LISTEN: On this week's episode, we visit the Democratic Party of Georgia's convention in Columbus to hear their vision for November and beyond.

Democrats in Georgia see their power on the rise after narrowly winning its presidential votes and both U.S. Senate seats in the past two years. But success at the state level has not yet materialized, and the 2022 midterms are proving to be a challenge.

After losing in 2018 by about 55,000 votes, Stacey Abrams leads one of the most diverse slates of candidates in the state’s history and seeks to change the balance of power by beating incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp.

Over the weekend, hundreds of Democrats descended upon Columbus for their state convention, as the party faithful rallied alongside politicians to see if this is the year they can turn Georgia blue.

This week, we look at Georgia Democrats’ vision for November and beyond. 

In a packed convention hall in Columbus, a sea of blue — and a Gwinnett County woman in a donkey costume — filled the room as the 2022 Democratic Party of Georgia convention got underway with a message from U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop.

"I am thrilled to welcome Democrats from across the state to the Democratic Party of Georgia's state convention 'True Blue 22,' right here in the great city of Columbus, Ga.," he said in a video. "I can't wait to meet and greet Democrats from all across Georgia working to ensure our state stays blue in 2022.”

There is a reason for the party to be hopeful this year, after spending practically all of the 2000s without a state house majority in Georgia’s government and with lesser influence at the federal level.

But over the years, grassroots organizers and candidates gradually convinced Democratic donors and pundits that the state was worth investing in as a new battleground, and a massive influx of voters and money in the past decade put Abrams within 55,000 votes of becoming the country’s first Black female governor in 2018. She's facing a rematch against Gov. Brian Kemp. 

The traction was gained by grassroots organizers, a diverse coalition of voters across the state, and massive get-out-the-vote efforts and high-profile campaign visits, resulting in a record number of Georgians participating in the presidential race and electing a Democrat for the first time in about three decades — then following it up with flipping both U.S. Senate seats in January 2021 runoffs.

“A lot has happened over the last four years," U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams said. "Y'all, we made history in 2020 and 2021, and with your help, we're going to do it again. We find ourselves in yet another historic election season that will determine the trajectory of not just our state, y'all, but our country.”

So with the last several years of developments, party leaders like Williams sounded cautiously optimistic about what the midterms could bring.

“Today's convention is when we officially kick things into high gear and the final home stretch of the campaign," she said. "It's a time for us to celebrate our accomplishments, celebrate our values, celebrate our vision for Georgia, and celebrate what we all know to be true: Georgia is a blue state.”

But while recent history may be in the party’s favor, midterms are typically a referendum on the party in power nationally, and the present state of the U.S. economy and other issues are putting some Democrats on the defensive.

Rep. Sanford Bishop welcomed Democrats to the 2nd Congressional District, where he is facing a Republican in Georgia's only remotely competitive U.S. House district.

Rep. Sanford Bishop welcomed Democrats to the 2nd Congressional District, where he is facing a Republican in Georgia's only remotely competitive U.S. House district.

Credit: Stephen Fowler | GPB News

One of those you might not expect is Bishop, who’s served Southwest Georgia for decades in the U.S. House. He has not faced a serious challenger or come close to losing in many years, but recent redistricting made his seat slightly less favorable. Some election forecasters have predicted it as a tossup, and it is the only one of Georgia’s 14 House seats that could remotely be competitive.

He’s a moderate Democrat with bipartisan appeal.

“It's very awesome, and it also puts me in a very, very interesting but delicate position," he said in an interview. "I have to try to balance the issues and the needs of the state at large against the needs of my particular district. Politics in Georgia has become very polarized, and there are homogeneous types of groups of districts in various parts of Georgia. The Atlanta metro area is much more liberal and has a different perspective in viewing some of the issues than the rural parts of Georgia. My district is half rural and half urban, so I have to be sensitive to both of those constituencies. And so I have to pay much closer attention than many of my colleagues on the Democrat side and on the Republican side.”

The convention in Columbus is in Bishop’s district, and he took the opportunity to hype the crowd up with a list of accomplishments the Democratic-controlled Washington has done since 2021, from CARES Act funding and COVID relief to infrastructure developments to the most recent CHIPS and Science Act. Because of the current nature of national politics, Bishop said the stakes for 2022 are even higher.

“Georgia is a battleground state, we need Georgia wins to keep the Democratic majority in the House and the Senate in Washington," he told the crowd. "We must elect Democrats up and down the ballot and on the state level. We have got to keep Democrats elected and we've got to make sure that Georgia is 'True Blue in 22.' We have got to elect this incredible slate of Democrats in Georgia.”

An attendee at the Democratic Party of Georgia state convention holds a sign in support of Sen. Raphael Warnock.

An attendee at the Democratic Party of Georgia state convention holds a sign in support of Sen. Raphael Warnock.

Credit: Stephen Fowler | GPB News

One of the most-watched races in the country is the U.S. Senate race between Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker. The race is tight according to the polls, attracting a ton of fundraising and could once again be a deciding factor in control of Congress.

Warnock took to the stage in Columbus touting his work on health care after being introduced by Sandra Ellison, a senior citizen who needs insulin.

