The next head of the Georgia Democrats must add a more immediate challenge to the already lengthy list of fiscal and political concerns that await: how to settle an opening divide within the party over challenging Gov. Nathan Deal next year.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, arguably the party’s most powerful figure, surprised many when he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Democrats should focus on an open U.S. Senate race rather than a run against Deal, who he predicted would win re-election.
Since then, some influential Democrats have questioned whether the mayor’s personal friendship with the governor skewed his views. Party leaders say the right contender could pose a serious challenge to the governor, whose approval ratings have hovered below 50 percent in some recent polls.
Embattled party Chairman Mike Berlon, whose resignation was hurried in part by criticism from Reed, added a parting shot Monday in a farewell statement to the media. The Gwinnett County attorney plans to step down Sunday after his recent legal troubles were made public.
“We have a great opportunity to win a U.S. Senate seat here in 2014,” he said. “We also have a good shot at the governor’s race with the right candidate.”
The outcome of the debate, which will help shape the next state party chairman’s role, is no esoteric question. Democrats were swept out of statewide office in 2010, and the GOP now has a firm grip on Georgia’s executive and legislative branches. Yet Georgia’s growing minority population has some Democrats believing they can soon recapture some of those seats.
Berlon’s successor will play a defining role in that effort. The party’s first vice-chairwoman, Nikema Williams, will temporarily take charge, but she could soon call for an election. Several candidates are said to be interested, and many Democrats are siding between ex-state Sen. Doug Stoner and Tharon Johnson, a Reed protege.
Stoner has declined to comment. Johnson sounded like he was interested.
“What’s most important right now is supporting the process,” Johnson said. “I am more than happy to offer my services and opinion about rebuilding the party so that we can be competitive in the upcoming elections in 2014 and 2016.”
Broader challenges also loom. The next party chairman must help craft a message that can resonate with state Democrats — which polls show account for about a third of state voters — as well as the swelling ranks of independent voters who have recently swung toward the GOP.
Financial woes have left the organization struggling with few resources while Georgia Republicans have amassed a hefty war chest. The latest campaign filings, for instance, show the party ended April with barely $30,000 in cash and almost $20,000 in debt. The state GOP, meanwhile, had more than 20 times as much cash on hand.
But no task may be more important than the challenge of recruiting candidates and marshaling those limited resources toward key races.
That’s part of the reason why Reed says Democrats should focus their resources on the open seat held by retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss rather than Deal, who he said has “done a good job” as governor. No Democrats have entered either contest yet, though nonprofit executive Michelle Nunn is likely to announce a Senate run by July.
“I’m pragmatic and I believe in winning. When you have limited resources, you have to put your energy and efforts in winning,” Reed said. “In the U.S. Senate race, with Michelle Nunn or with another Democrat, that’s a winnable race.”
Some Democrats praised Reed’s stance and noted that Berlon pushed for a similar strategy when he called for the party to avoid the “collateral damage” of crowded primaries by avoiding intraparty fights. But others were frustrated with the message.
The two top Democrats in the state Senate told the AJC that challenging Deal wouldn’t take the focus off the Senate race. And House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, said the party’s role was to offer competing political philosophy whenever possible.
“The Democratic Party has an obligation to offer alternative views of the Republican Party if we want to continue to build our way to the majority,” she told the AJC. “And that can come in the way of fielding a gubernatorial candidate.”
Other Democrats have made far stronger comments. Bryan Long of Better Georgia, a left-leaning advocacy group, accused Reed of “waving the white flag.”
Deal, not surprisingly, doesn’t seem to mind the Democratic infighting. His spokesman Brian Robinson said Deal’s campaign will focus on how it can recruit more jobs and improve the quality of life for residents.
“We will have a positive message for voters,” he said. “While the Democrats squabble, Governor Deal will continue to govern effectively.”