Dubose Porter, the new leader of Georgia Democrats, exhorted the party faithful to “get ready” at a 2014 campaign kickoff luncheon Wednesday. Indeed, he even began singing the words of the famous R&B tune:
“People get ready/A train is comin’/You don’t need no baggage/Just get on board”
But get ready for what?
A dress rehearsal for 2018? Or actually winning of the state’s highest profile elected offices?
Porter, who was elected chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia earlier this year, boasted that the event’s turnout of 200 was so much larger than expected that they had to move to a bigger room at the Freight Depot in Atlanta, near the state Capitol.
Bigger turnout means more money. And the party is clearly seeing a bump from the candidacies of Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter who are running for U.S. Senate and Governor respectively. It raised more than $150,000 Wednesday. That amount far outpaces what the party took in at its signature Jefferson-Jackson dinner last spring before any big name candidates put skin in the game.
And it’s not just the party faithful. Porter pointed out the roster of business sponsors who underwrote the luncheon.
“They’d been [giving] to one side,” – meaning the Republicans – “and now they’re giving to both sides because they realize we’re going to win and that things are changing, and they have to play with both sides,” he said in an interview after the event.
Motivating the Base
There was clearly excitement in the air. Democrats in attendance (and the media) jostled to get a picture of Carter and Nunn as they talked together. The speech Wednesday marked Carter’s first public remarks since announcing he would challenge Gov. Nathan Deal in next year’s gubernatorial contest.
Money and excitement alone, however, won’t win races in a state as red as Georgia. Democrats like to say that President Obama won 47 percent of the vote in Georgia in 2008.
“The state is purple,” declared state Senator Vincent Fort, in an interview at the event.
But right now, Democrats hold no statewide office. That means no Democrats in the Governor’s office, the attorney general’s office, the labor commissioner’s office and on it goes. And Republicans hold a supermajority in one chamber of the state house and a simple majority in the other.
2018? No, 2014
Demographic changes occurring this decade in Georgia are expected to favor Democrats. Experts say that districts that elected Republicans in 2012 may elect Democrats by 2020. And indeed there’s been speculation about whether Atlanta Mayor Reed, who was listed as a guest of honor Wednesday but didn’t attend, would seek the Governor’s office.
But speculation has revolved around 2018, not 2014.
Fort, among others, disavowed the notion that Carter, for example, is running in 2014 to take one for the team.
Of his state Senate colleague, Fort said, “Jason doesn’t do dress rehearsals. He’s serious. He’s in this to win.”
Porter echoed that sentiment when asked if Carter had been tasked with boosting excitement among voters and donors in anticipation for races in 2018.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “2014 will be our year.”
Two Candidacies, Not Just One
But Democrats are also banking on the excitement that a telegenic, 38-year-old father of two from a storied Democratic family brings to the race.
And Republican strategist Eric Tanenblatt says it’s not just the excitement he brings to his own race.
“The more energy the Democrats can show in this election, the more it will be helpful to their U.S. Senate candidate, Michelle Nunn,” he said in an interview this week.
Nunn is running for the seat retiring Senator Saxby Chambliss is vacating.
“So having two candidates running, and not having a token candidate out there in the Governor’s race on the Democrats’ side, it will create more energy. But that being said, in both races it will be a real long shot for a Democrat to carry the day. Georgia is still a Republican state.”
It’s not surprising Tanenblatt would see it that way. He was a key figure in Mitt Romney’s Republican presidential campaign. But Democrats have no track record to rebut what he says. They’re going for the top elected posts in Georgia, without first winning small races.
If the party faithful were hoping to hear details of policy positions or even a reference to a specific issue Wednesday, they left were disappointed. The two candidates made perfunctory remarks to the media and avoided lengthy interviews.
Democratic officials said there’s plenty of time later to talk about the platforms the candidates will run on in 2014. But is there enough time to turn Georgia blue in a year?
In the words of the former Republican Governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, who attended Wednesday’s luncheon: “You never know.”
Crist is now a Democrat and running for his old office from the other side of the aisle.
“The only way to find out is to play the game. I’m an old quarterback, and if you don’t get on the field and suit up, you’ll never know,” he said in an interview at the Freight Depot. “So that’s why it’s wonderful these candidates are stepping up already and getting organized. I think they have a great opportunity to surprise people.”