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This State Is Democrats' Best Chance to Pick Up a Senate Seat

Win McNamee/Getty Images News

Democrats are in danger of getting disappointed in Kentucky, where early poll numbers belie McConnell's big advantages. If people are really buying Wendy Davis and a "blue Texas," Democrats might be doubly disappointed. Where Democrats could end up pleasantly surprised is Georgia. The conditions for an upset might be brewing in the Peach State, where Saxby Chambliss is retiring and Democrats have stealthily become close to competing on a more regular basis. It might even be a better bet for Democrats in 2014 than Kentucky.

I was initially skeptical of whether Democrats could compete in Georgia in 2014. So skeptical that I was initially unsure about whether I even agreed with Harry Enten’s assertion that Georgia was a better pick-up opportunity for Democrats than Kentucky, where I’m unabashedly pessimistic about Grimes. The main source of my pessimism? 2014 is a midterm election, when black turnout would be expected to drop. Consider the difference between the general and run-off Senate elections in 2008, when Chambliss went from a 3 point edge to 15 point rout. Since Georgia’s white vote is pretty “inelastic,” it’s hard to see how a Democratic candidate was going to overcome a 15 point deficit statewide.

But Georgia's black turnout wasn’t so bad in 2010, despite a bad national climate and without a competitive federal election. According to the Georgia Secretary of State, the black share of the electorate only declined slightly, from 30 percent in 2008 to 28.3 percent in 2010. The white share of the electorate increased from 64.1 to 66.3 percent. That drop-off might hurt a Democratic candidate by a net-3 points, but that’s not the massive gap suggested by the 2008 run-offs. Part of the explanation: turnout was 20 percent higher in 2010 than the 2008 run-offs.

Demographic change helps counter some of the drop-off. The state’s non-white population is booming and, as a result, the white share of the electorate dropped from 64.1 percent in 2008 to 61.4 percent in 2012. A similar decline was observed among registered voters. As a result of these demographic changes, we would expect the 2014 midterm electorate to be about as diverse as the 2008 general electorate. If 2014 turnout drops off at the same rate that it did in 2010, we might guesstimate that the electorate would be 63.7 percent white, compared to 64.1 percent in 2008 and 66.3 percent in 2010.

Even with an electorate as diverse as 2008, it would still be tough for a Georgia Democrat to win federal office. They might need about 28 percent of the white vote to a squeak out a win, and federal Democratic candidates haven't hit that level in a long time. But it is conceivable. Federal Democratic candidates have come close in recent years. According to the exit polls, Jim Martin, the Democratic candidate for Senate in 2008, won 26 percent of the white vote. 

Could Michelle Nunn, the likely Democratic nominee, do a couple points better among white voters and get over the top? Some factors will work against her. There won’t be a strong national wind at her back, like Martin had in 2008. Young white turnout will be lower, too. Georgia's whites moved pretty strongly against Obama between 2008 and 2012. It's alot to ask for a novice political candidate, even the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn.

But there's one big way that Nunn's route to 28 percent is easier than Martin's: Nunn won’t face an incumbent Senator. Instead, she’ll face the winner of what The Hill called the “clown car” primary. She could even face Paul Broun, a Tea Party candidate who thinks that evolution and the big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell.” Perhaps the more likely candidate is Phil Gingrey, who felt compelled to defend Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock’s comments about abortion. We know from the last few election cycles that the Republicans are fully capable of selecting nominees who significantly underperforms the national party. In a few of those cases, they did significantly worse than Republicans in 2006 or 2008. If you got that in Georgia, we could see a surprise Democratic win.

To be clear: Georgia is not a toss-up. The state retains a clear Republican lean in neutral conditions, and the Democratic path to victory is quite narrow with so few persuadable voters. Nunn probably needs the Republicans to blow it. But across the board, Georgia seems like a more winnable state for Democrats than Kentucky. Start with 2008 as the baseline for comparison. Even then, Democrats came significantly closer to beating Senator Chambliss than Senator McConnell. Since then, almost everything makes Georgia a better opportunity for Democrats. Today, McConnell is basically in the same spot, while Georgia Republicans will nominate a non-incumbent, potentially carrying considerable baggage. At the same time, demographic changes pushed Georgia further to the left, while Democrats suffered a cataclysmic collapse in Kentucky’s coal country. 

