What happened to the competitive Georgia Democrats?

Were the Democrats ready? Donald Trump’s involvement in the 2016 election created an opportunity for sweeping change both on the federal and state level, but were the Democrats ready? A recent NY Times article called out the Democrats for failing to put up strong candidates in the U.S. Senate races across the country. Given the concerns over the Democratic bench I wanted to start looking into what the Georgia Democratic Party is developing for its future. We have potential candidates for the 2018 gubernatorial race, but what about further down the road? What about the next generation of Georgia Democrats? Will we be ready if the opportunity presents itself? Or better yet, will we be ready to create the opportunity ourselves?

After Stacey Abrams and Kasim Reed, the next wave of Georgia Democrats will start with our representatives in the General Assembly. There is always focus on the presidency, senate seats, and other big ticket races, but the local political arena is still significant. State legislatures are responsible for decisions to expand Medicaid, for teacher pay, for “bathroom bills,” and perhaps most relevant, elections laws and redistricting. So the question is: are we competing for the General Assembly?

The picture the NY Times painted does not get any better for the Georgia Democrats, so I’ve worked on a series of posts that delve into the current state of the Georgia Democrats. This post will discuss our competitiveness, but later I will discuss what districts we should be targeting, how we can flip those districts, and how we can develop future leaders for the party.

Do any of us even have a choice?

Elections all over the country are becoming more partisan, more extreme, and uncompetitive. Many ballots in the general election only have a single party competing for the seat. Is this due to gerrymandering? Self-sorting? Mass media? Outside money? Lack of term limits? Internet extremism? Likely it’s all of the above, but the two that are the focus are gerrymandering and self-sorting. Gerrymandering is the hot topic of the day, but many of the current experts feel that gerrymandering plays less a role than self-sorting. With the ability for much of the citizenry to choose where we live, we are more likely to sort ourselves into like-minded towns and neighborhoods. In reality it appears that the two are linked. Gerrymandering is easier when we sort ourselves. For example, we can look at Georgia and North Carolina.

The demographics of the voting populations are similar. There is less than a 50,000 difference in voting age population. Similar age breakdowns with a slightly younger skew in Georgia. Nearly identical median household income, poverty rates, and education levels. The most significant difference being the race breakdown. Georgia has a 30.3% black population compared to North Carolina’s 21.3%. That difference coming almost entirely from the white population. Without any more information it would appear that those two state would have similar electoral results, yet as we know, they are quite different. This is where self-sorting make a difference.

Georgia is dominated by a single, massive urban center attracting most of the Democratic voters in the state. To match the population of Atlanta, you would have to combine the cities of Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Durham, and Asheville. Georgia Democrats have made it easy for the cartographers to draw uncompetitive districts. North Carolina Democrats had the right idea and spread out into six distinct metro areas. This makes it much harder to gerrymander the districts. Not that the North Carolina GOP hasn’t tried. Anyways, the argument that self-sorting plays a more significant role seems to hold true in the state of Georgia. Take away the gerrymandered districts and Georgia would still have to deal with the Atlanta albatross.

How bad is it in the Peach state?

As mentioned, the General Assembly has plenty of power, so it only makes sense to focus our attention on gaining a majority in at least one of the chambers. To see how far we have to go, we have to look at how bad it is now.

Short version: Georgia is one of the least competitive states in the country making it difficult for any change in party dominance to occur.

Long version: Ballotpedia has done a great job at compiling information on the competitiveness of state legislature races across the country. They look at three major factors: 1) Percentage of races with incumbents; 2) Percentage of incumbents without primary challengers, and 3) Percentage of races without major party opposition. Here’s their breakdown of Georgia and the country as a whole in 2016:

Ballotpedia also puts together a “Competitive Index” to compare the states. To calculate the index, they take the reverse of these percentages (percentage without incumbents, percentage of incumbents with primary challengers, and percentages of races with major party opposition) and average them. Here is the comparison of the states over the previous three election cycles:

In every election cycle, Georgia has been one of the four least competitive states with a downward trend. Georgia has also seen the percentage of races with major party opposition decrease over each election. Georgia had 33.9% of its races with major party opposition in 2010, 23.7% in 2012, 20.34% in 2014, and according to the graphic above, 19.5% in 2016. I’ve put together some tables to breakdown the Georgia Senate and House individually.

