Southern Democrats aim to export Georgia’s 2020 success

National

FILE – In this July 18, 2021, file photo, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., from left, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams, right, listen to people talk about their experiences in voting, in Smyrna, Ga. After Georgia Democrats’ success in 2020, the Deep South battleground is working with other Southern states to help expand Democrats’ national footprint. It’s the latest example of Stacey Abrams’ ripple effect on Democrats as she decides whether to run for Georgia governor again in 2022. (AP Photo/Ben Gray, File)

ATLANTA (AP) — Stacey Abrams spent years telling donors that Democrats could win in Georgia if they would provide the money to build a statewide political operation. In 2020, Georgia finally delivered its 16 presidential electoral votes to a Democrat, Joe Biden, and sent two Democrats to the U.S. Senate.

Other Southern states are now trying to follow, and Georgia is eager to help.

The Georgia Democratic Party is combining forces with other state parties in the region for joint fundraising appeals, aiming to help those states make earlier-than-usual investments in voter registration and field organizing going into the 2022 midterms. Abrams’ Fair Fight organization, which has raised more than $100 million since its inception after her 2018 loss in the Georgia governor’s race, is readying for another round of spending as well.

It’s the latest example of Abrams’ ripple effect on Democratic politics as she considers whether to run for Georgia governor again in 2022. Democrats pitch the investment in state parties — a relatively modest step, given the billions in political spending each cycle — as an important part of the larger effort to export Georgia’s successes across Southern Sun Belt states that Republicans have dominated for decades.

That’s true from burgeoning battlegrounds such as Texas, where Democrats have reduced their deficits in recent statewide losses, to deeply Republican strongholds like Alabama, where swaths of Black voters and young, urban voters could at least dent Republican majorities in the Legislature.

“If there’s a way to partner with our friends in the South, then it’s a great opportunity for everybody,” said Scott Hogan, executive director of the Georgia Democratic Party.

But party officials in the South agree that any future victories require a deliberate, long-term approach, and there’s plenty of realism in a region where national Democrats once-ballyhooed “50-state strategy” in the mid-2000s yielded few lasting shifts.

“If Georgia had a 10-year rebuild,” said the Alabama Democrats’ executive director, Wade Perry, “then we’re in about year three.”

Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said the decade of work by Abrams and others in Georgia provides the blueprint.

“Every state is different,” Hinojosa said. “It’s not so much that Georgia is a step-by-step model, but they showed the impact that you can have with a significant campaign funded over a period of time.”

Perry’s and Hinojosa’s state parties recently sent joint fundraising pitches with Georgia Democrats, email solicitations to the parties’ existing donor lists, splitting the proceeds. Separately, Georgia has joined several state parties — in Arizona, North Carolina and Virginia — in an ongoing joint fundraising agreement with multiple digital efforts partnering some or all of the states in the agreement.

For Texas and Alabama, specifically, it’s part of building party infrastructure early an election cycle. Both states, along with Georgia, are eying elections next year for governor, other statewide offices, the state legislature and the U.S. House. Georgia and Alabama also each has a U.S. Senate contest.

After a disappointing November, when President Donald Trump won Texas by more than 630,000 votes and Democrats failed to dent the GOP’s legislative majorities, Hinojosa’s organization launched a $12.5 million voter registration campaign targeting rural Hispanics and young urban liberals.

“We know $12 million won’t cover the whole state, not even close,” Hinojosa said. But drawing on one lesson from Georgia, he added: “We have to have a targeted approach to do what we can execute in the time that we have.”

Hinojosa said he has enough financial commitments to have begun hiring voter registration organizers.

Separately, the Texas party has created jobs for seven rural regional coordinators. Three of those are filled, Hinojosa said, bringing his total staff to about 30. That’s roughly where Texas was at the same point in 2019, a year before the presidential election, but well ahead of its 2017 pace, Hinojosa said.

Alabama has nine full-time staff members, Perry said, a high mark for an nonelection year. It comes after a decade of Democratic infighting that often left the state party unable to pay rent and utilities, much less hire field workers and organizers.

Party staff in every state are supported in part by monthly infusions of at least $12,500 from the national party. But the state leaders agreed that a sustainable, winning model requires state parties to cultivate their own donors and support voter outreach operations that are never completely dismantled after an election.

“So much of our success over the past cycle is because of investment in specific areas of need, and the pace of that investment matters,” Hogan said.

He noted that Georgia has had at least 25 employees through the early stages of this midterm cycle and will only grow. A year ahead of the 2018 governor’s race, the party had about a half-dozen workers in its Atlanta headquarters.

The fundraising teamwork is intended to help the state parties attract more long-term donors. The parties don’t share their full donor databases with each other. Rather, each sends out the same fundraising pitch to its respective donor lists. Any donor who responds ends up on the lists of all participating parties going forward.

Hogan and his counterparts said it’s not just Georgia bringing substantial donor lists to the table.

Texas was awash in small donors in 2018 when Democrat Beto O’Rourke made a serious challenge to GOP Sen. Ted Cruz but fell short. Alabama got its boost in 2017, when Democrat Doug Jones upset Republican Roy Moore in a Senate special election. Jones lost by a landslide in his bid for a full-term last November, but Perry said the state party is left with a list of past donors “donors from all 50 states.”

Beyond the organizing that early party hires do, there’s an underappreciated benefit: leveraging what comes next.

High-profile candidates such as O’Rourke and Abrams, both of whom could run statewide again next year, draw considerably more money than state parties ever could. Likewise, Fair Fight’s national fundraising footprint in 2022 will dwarf state parties.

But in each case, candidates for governor and outside groups such as Fair Fight can mean an injection of cash or other coordination with party staff. But only if the party has built an operation already.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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