Of course, Nunn could prove to be a horrible candidate. She's never run for office before, so obviously she needs to prove her appeal. But Grimes could end up blowing it, too. She's never run for an office that requires her to talk about actual issues, with all due respect to the position of Secretary of State. And other than that one difference, Nunn and Grimes are pretty similar. They’re both inexperienced, blank slates, free to define themselves outside of the mainstream of the national Democratic Party. They’re both daughters of prominent state Democratic figures. And like Grimes, Nunn leads in meaningless, capriciously weighted, early polls by PPP.1  If Nunn is ultimately as strong as Grimes seems to be, Georgia seems like a better bet.

But even if Nunn loses in 2014, which remains the likely outcome, the demographic changes keeping her hopes alive should eventually make Democrats competitive in the Peach State. The pace of demographic change in Georgia should not be underestimated. Since 2000, the state’s non-white population increased by 45 percent, or nearly 1.4 million residents. The white population increased by just 6.5 percent, or only a bit more than 300,000 residents. Most importantly, Georgia’s demographic change is driven by an influx of African Americans, not low-turnout, more competitive Hispanics. The state’s black population increased by 750,000 over the last decade, transforming Atlanta’s southern suburbs into a heavily Democratic region and narrowing the GOP’s margin in Cobb and Gwinnett Counties.These pressures continue to mount. In the six months after November's presidential election, the number of new white registered voters increased by 20,604, but non-white voters increased by 54,864. 

Romney won Georgia by just 7.8 points--about the same margin that Obama won Wisconsin or Minnesota, and less than Obama's margin in traditional battlegrounds like New Mexico and Michigan. The margin of victory was just 300,000 votes. Georgia's Republican lean can't survive another net-1.1 million new non-white residents over the next decade unless the GOP significantly broadens its appeal. Even in the short term, the white share of the electorate could drop down to 58 or 59 percent by 2016—which could allow a Democrat to win with as little as 23 or 24 percent of the white vote. That’s the range where a Democrat might win without a GOP meltdown. John Kerry won 23 percent of the white vote in 2004, so did President Obama in 2008. Jim Martin’s 26 percent would yield a slight but clear victory.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the next Democratic candidate retains Obama’s support or turnout among non-white voters. There’s no guarantee that the next Democratic presidential candidate can return to Obama ’08 levels among Georgia’s white voters, either. The point isn’t that Georgia will be competitive as soon as 2016, let alone 2020. The point is that the demographics have moved far enough that there are plausible scenarios where Georgia is competitive in just four years. Would anyone really be blown away if Hillary Clinton retains most of Obama’s support among non-white voters, and does as well among Southern whites as either Kerry or Obama ’08? 

Winning an open seat in Georgia wouldn’t be as sweet for Democrats as beating Mitch McConnell. Blue Georgia doesn’t sound as nice as Blue Texas, either. That’s probably why we don’t hear as much about Georgia. But a Senate seat is a Senate seat and Georgia’s 16 electoral votes would make it the largest red-to-purple state since Florida lurched toward the Democrats in the 1990s. If Nunn runs well and the GOP nominates a problematic candidate, pay attention.

  1. PPP weights to their own targets for race, based on a secret recipe of Census data, exit polls, or whatever else they feel like. In fact, this secret recipe is supposedly the secret to their success. But PPP's recent poll of Georgia found that whites constituted 71 percent of the electorate, while blacks were at 24 percent. This is not a state where there should be so much guesswork. According to the Georgia Secretary of State, it was 66 percent white, 28 percent black in 2010. If for some reason PPP didn't notice that, the Census estimate is even less white: 64 percent white, 32 percent black. In 2014, the electorate should be more diverse, but certainly not significantly more monochromatic. So how did they get 71 percent white, 24 percent black? Who knows. But I'm sure that a good method wouldn't have yielded those estimates. And in a state like Georgia, where racial turnout is 90 percent of the game, it's a little ridiculous that they could be off by so much.