These are discouraging numbers for the Georgia Democrats. In the House, Democrats need to flip 30 seats to take a true majority, yet they only have the potential to flip 20 (17.24%) Republican seats. 16.59% of the Democratic House members are not running this year. The Senate is more encouraging, but not by much. Democrats need to flip 12 Senate seats, but again are only challenging 10 (25.64%) Republican seats. Every current Democratic Senator is running again.

The single biggest takeaway is this: If the Democrats held onto every seat and won every seat they challenged, they would still face a ten seat deficit in the House and a two seat deficit in the Senate. After looking into some of the candidates, it would be a miracle to even win half the seats currently challenged. Many of the candidates fail to have a website or a Facebook page. That should be the bare minimum for a campaign. Money is not the issue here. Facebook pages are free and websites can be cheap. If you don’t even have the most basic web presence, then I can’t imagine you’ve taken the time to drum up enough interest in the campaign to make a difference. Prove me wrong candidates, but a website is minimal work to show us you’re a real person. Part of this can fall on the state party, and I will get into that more in a future post.

Now we can take the long view with this. It’s unrealistic to flip 30 House seats and 12 Senate seats in one election in one of the least competitive states. We should take small incremental steps to regain a majority over time. I sympathize with this view, and it’s a view espoused by some of the top Democrats in the state. Stacey Abrams has made the round on national news outlets explaining the “new American majority.” Her view is that the Democrats have the majority in Georgia, so we only need to register and mobilize those previously forgotten potential voters. She’s established the New Georgia Project to do just this. Due to this activity, she believes that we will be able to flip up to seven house seats in this election.

I applaud Stacey Abrams and her effort to register and mobilize those who have so far been overlooked and who haven’t received the attention they deserve. In my gut, I tend to agree that the demographics are in favor of the Democratic party, but we haven’t made the efforts to get out the vote. This is an important step in the progress of the Georgia Democrats, but we need to do more. All these newly registered and mobilized voters need to have someone to vote for, yet for a majority of Georgians there is no Democrat to vote for. Slow, incremental steps are great, but failing to have a candidate in a majority of races for the General Assembly is unacceptable. We can do better.

Will the Democrats be competitive again?

A Democratic majority by 2020 is a common goal for obvious reasons: the majority in 2020 gets to redraw the maps after the census. So let’s take a look at the Georgia House first to see how far we have to go. The Democrats lost the House after the 2004 elections and were left with 80 seats. Each election since saw a further decrease down to a low of 60 seats. After a surprising special election victory, the Democrats now have 61 seats heading into the election. Stacey Abrams says we can flip seven seats to get us to 68. That would leave two election cycles to gain 22 more seats. Not an unrealistic goal if we have the people in place to make it happen.

In this series of posts I’m going to analyze a few different points related to the Democrats taking back a majority in the General Assembly. I’ll first look at which districts we should have targeted for this election based on previous results and the Presidential results within each district. Beyond that I’ll examine the demographics to see what districts may have flown under the radar. After determining which districts have/should have been targeted, I will analyze each of these potential 2016 targets using current voter registration numbers, previous turnout data, unregistered populations, and previous election data. I’ll also do the same for current Democratic districts to determine the danger for flipping to the Republicans. Finally, I’ll start a discussion about what we can do as a state party to recruit, train, and support candidates up and down the ballot for future elections. Once information is available following the election, then I will start to update and begin a targeting analysis for 2018 races.

Even with all this uncompetitive talk, the truth of the matter is that 2016 is a chance to take a look at the effectiveness of the Georgia Democratic party. Trump presented a unique opportunity that we were not ready for here in Georgia. No one knows what will happen in 2018 and beyond, so we need to be prepared for any opportunity presented. This starts by aggressively targeting districts early and then recruiting, training, and supporting candidates to run competitive races. The public awareness campaign starts today. The Democrats will compete in Georgia again.