Can Democrats make Georgia a two-party state again?

Minority party is still reeling from the election and party-switchers

As a general rule, the best way to know you’ve stopped falling is when you hit bottom. But if you’re the Democratic Party of Georgia, how can you even know where the bottom lies?

When the dust settled on election night this past November, the Democrats found themselves facing the depressing reality of having no statewide elected officials for the first time since Reconstruction. That likely felt like rock bottom — until days later, when the first of nine newly re-elected Democratic legislators announced they were joining the GOP. Even worse, one of the party-switchers was Rep. Doug McKillip, the newly named House Democratic Caucus chairman who hails from the Democratic stronghold of Athens.

This coming weekend, Georgia Democrats will convene in Warner Robbins to elect new leaders for the state party, including a replacement for outgoing chairwoman Jane Kidd. The obvious question is, why would anyone want a job that’s got to feel a little like managing a Zune kiosk in front of an Apple store?

Actually, Kidd admits the job was already pretty thankless when she took over four years ago. At that time, party functionaries were still coming to grips with having lost the state House, Senate and governor’s mansion, but hadn’t yet adjusted their expectations regarding fundraising and recruiting of candidates since the days when Democrats held all the levers of power in Georgia.

In fact, she says, Democrats were so accustomed to being in power that the state party — whose chairmen were typically named by the governor, including Kidd’s own father, Gov. Ernest Vandiver, in the late ’50s — had largely ignored the basics of grassroots organizing and voter databases. Much of the past few years had to be spent building a previously unnecessary campaign infrastructure, Kidd says.

During the decades when Democrats enjoyed majority status, the party was home to a sometimes uneasy mix of factions, including conservative Dixiecrats, black officials who’d emerged from the Civil Rights Movement and white progressives from Atlanta and the suburbs. While the handful of Republican office-holders dutifully touted the conservative GOP ideals of lower taxes and smaller government, the Democrat’s range of voices, backgrounds and political ideologies further muddled the party’s identity.

Now that the Dems are so far removed from power, the need to come up with a party identity is more pressing than ever. “What we have to do as a party is to articulate who Georgia Democrats are,” says Kidd.

According to Rep. Stacey Abrams, the newly elected House Minority Leader, the task of shaping a recognizable identity for the diminished party has actually been made easier by the recent wave of party defections, which left no rural white Democrats in the House.

“Most of the people who switched parties were conservatives, so having them out of the caucus allows us to not spend as much time catering to that minority,” says Abrams, an Atlanta attorney. “Claiming we had 72 Democrats in the House but only being able to muster 63 votes sent a disjointed message.”

While Abrams has been lauded even by Republicans as one of the rising stars in the House, it likely will take longer for Democrats to recover their footing in the state Senate. In the upper chamber, nearly all of the up-and-coming Democrats who’d been especially effective at influencing — and sometimes defeating — GOP initiatives are gone. Kasim Reed is across the street at Atlanta City Hall; David Adelman is serving as Ambassador to Singapore; Sam Zamarripa retired to focus on his banking career; Michael Meyer von Bremen of Albany left to run for a judgeship; and Tim Golden of Valdosta was among the last bunch of party-switchers.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown of Macon retained his leadership post, but damaged his ability to reach across the aisle with intemperate comments implying a connection between the GOP and the Ku Klux Klan. Brown was also seen as attacking his party’s leadership shortly after the election when he called for now-former Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond to run for Democratic Party of Georgia chairman before Kidd had indicated whether she would run again.

Thurmond, however, didn’t throw his name in the ring. Saturday’s election will be between Mike Berlon, the outgoing chairman of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party, and Atlantan Darryl Hicks, who ran unsuccessfully last year for Thurmond’s old job.

Abrams is optimistic about Democrats’ prospects for rebuilding their brand in Georgia. According to new census data, the capitol city has seen impressive population growth, and the southern half of the state is home to a higher percentage of minority residents — both good harbingers for an eventual shift in favor of progressive politics.

“As a party, we need to be aggressively communicative about who we are and what we stand for,” Abrams says. “It’s the job of the minority to let people know what the majority is doing to them, in terms of cuts in education and social programs.”

Chuck Clay, a former GOP lawmaker and, as ex-head of his own state party, a guy who knows something about being in the minority, says not all is bleak for Democrats. He agrees that the suburban areas “around the donut” of central Atlanta are becoming more Democratic. And he notes that while the Dems lack a statewide office-holder, Mayor Reed is an effective standard-bearer for a new breed of socially progressive, fiscally conservative Democrat.

“Kasim Reed is seen as a pro-business Democrat willing to tackle politically difficult issues, like pension reform,” Clay says.

Still, he says, Democrats need to have the patience to draft a five- or 10-year-plan to returning to political viability. Also on Democrats’ side, he concedes, is their diversity.

“It’s not good for Georgia to have an all-white party and an all-black party,” he says, “so there has to be some soul-searching.”