Once More Into the Fray: Battles Brewing in Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina

January 24, 2020 by Dan McCue
Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks to her supporters during her election night watch party at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. Georgia's gubernatorial race was too close to call, possibly signaling a run-off election. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

WASHINGTON – The story is a familiar one if you’ve been reading or talking about battleground and swing states this election cycle.

Thanks to a combination of Donald Trump’s razor-thin wins and Hillary Clinton’s narrow losses in 2016, and the changing demographics of state electorates, a number of once unassailable red and blue states are suddenly anything but.

Among them is Arizona, where the suburban moderates who routinely supported Republican candidates in the past appear to be looking at anyone but the party’s presumptive nominee.

This at a time when the president’s policies on immigration and the U.S. border with Mexico are placing him at odds with the state’s Hispanic community, which also happens to be its fastest growing voter demographic.

And then there are the young voters age 18-34, many of whom consider the 45th president of the United States anathema.

Mike Noble, chief of research and managing partner at OH Predictive Insights, is the go-to guy when it comes to gaining a perspective on Arizona politics.

In an op-ed published in The Hill before Christmas, Noble noted that “in the Trump era, Arizona is no longer a reliably red state.”

He went on to say Republicans are right to be concerned about the state in 2020.

“After the 2018 election, Democrats held 29 of the 60 seats in the state House,” Noble said. “Republicans have held a tight grip on the House for decades, at times holding veto-proof majorities of 40 seats.

“But 2018 brought a wave of Democrats to both the House and statewide elected offices,” he continued. “Four Democrats captured statewide seats, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. The secretary of state is now a Democrat. If Gov. Doug Ducey were to receive an appointment to a Trump administration post, a Democrat would be elevated to the top job for the first time since Janet Napolitano was in office more than a decade ago.”

Noble went on to note that two of the state’s competitive congressional districts are held by Democrats and no serious Republicans have lined up to take them on. “And one ruby red district is drawing serious Democratic interest because the member is under House Ethics Committee investigation,” he said.

“That Arizona has become a battleground state could not have been foreseen just a few years ago,” Noble added. “But Trump won the state with less than 50 percent of the vote in 2016.”

As they’re going elsewhere on the electoral map, Democrats are trying to seize the initiative through an information campaign highlighting what they call “a long string of broken promises” from the president.

In Arizona that means focusing on the struggles of the state’s pecan and cotton farmers as well as an ongoing affordable housing crisis.

The state’s Democratic primary is March 17.

“We are feeling confident about the year ahead, amidst a strong fundraising year and with an increasingly energized electorate,” said Matt Grodsky, spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party, in an email to The Well News.

“Over the course of the next year, Democrats will continue to highlight the issues that are most important to Arizonans, making the case that we’re the party that will make Washington and the state Legislature start working for every Arizonan not just the powerful special interests and the wealthy few,” Grodsky said.

Democratic National Committee battleground spokesman David Bergstein said last fall the party would roughly double the number of field organizers in states like Arizona.

Not that the GOP, which is foregoing a primary in Arizona, is conceding anything before the Nov. 3 general election.

It already has a well-funded and well-established digital operation in the state.

“Every vote in Arizona needs to be fought for and earned,” the Arizona Republican Party said in a statement.

“No one can take the state for granted, and that’s why we got to work so early in this cycle laying the organizational groundwork to win in 2020,” the party said. “We have had field operatives on the ground throughout the state for months, and President Trump is personally committed to ensuring out volunteers have the resources they need to reach into every corner of the state to contact, persuade, and mobilize voters for victory.”

The party has been talking up the strong economy, pointing, among other things, to a September report from the U.S. Census Bureau that show’s Arizona’s poverty rate decreased by 3.4 percentage points — the largest percentage point reduction of any state in the nation.

Georgia on Everyone’s Minds

A Democratic candidate for president has not won Georgia since former President Bill Clinton in 1992. However, that’s not preventing the political pundit class from suggesting it may just be possible again in 2020.

Democrats have performed strongly in U.S. House and statewide races in recent years, and demographic changes in the state’s population make it ever more likely that the Peachtree State will soon be the preeminent purple state in the Deep South.

In a letter sent to Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez in September, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made this point, while effectively suggesting attention must be paid.

“There is no denying that Georgia is poised as a swing state and will play an important role in the upcoming election,” she wrote. “With people of color being the cornerstone of the Democratic party, Atlanta remains set to provide a large portion of votes for our eventual nominee.”

Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist, told The Well News this week that he agrees with those who now rank his home state among the battlegrounds of 2020.

“Georgia was more competitive in 2016 than either Ohio or Missouri, two states usually put into the battleground categories,” he said.

This time, Bullock said, how much of a battleground Georgia turns out to be will largely come down to the identity of the Democratic nominee.

“If the Democrats nominate a moderate for president, the contest could be close. However, if Sanders or Warren is the nominee, Trump should win comfortably.”

Charles Bullock, political scientist, University of Georgia.

“A poll released by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution within the last few days continues to show Trump upside down in popularity.  However, the same is true of the leading Democratic candidates,” he added.

The face of Democrats’ new, improved political fortunes in Georgia is Stacey Abrams, who came within a hair’s breadth — and 1.39 percentage points — of defeating Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in the state’s 2018 gubernatorial election.

Reflecting on that race at the National Press Club in Washington in November, Abrams noted she received the highest number of votes for any Democrat in Georgia history while spending “a fraction” of what presidential campaigns have historically spent in the state.

“If I can get here based on what I had, a presidential nominee can win the state of Georgia if they’re a Democrat and willing to make the investment,” she said.

