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Can Georgia turn blue?

April 3, 2014, at 8:53 AM
 
The Peach State is becoming less and less conservative.

The Peach State is becoming less and less conservative. Photo: (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Recently on Political Wire's podcast, we reached out to Jim Galloway of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a deep dive into Georgia politics and a look at the U.S. Senate race that may determine which party controls the Senate.

Here are five takeaways for our conversation:

1. Demographic changes are putting Republicans in a difficult spot. Although Georgia has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1996, the state's redness may be changing. Reflecting a trend that's occurring nationally, the Peach State's electorate is becoming less and less white — and less and less conservative — with each election cycle as immigrants settle in the state. Back in the late 1990s, Georgia's electorate was 70 percent white, Galloway said; in 2012, that percentage dipped below 60 percent for the first time. President Obama's performance in 2012 reflected this demographic shift, as the president didn't get blown out like he did in other southern states. He lost Georgia by just under eight points, 53.3 percent to 45.5 percent. Republicans are now grappling with how they position themselves for the future, Galloway said. "You have a debate between those who say, 'Let's stay on the same path, let's keep going ever rightward, rightward rightward,'" he said. "But you have got more and more people who are saying, 'Boys, we've gotta change direction ever so slightly, we've gotta make a course correction, we need to stop scaring women and independents.'"

2. There almost certainly will be a runoff on the crowded Republican side. The Republican primary race couldn't be any more crowded than it is right now, and the views of the contenders reflect the debate that Georgia Republicans are undertaking on their future path. Strong conservatives like Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey juxtapose themselves with more-pragmatic conservatives like businessman David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston. Also in the GOP primary is former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, who has struggled to gain traction but recently scored the endorsement of Sarah Palin. A recent poll shows Perdue leading the primary race with 21 percent support, followed by Kingston and Broun at 15 percent each. In the primary, a candidate must lock up a majority to avoid a runoff, so it's all but clear that there will be one. Given how crowded the field is, Galloway said, super PACs, are hesitant to pick candidates until they see which two remain standing after the May 20 primary. The runoff would be in July.

3. Michelle Nunn isn't giving Republicans much to attack her on just yet. The daughter of popular, well-respected former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) is benefiting as much from the name recognition as from her civic record in Georgia as a nonprofit executive. The favorite to win the Democratic primary against two relative unknowns, Nunn has never run for office before, Galloway noted. Given that inexperience and the relative GOP tilt of the state, she's running a very disciplined campaign: "She's not giving Republicans any kind of a target to focus in on." Still, her opponents are bound to ramp up their attacks on her eventually. She may need to take contrarian positions on some issues, particularly on foreign policy and health care. The main issue that conservative groups and Republicans will attack her on is ObamaCare. On that issue she has staked out a contrarian position, supporting Sen. Johnny Isakson's (R-Ga.) call for delaying the implementation of the individual mandate. The GOP candidate who may threaten her candidacy the most is Perdue, who like Nunn can take the outsider mantle and who may be the most centrist of the GOP hopefuls.

4. Jason Carter (D) won't knock off Gov. Nathan Deal (R) unless Nunn wins her race. Nunn's not the only Georgia Democrat with a big family name who's running for statewide office. President Jimmy Carter's grandson Jason (D) is seeking to knock off the incumbent Deal. A state senator from the Atlanta area, Carter may have a tougher road to victory than Nunn does. Not only has has made some slip-ups early on, Galloway said, but Deal is maintaining decent public support after his state's botched preparations and response to recent winter storms. Still, the incumbent governor's approval ratings have at times dipped below the critical 50 percent level, suggesting that he isn't sitting pretty. A new poll shows Deal with a statistically insignificant edge over Carter, but with a lot of voters still undecided. As of now, "Jason Carter does not win the governor's race unless Michelle Nunn wins the Senate seat," Galloway said. Even if Democrats fall short in 2014, 2018's gubernatorial election may be even more important; that's because the winner of that election will serve when the state undergoes redistricting after 2020's census.

5. Medicaid could become a huge deal in the state's debate over ObamaCare. Perhaps the best example of where the debate over ObamaCare stands in the Peach State is in the gubernatorial race. The Democrat Carter has pushed for the state to expand Medicaid, but to do so by replicating the Arkansas or Utah model; those two states, in expanding Medicaid, employed a so-called private option, using public dollars to subsidize private insurance for poor residents. The Republican Deal, however, faces a dilemma. On the one hand, ObamaCare remains very unpopular among Republicans, particularly in the Deep South. Deal has come out strongly in opposition to ObamaCare and has said he will not agree to expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act. On the other hand, many rural hospitals in Georgia are having to close because "they're caught in the trap of Medicaid expansion....People are starting to pay attention to that," Galloway said. Still, even if Carter wins, he may not have his way: Georgia Republicans are moving to strip the governor's office of its unilateral power to expand Medicaid, giving the state legislature a say.

Listen to the entire conversation here:

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