ATLANTA — If Democrats want to win statewide in Georgia, they'll need to start now by reaching out to key constituencies and dedicating more money and resources to building up a network of grassroots supporters.
That's the consensus emerging after widespread losses in the recent election, though a debate looms over what issues Democrats should be emphasizing and how best to convey that message to voters.
"We should have been out there educating people more on all that we have accomplished, and that what we've done makes a difference," said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker. "I certainly think an effort was made to do that. Could it have been done better? Possibly. Should it have been done better? Probably. Does it have to be done better for us to win in the future? Definitely."
Democratic hopes were riding high on Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter to do in 2014 what many didn't think was possible until 2018 or later, when demographic changes begin to materialize that include a projected increase in minorities and those moving in from other states that could reshape the electorate away from Republicans.
Both candidates were strong fundraisers and crafted campaigns aimed largely at pulling in moderates and independent voters. Both spent large sums of money on TV ads. Meanwhile, an effort coordinated by the Democratic Party of Georgia focused on building a voter outreach and mobilization plan from the ground up after the party languished without money and direction in the two years after the 2010 election, when Republicans claimed every statewide office.
How Nunn and Carter lost their races for U.S. Senate and governor is clear: they didn't drive up the minority vote as high as they needed to and failed to draw a substantial number of white voters. The why is less clear, with a number of leading Democrats like state party Chair DuBose Porter and Carter pointing to a national climate favoring Republicans and resulting in GOP gains nationwide.
"Having seen what we saw nationally, I don't think different tactics would have made a difference one way or another because it was a (GOP) wave election," Carter said, noting he and Nunn ran different races with different messages, yet ended up with roughly 45 percent of the vote.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed sees a larger issue at play: how Georgia Democrats talk to voters. Reed points to President Barack Obama's decision in 2012 to rally core constituencies by supporting same-sex marriage; issuing an executive order to allow people brought to the U.S. as children to remain temporarily; and using black celebrities to energize his base while communicating with white voters through labor unions.
"We have to be Democrats," Reed said, adding he didn't hear an effective counter to a barrage of Republican attacks that could have focused on how Democrats created jobs and record stock market growth while providing health care to millions. "If you don't have an offensive position with voters, you are going to lose, and that is the message I took from our Georgia results."
It's a core question of whether Democrats should spend time and money trying to woo back white voters who left the party more than a decade ago or focus on expanding the base by reaching out to an estimated 600,000 unregistered black voters and 200,000 unregistered Latino voters. Both are difficult to do, and nearly every party leader says the party can't focus on one over the other.
Reed, who serves on the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee, thinks the state party must push core ideals as a way to reach both white and minority voters and do it long before any election comes around.
"We have now run through three cycles of the old model where you worked not to offend. But in the process of working not to offend, voters who are essential to winning don't feel drawn to your candidates," Reed said, arguing taking stronger positions against Georgia's same-sex marriage ban, voter ID laws and a crackdown on those living in the state illegally would have energized the party's base.
Reed, Carter and Nunn all agree it will take a sustained effort to build and maintain the relationships needed for Democrats to win. Nunn, in an email to supporters, made it clear that much work remains to mobilize voters and told a story of talking to people on Election Day who said they didn't plan to vote.
"We need to ensure that we are creating a big tent and a broad coalition," Nunn wrote, urging supporters to volunteer with the state party and groups aimed at registering and mobilizing voters. "This will take hard work and investment over the long term."
Associated Press writer Kathleen Foody contributed to this report. Follow Christina Almeida Cassidy on Twitter: http://twitter.com/AP_Christina .
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