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Tuesday March 31st, 2020 6:02PM

Georgia at ‘turning point’? Debate signals Democratic hopes

By The Associated Press

PEACHTREE CORNERS, Ga. (AP) — Beth Moore would typically fit the mold of a Georgia Republican. She attended private school in the affluent, mostly white northern Atlanta suburbs, attended the University of Georgia, practices law and married a Republican.

But the 37-year-old is part of a class of 17 Democratic House freshmen in the state legislature, elected last year in an urban and suburban surge that nearly put Stacey Abrams in the governor’s mansion. Despite Abrams’ defeat, Moore believes that other Democratic victories, including hers, represent a “new Georgia” that will be on display as 10 Democratic presidential candidates descend on the state this week for the Wednesday debate at actor Tyler Perry’s Atlanta film complex.

“Georgia is at a turning point,” Moore said. “We have enjoyed a lot of economic success over the years that has kept native-born Georgians here and has attracted new Georgians from all over the country and all over the world. Those years of success have led to a new voting bloc in the South that is hungry for change.”

Indeed, growth and urbanization over recent decades has made Georgia’s population younger, less native to the state and less white. That, combined with President Donald Trump’s struggles among previously GOP-leaning white college graduates, has put Georgia on the cusp of presidential battleground status.

The question is how close.

“The road to the White House runs through Georgia,” Democratic state Chairwoman Nikema Williams said matter-of-factly.

Republicans counter with skepticism, even as they acknowledge demographic trends.

“Only in the event of a landslide nationally does Donald Trump lose Georgia,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, pointing to Trump’s 5 percentage point win in Georgia in 2016. Arizona, Ayres said, is the likelier Sun Belt state to flip to Democrats, while Texas and Georgia are a tier below, still a few election cycles away from tilting.

The 2020 elections offer plenty of opportunities for the two sides to prove their case.

Besides the presidency, two U.S. Senate seats are on the ballot. Republican David Perdue, a staunch Trump ally, faces reelection for the first time. A special election will decide a successor to retiring Republican Johnny Isakson.

GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, who defeated Abrams, will appoint a successor to Isakson later this year. That pick is expected to run for the seat.

In the shifting Atlanta suburbs, Democrat Lucy McBath will seek a second term in a congressional district once represented by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, while the neighboring district will have a competitive fight to replace Republican Rob Woodall, who announced his retirement not long after surviving the 2018 midterms by fewer than 1,000 votes.

At the state level, the entire legislature will be on the ballot, with Democrats targeting 16 more Republican House districts with hopes of winning a majority — a result that would allow Democrats a stronger hand in redrawing congressional and legislative boundaries after the 2020 census.

Ryan Mahoney, a top outside adviser to Kemp, warned Democrats to be wary. He pointed to the same strong economy that Moore cited when she explained the metropolitan boom. Trump rubs some typically Republican suburbanites the wrong way, Mahoney said, but that’s harder for Democrats to exploit with unemployment under 4%.

“The reality is a majority of Georgians are happy with a thriving economy and the overall direction of the state,” Mahoney said.

He noted Kemp’s rising poll numbers and a tenure with plenty to satisfy his conservative base. Kemp signed a restrictive abortion bill that incensed Democrats and elevated several freshman lawmakers like Moore. She referenced that law when framing Republicans as “a party that no longer represents the values” of districts like hers.

Kemp still declines to expand Medicaid insurance under Democrats’ 2010 health care overhaul, instead offering a pending state-based plan he says will expand coverage.

But the governor has found some common ground with Democrats.

Moore and many of her fellow Democrats voted for a Kemp-GOP budget that included a teacher pay raise, and Democrats, sometimes begrudgingly, credit Kemp with filling state boards and judicial posts with a diverse slate.

As with any competitive electorate, Georgia’s direction will turn on a combination of variables within an electorate that now exceeds 7 million registered voters.

In the governor’s race, Abrams ran up a record midterm turnout among nonwhite voters, especially among those who hadn’t regularly voted. It was enough to exceed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vote total by about 46,000 votes. But it was still 55,000 short of Kemp’s numbers and, looking ahead to 2020, about 166,000 short of Trump’s haul of nearly 2.1 million.

And despite her gains in metro areas, Abrams lost considerable ground in Georgia’s rural counties, with Kemp hitting 80% or higher in several counties that hadn’t even given Trump such lopsided margins.

There’s plenty of debate about whether Democrats’ presidential fortunes depend on who they nominate.

Mahoney argued that Democrats abandon any shot if they nominate a progressive like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. Williams said it’s more about doing the work to assemble a diverse coalition, regardless of ideology. And there’s certainly a wild card if Abrams ends up as the nominee’s running mate, a prospect she has said she’s open to.

Democrats see a path to victory in new voter registrations — more than 300,000 since the 2018 election, thanks to the state’s automatic registration law when residents apply for driver’s licenses. Most of the new registrants are in urban counties where Abrams outpaced Kemp and Clinton led Trump.

Further, Democrats and advocacy groups are asking courts to order changes to some Georgia election procedures and block the Republican secretary of state from stripping thousands of “inactive” voters from the rolls.

Beyond the suburban swings, those irregular voters could hold keys for both parties.

Mahoney argued that Trump and Republicans have left plenty of votes on the table. “There’s a wide swath out there that comes out only in elections with Donald Trump on the ticket,” he said.

Moore, meanwhile, said she’s looking for at least one more Democratic vote at home: her Republican husband. “He’s not happy with them,” she said, describing him as another suburban Republican disenchanted with Trump. “He’s looking for an option.”

___

Follow Bill Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP

___

Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”

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