With Barack Obama’s departure from the White House, the decimation of the Democratic Party is complete. That might be the best thing that’s happened to Georgia Democrats in a while.
Peach State eyes are already turned toward 2018, and a state elections that are vital to Democrats’ near-term future. The next governor will have a large say in the next round of redistricting, and another round with the GOP in sole control will make it nigh-impossible for Democrats to make substantial gains in the General Assembly until we’re well into the next decade. For them, it’s 2018 or bust.
Democrats keep pointing to Georgia’s changing demographics as their ticket back to power, but the electorate isn’t changing fast enough for them to win big without also winning over some folks who have been voting for Republicans. And the biggest impediment to that has been the national Democratic Party.
When the GOP broke through here in 2002, it was in large part a matter of Georgians finally voting in state elections the way they’d voted in most presidential elections for years. Georgia Democrats have gotten no such assist. On the contrary.
The Obama era, particularly the first two years when his party also wielded large majorities in Congress, saw a series of overreaches followed by a repeated voter backlash. We all know by now the effect that had in Washington, D.C.: Democrats now hold 12 fewer seats in the Senate and 64 fewer in the House than in 2009, and of course they no longer occupy the White House either.
But what’s happened on the state level across this country is even more devastating. Democrats’ control of state legislatures and governor’s mansions fell by roughly half over the past eight years. In 2009 they controlled 27 legislatures and had 28 governors. Now those numbers are 14 and 16, respectively. There are but seven states where Democrats today have the governor and both chambers of the legislature. For Republicans, there are 24.
There is an underreported story about how Republicans won the battle of ideas in the states. But voters take their cues from the national GOP, too, and the party’s job during the Obama era was simple: Just show how far out there Democrats had wandered in D.C.
With the script now flipped, Democrats can try to return the favor. Then again, so far their hyperbole meter about Donald Trump and congressional Republicans is still turned all the way up to 11. And the GOP has yet to show it has enough unity to go too far in its lawmaking: A modicum of infighting could actually serve Republicans well in this narrow respect.
But at the very least, national Democrats are no longer in the position to saddle their Georgia colleagues with unpopular laws such as Obamacare and progressivist talk about guns and other cultural flashpoints.
What we don’t yet know is whether Georgia Democrats are ready to walk through that opening.
In 2014, they tried running statewide candidates who claimed to be more centrist than the national party. They lost big, again. Then the 2016 election pushed the party leftward nationally, and state Democratic leaders didn’t seem to be exceptions to that. If anything, Sen. Bernie Sanders — despite losing thoroughly in Georgia — seemed to embolden a segment of the party that hadn’t been quite as vocal here in the past.
Taken together, it’s easy to imagine Georgia Democrats choosing to shift away from the center just at the moment the national party is no longer in a position to drag them there. And that would be good news for the GOP.