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Friday, May 13, 2011 - 2:05pm

A New Direction for Georgia Democrats

The state Republican Party is gathering today and tomorrow in Macon for its bi-annual conference. The G-O-P has been gaining ground over state Democrats for a decade. But the party that once dominated Georgia politics is looking to take back the reins. There is now a new direction for Democrats that starts with reaching voters beyond Metro Atlanta.

Outside Augusta's Democratic Party headquarters about 100 Democrats gather to see the unveiling of the party's first official satellite office. Augusta democratic representative Gloria Frasier stirs up the awaiting crowd:

"I am so tired of being on the back of the bus. I was elected and I want to know how it feels to be in the front of the bus, to be the driver of the bus. And here we are as Democrats today making that start right now."

The Augusta field office is the first of more than 10 the party is rolling out across the state this year.

It's part of a plan by newly elected Chairman Mike Berlon to win back control of state government:

"We're hoping by setting these offices up that we can get people to come back to the Democratic party and they can see us and they can trust us. When you don't see anybody anywhere for years they're not going to vote for you and so we need to have a bigger presence in the community and that's the plan."

For more than a century, Democrats held the majority of Georgia's elected seats. But the election of governor Sonny Perdue in 2002 marked the beginning of a decline. Perdue was one of the first of a string of high profile Democrats to defect to the Republican party. Since then Democrats have lost control of both the house and senate and lost seats to party-switchers. Last year Republicans swept every state constitutional office.

Party Vice-chair Nikema Williams blames the losses on a lack of support from rural white voters who have historically voted as Democrats.

"I don't think that they've actually turned it's just that so many of our people have stayed home in the past few election years that we've allowed the Republican vote to be stronger than the Democratic vote."

Williams says the new field offices will get the party's message out to rural areas to win back some of those voters.

But the numbers suggest there are fewer Democrats to reach. In the 2010 primary about 400,000 Georgians voted Democrat compared to nearly 700,000 who voted Republican. That's a stark contrast to 2002 when nearly 600,000 Georgians voted Democrat and a little more than 500,000 voted Republican.

Tom Crawford of the Georgia Report says as rural Georgia Democrats become more conservative, they end up voting as Republicans.

"They tend to be more conservative on the Democratic side than Democrats at the national level and they've always been that way here in Georgia, so in terms of ideological differences there's not that much of a difference between Democrats and Republicans, quite frankly, in the state of Georgia."

Crawford says if Democrats want to win those voters back, they'll have to distinguish their message. He says Democrats need to push for fewer tax breaks for big corporations and promote policies that help everyday Georgians.

Long time party member Richard Ray agrees. He's the president of the Georgia AFLCIO, a consortium of labor unions.

"Voters are worried about their future. They're worried about their child's education. They're worried about the job that they don't have or the job they could lose because of the economic situation that we face in America today."

Back at the Augusta headquarters the crowd counts down to the unveiling of a sign reading "Democratic Party of Georgia Satellite Office".

Soon, office workers will be busy registering voters. By next year's Presidential election, the party hopes reaching out to voters outside of Atlanta brings them to the polls to vote Democrat.