ATLANTA — Georgia remains among the reddest of the red states despite a series of polls and expert commentaries suggesting that demographic shifts had made Democrats competitive.
When the votes were counted Tuesday, Republicans trounced Democrats by wide margins in every statewide matchup, retaining control of every constitutional office and picking up a congressional seat from the South’s last, white Democrat, John Barrow of Augusta.
With victories by Nathan Deal and David Perdue, Republicans retain the keys to the governor’s office and both U.S. Senate seats.
Blacks have moved to the state, raising their share of the population and of those who are registered to vote in recent years, just as the pundits have been saying. But they haven’t propelled Democrats to parity with the Republican Party here for several reasons.
First, Georgia Democrats fell far short of their own goals of registering a half-million blacks in time to vote in Tuesday’s election. The Democratic-leaning New Georgia Project says it signed up 85,000, and the Democratic Party of Georgia never released figures for its own efforts, but the total number of registered voters wound up nearly 40,000 less than in the last election cycle.
Democrat political operatives had said such a high registration target was needed because blacks just don’t turnout in non-presidential elections. The pros estimated they needed 500,000 new black voters in order to get 200,000 to the polls, which proved to be the actual margin in the Senate and governor’s elections.
As Clark University political science professor William Boone has observed, blacks tend to think of the president as the most significant office and figure other posts are not important enough to bother voting over. In a sense, that makes Democrats victims of their own presidential campaigning where they overpromise what control of the White House means without explaining the role of Congress, governors and legislators.
Consider that black males typically have a 66 percent turnout in presidential elections but just a 44 percent rate in non-presidential years. Compare that to white males’ 75 in presidential years and 58 percent in off years, a 22-percent falloff versus a 17.
Even the recruitment of three statewide candidates with long Democratic bloodlines — Michelle Nunn, Jason Carter and Chris Irvin — and the historic slate of five, black women running for down-ballot constitutional offices, was not enough to drive black turnout. Heroic efforts to use sophisticated micro-targeting techniques borrowed from Barack Obama’s successful swing-state campaigns also were not enough to drive turnout.
Overall turnout statewide was 50 percent. In urban counties where blacks are in the majority, it was mostly lower: Dougherty, Richmond and Fulton at 48, Clarke 46, and Muscogee 42. Chatham was an exception in having higher than the state turnout at 51 percent along with DeKalb’s 53, Carter’s home turf. Compare that to predominately white, Republican strongholds like Columbia’s 53, Fayette and Greene’s 58 and Oconee’s 61 percent.
At the same time, Nunn’s Senate quest and Carter’s try for the governor’s mansion didn’t draw support of sufficient numbers of white voters. A poll by InsiderAdvantage for Morris News Service conducted Sunday showed Nunn with 24 percent of the white vote and Carter with 26, below the 30-percent threshold Nunn’s strategists set in an internal memo accidentally made public early in the campaign.
Since blacks overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates election after election just as white males back Republicans, getting a bigger share of the white vote hinges on issues important to women.
Nunn tried to appeal to them by talking about raising the minimum wage, so-called pay equity legislation, universal prekindergarten, healthcare and partisan gridlock, and she had Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton stump for her. Carter focused on education, middle-class incomes and ethics.
In the end, the Democrats’ issues could not overcome a lackluster economy and perceived flaws with the Affordable Care Act tied to an unpopular President Barack Obama and GOP messages linking the candidates.
Carter had an undeniably uphill path because only one Georgia governor has been defeated since the constitution was amended to allow them a second term, and that defeat was a Democrat in the face of the Republicans’ current tidal surge.
In his concession speech, Carter said the 8-point loss still had its triumphs.
“While this is not the outcome we had hoped for, we still have a giant amount to be proud of,” he told supporters.
He said he forced Deal to put more emphasis on education, and the governor did, with funding boosts this year, relaxation of HOPE Grant rules and free tuition for a growing list of technical occupations like truck driving and welding.
Deal, of course, promised to maintain the course of his administration.
“I tell you tonight as I have told you during the campaign, we will continue to make Georgia the best place in the country for every possible thing you can imagine: jobs, environment, family life, best place to live,” he said. “We have a lot going for us, and we’re going to keep it in that direction.”
Most observers say Carter acquitted himself well during the campaign, ending with good relations with party stalwarts, reporters and donors and no gaffes or bruised primary rivals to make amends for. At 39, he is a likely candidate for the 2016 race against U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson or a 2018 governor’s race when Deal will be term limited.
Nunn, at 47, is certainly young enough to mount another campaign, but that’s a little less likely. Her party had tried for years to talk her into running in the first place, and observers sensed that she is less comfortable on the campaign trail than most politicos. Her personality is more reserved, and she angered many of the Democratic faithful by dodging debates and party events during the primary.
Avoiding Democratic functions may have been a smart tactic because the one primary debate she did participate in provided fodder for Republicans, including a repeatedly used response in which she said, “I defer to the president.”
Nevertheless, she notes that her campaign overcame long odds.
“I have never been more optimistic that I am today after 15 months,” she said.
And her father, former Sen. Sam Nunn, assessed Georgia Democrats with improved morale as a result of Carter’s and her candidacies.
“I have sensed a lot of positive energy. There has been a lot of negative energy, of course, but I haven’t seen this much positive energy, youthful energy, in a long time,” he said.
From the perspective of the Republicans, this year’s Senate contest was a referendum on Obama’s leadership.
“We’re going to tell Mr. Obama we’re tired of this. We’re ready for real hope and change,” retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss said Tuesday night.
His newly minted successor, Perdue, agreed.
“I think Georgia’s made it loud and clear tonight that we want to stop the failed policies of Barack Obama and (Senate Democratic Leader) Harry Reid,” he said.
Looking ahead, the GOP feels optimistic. Isakson has already printed bumper stickers for his re-election campaign in two years. Rick Allen, who upset Barrow in the 12th congressional district, will have incumbency working for him, and the party held onto the seats of three congressmen who had jumped into the Senate race with Buddy Carter in the 1st, Jody Hice in the 10th and Barry Loudermilk in the 11th.
Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. Follow him on Twitter @MorrisNews and Facebook or contact him at email@example.com.