A big part of Abrams’ success can be attributed to her reliance on the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit she launched five years ago to grow the electorate by registering thousands of young people and African-Americans to vote.

She then made a sustained and active effort to educate these new voters about the process, and perhaps most importantly, their rights.

Bullock sees Abrams and her gubernatorial campaign as having expedited the state’s shift to the Democrat party, but he says the erosion of the GOP support in the state has been going on for more than a decade.

“In 2014 and 2016, the top of the ticket went to the Republican by a margin of about 200,000 votes. In 2018, that margin was 55,000,” he said. “While Abrams came up 18,000 votes short of forcing a runoff, two other statewide races did have to be decided by a runoff as both the Democrat and the Republican garnered less than 50% of the vote.

“Moreover, Democrats had a net gain of 11 seats in the state House and two in the state Senate in addition to the McBath congressional win. …  and in the 7th district Rob Woodall held on to his seat by just 433 votes. So the results on multiple dimensions show Democrats making headway. 

“The GOP is still the dominant party but Democrats are hot on their heels,” he said.

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, agreed that Democrats have been eyeing the demographic shift in the state for the better part of a decade.

Nevertheless, she said Stacey Abrams and her team, “deserve credit for creating a template for identifying, registering and educating new voters.”

“In addition the close margin of the 2018 gubernatorial election was merely the last in a series of competitive statewide races,” Gillespie said. “Republicans won the last three presidential elections by single digit margins only. The 2014 gubernatorial election was decided by a single digit margin.  Thus, it wasn’t surprising that the 2018 election was close.  However, Abrams’ GOTV efforts likely helped narrow that gap even further.”

In the meantime, Georgia’s voting population was changing. When Abrams ran for governor, black voters represented about 30 percent of the electorate, up slightly from 28 percent four years earlier, while the percentage of white voters in Georgia has been decreasing, dropping to 59 percent in 2018.

“Strong black turnout is critical to Democratic success,” Bullock said. “However, the share of the black vote cast in 2018 was in line with figures for 2010 and 2014.  If blacks cast more than 30% of all votes in Georgia, it bodes well for Democrats.” 

The black vote also helped Rep. Lucy McBath flip Georgia’s 6th congressional district, a one-time Republican stronghold, formerly represented by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

McBath’s margin wasn’t huge — she won by just 3,200 votes, but that number represented a huge swing, as Price most recently won the district by more than 210,000 votes in 2014.

Bullock said McBath’s victory is a sign Atlanta’s older suburbs are turning blue.

“Democrat Carolyn Bordeaux won the Gwinnett part of congressional District 7 but narrowly lost the election when the newer suburbs in Forsyth County went for the incumbent,” he said.

“McBath’s victory and Rob Woodall’s narrow victory in the neighboring 7th District) demonstrate the partisan shift that we’re seeing in the suburbs,” Gillespie said.  “It corroborates the story of competitiveness in Georgia. And it is not an aberration.  It is the shift away from the solid Republican suburbs of metro Atlanta that undergirds the overall competitiveness of Georgia as a state.”

Gillespie went on to say that Republicans have responded to this new reality by shifting their focus to rural voters across the state. In the meantime, she said, “We’ve seen the Republican Party shift its focus to rural voters.  The Democrats have successfully convinced the DNC to invest more in Georgia.  We have seen evidence of that in the record level spending in the 6th District in 2017 and in giving Georgia a Democratic debate last November.”

Turning his attention to the Georgia Statehouse races likely to be closely watched this year, Bullock said the Democrats are hoping to gain the 16 seats needed to secure a majority.

“The odds of that are not good, but many Republicans won narrowly in 2018 so it is possible,” he said. “Republicans recognize that the tide is turning against them but they expect to be able to hold on in 2020.”

Tar Heel Country

Sometimes it’s not so much a philosophical change that has occurred in a state, but rather a change of labels.

For decades, North Carolina was identified as a Democratic stronghold, but it slowly shifted to the Republican column as more and more conservative Democrats found they felt more at home there.

But the state has not proven itself to be decisively Republican when it comes to presidential elections.

For instance, Mitt Romney won North Carolina in 2012 by just 2 percentage points, and Trump, who made an all out effort campaigning in the state, didn’t do hugely better in his 3.9 percentage point win over Hillary Clinton — a number that represents 173,313 votes out of more than 4.7 million cast.

Political observers in the state attribute North Carolina’s “swingyness” to the fact that up to a third of the state’s voters have cast aside party affiliation.

As a result, the voter rolls are now almost evenly split with 35% identifying as Democrats, another 35% percent identifying as Republicans, and the remaining 30% being independents.

Another factor that may help the Democratic nominee in 2020 is that the Democratic National Committee is devoting both energy and dollars to getting the party’s vote out this cycle.

Black voters, who typically support the Democrat — Republicans historically garner about 4% of the black vote in the state — currently account for just under 24 percent of registered voters in North Carolina.

In 2012, when President Barack Obama ran for his second term, that block accounted for 22 percent of the voters.

Again, Mitt Romney narrowly won that race. But in 2016, the African-American turnout dropped to 18 percent of the total vote — a significant decline that likely prevented Hillary Clinton from carrying the state.

Like political observers in other swing states, those who keep their fingers on the pulse of North Carolina think the nomination of one of the more liberal candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., or Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would give Trump a better chance of winning the state in the fall.

“North Carolina is not a terrifically liberal state,” longtime Republican strategist Carter Wrenn said in a recent interview with NPR. “If it’s Biden, it’s a lot tougher race. … but the bottom line is, when it comes to any statewide race in North Carolina, any party can win.”

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