward running.

In a conversation with Roll Call via Skype from a post-Election Day vacation, top Georgia Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson said that the path to a Senate victory for a Georgia Democratic senator in 2014 would be steep, though not impossible.

“Saxby is in a good position,” he said.

Johnson, who served as the national southern regional director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, said victory would require that Democrats get behind one candidate to avoid a bloody primary. He added that the candidate needs to appeal to a broad swath of Georgians.

“In order for us to even be competitive with Sen. Chambliss — who has gained a lot of national recognition, who will be well-financed and who knows how to campaign — we will have to recruit a candidate with a message that targets moderate conservatives,” Johnson said.

Among the names he floated: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Rep. John Barrow.

Reed, a business-friendly African-American Democrat, would probably be the strongest contender, but he appears very unlikely to run.

“Mayor Reed is running for re-election as Mayor of Atlanta in 2013 and if the people give him another four years, he plans to serve his term,” Reed spokeswoman Sonji Jacobs Dade said in a statement.

Barrow, a white conservative Blue Dog Democrat who won in a heavily Republican district on Election Day, would have an easy time appealing to Republicans. But his aides said he had no interest in a Senate run.

Whoever the Democratic standard-bearer is, and whether 2014 is a year in which a Democrat has a chance, the demographics continue to move in the party’s direction and push Georgia toward tossup territory.

In 2000, non-Hispanic whites made up 62.6 percent of the population. In 2011, non-Hispanic whites made up only 55.5 percent of the Peach State’s population.

In the 2004 presidential election, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., got 41 percent of the vote. In 2012, Barack Obama pulled 45.4 percent.

“The trend is an undeniable trend,” Reed said in an interview with Roll Call over the summer. “It just depends on what year and what cycle.”

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