“Like over 1 million other Georgians, I rely on insulin every day," she said. "For too long, too many Georgian that are dependent on insulin have struggled to afford the lifesaving medicine. Even even with Medicare, high prescription drug costs mean making difficult choices between medication and household expenses, such as groceries, gas and paying rent.”

In the so-called Inflation Reduction Act that recently passed, Warnock was able to include a provision that caps the cost of insulin for seniors on Medicare — though a similar bill to expand those caps for the rest of people did not make it.

“Sandra, who is a diabetic, depends on insulin," he said. "Reminds me why I tolerate politics in order to do good work for ordinary people. I mean, who would dare block providing insulin for people who need insulin? Who does that? Who does that? And I'm sorry, but I'm a pastor: Where did they go to church?”

Warnock is largely running his race on more bipartisan accomplishments in his short tenure in office and avoiding some of the baggage that comes with President Joe Biden’s unpopularity.

“I want to say that I will work with anybody if it helps me to get work done for Georgia," he said. "I even worked with Ted Cruz to get something done!"

Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks at the Democratic Party of Georgia state convention.

Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks at the Democratic Party of Georgia state convention.

Credit: Stephen Fowler | GPB News

The other major race this fall is the governor’s race between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp, a 2018 rematch that we have discussed in depth before on this podcast.

Abrams is the underdog, and the leader of Democrats’ efforts to transform Georgia.

“Standing with me is the most extraordinary ticket Georgia has ever produced," she said, flanked by other statewide nominees. "It looks like Georgia. It sounds like Georgia. It knows Georgia. Together, we represent immigrants and those who have been here for generations. We have folks who moved here from across the south and folks who moved here from across the country. We understand the needs of our people because we live those lives every day.”

She’s made Medicaid expansion a central focus of her campaign, and spoke recently about an economic plan that includes expanding college educational access and funding it by allowing casino gambling.

“We can do this and so much more without raising a dime in taxes," she said in a speech. "We simply have to raise our expectations of our leaders. Georgia stands at a generational moment, and this moment we have a $5 billion surplus money that can be invested in our future or hoarded for those who already have too much. We have an opportunity to deploy our resources to fix the roof and fix the plumbing instead of patching up the holes and bailing out the basement. We have the right as Georgians to not only believe in ourselves, but to have a government that believes in us. The government is a tool, not a weapon."

The rest of the slate comes from diverse backgrounds and have many strengths that tie into key issues locally and nationally, like secretary of state nominee Bee Nguyen and voting rights.

“I'm running to ensure that every eligible Georgian has access to the ballot box – and has access to the ballot box without barriers – to elect the representatives of their choice, to elect leaders that represent the values of Georgians and the diversity of our state," Nguyen said. "When we bring Georgians together from every corner of our state, and we come together based on the shared values of democracy, of economic prosperity for everybody and justice for all, we win.”

Attorney General nominee Jen Jordan is taking on incumbent Chris Carr by highlighting abortion and gun rights.

“We have an attorney general right now who has worked harder to to make sure that women women couldn't make the most personal decisions of their lives," Jordan said of the state's new abortion law. "He's worked harder at trying to get abortions banned in the state than he has to actually take illegal guns out of the hands of criminals. Think about that. It's about taking away rights as opposed to protecting people. We have got to have a change. So not only do we look diverse, listen, we sound diverse and we are from different areas, but I can tell you the one thing that we all have in common is that we are all going to put the people of this state as the priority.”

This is arguably the most competitive slate of Democratic candidates the party has seen for years in Georgia. But not everyone with money and a message may be destined to win.

Take Marcus Flowers, running in Georgia’s 14th District against U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in an overwhelmingly Republican district. He is convincing to Democratic voters and donors, but is that enough? Probably not in deep-red conservative northwest Georgia, where Greene won by nearly 50 points in 2020.

“I've seen the damage done by extremism, by radicalization and by misinformation," he said in a speech. "And I cannot simply stand by and let it happen here. This is not about politics for me. It's about right and wrong. It's about preserving our democracy for future generations.” 

Flowers’ money has been largely spent on consultants and ads instead of grassroots mobilization to squeeze out every blue vote in a sea of red. But every little bit will count for statewide races like Warnock and Abrams. Even though many of the candidates that spoke at the Democratic state convention aren’t likely to win in November, there’s still the bigger picture and longer term to consider, like the 2024 presidential election.

Georgia Democrats have made their pitch to the Democratic National Committee the state should be one of the early presidential primary states, and Atlanta is one of a few finalist cities to host the DNC Convention.

“We're pushing, y'all, we're pushing, we're pushing," Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said. "We are applying pressure, as they say. We're going to make sure that we get that convention here in Georgia. ... And let's just say I like our odds going into this.”

Those decisions likely won’t be made before the midterms, when Georgians will make key decisions about who will represent them for years to come.

Current polling shows Warnock slightly ahead of Walker, and Abrams within striking distance of Kemp — increasing the possibility that one or both of those races could head to December runoffs.

Battleground: Ballot Box from Georgia Public Broadcasting is produced by Stephen Fowler. Our editor is Josephine Bennett. Our engineer is Jake Cook and Jesse Nighswonger wrote our theme music. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.