Stacey Abrams, the New Georgia Project, and Winning Elections

Minority voter registration was one of the most hyped Democratic strategies of the 2014 Georgia election cycle. These new voters, it was presumed, would vote for Democratic candidates, and allow Michelle Nunn, Jason Carter and down-ballot Democratic candidates to prevail last November. In a MSNBC op-ed published in June 2014, former NAACP chairman Benjamin Jealous estimated that registering 60% of the previously unregistered black voting age population would be enough for the Democrats to win. Registering 60% of black, Asian and Hispanic non-voters would be enough to guarantee it.

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams. Photo: Jon Richards
House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams.
Photo: Jon Richards
The most visible voter registration effort was the New Georgia Project, an effort by House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams to register more minorities. Using paid canvassers, the group claimed it registered thousands of voters, but reports of fraud prompted Secretary of State Brian Kemp to file a lawsuit against the organization. As the voter registration deadline approached in October, the NGP claimed that 40,000 voter registration applications turned in by them had not been processed by local elections offices. And as election day approached with speculation that the senate and governor’s races could be extremely close, there was talk of post-election lawsuits.

Of course, the Republicans won the election by fairly wide margins, and memories of the New Georgia Project started to fade with the approach of the 2015 legislative session. That is, until Max Blau of Creative Loafing published his extensive investigation into the operations of the NGP earlier this week. But Blau’s essay is more than a postmortem of the voter registration effort; it is also an examination of Minority Leader Stacey Abrams’s actions leading up to the election.

All eyes were on Stacey Abrams. On a Wednesday afternoon inside the Gold Dome last September, about three dozen people gathered around Georgia’s House Minority Leader in a display of support. Standing behind a wooden podium and facing microphones and television cameras, the then-40-year-old Atlanta state lawmaker made one of the biggest public stands of her political career. She defended her voter registration initiative, New Georgia Project.

Republicans walloped Democratic challengers Nov. 4. But Abrams, a rising political star rumored to have an eye on the governor’s mansion, fared far better than most of her party members. In 2014 the state rep not only won re-election, but also became a national media darling and won major accolades from Emily’s List, Governing, and The Root. Abrams has become one of the most recognizable voting rights advocates in the state. The five-term state rep plans to continue that work for the foreseeable future.

Three months after the midterm election, the final results still baffle Democrats who felt good about their chances. Part of that has to do with NGP. Interviews with more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers, strategists, staffers, and voter registration activists suggest that something isn’t right with the numbers and the narrative behind the initiative’s massive efforts.

And indeed, one must wonder if the time spent by Abrams on the NGP took away from efforts of the House Democratic Caucus to support down ticket candidates. In the 2014 election, the House Caucus only fielded 85 total candidates, four fewer than in 2012, which represents the second cycle since reconstruction that Democrats have not run enough candidates to win a majority in the House.

There are at least nine House districts where either Michelle Nunn or Jason Carter received more than 40% of the vote and the House Caucus fielded no candidate: HDs 51, 79, 80, 101, 106, 107, 117, 140 and 145.

There were two districts where both Nunn and Carter received more than 50% of the vote and the Democratic House candidate lost. In HD 111, Jim Nichols received 46.9% of the vote to Nunn’s 50.3% and Carter’s 50.1% against Republican Brian Strickland. In District 151, where Democrat Ezekiel Holley ran against Republican Gerald Greene, Holley received 44.95% compared to Nunn’s 53.26% and Carter’s 53.91%.

In Americus, Kevin Brown ran against Mike Cheokas in House District 138. Here, Jason Carter won the district with 50.7% of the vote, yet Brown couldn’t do better than 47.7%, less than in 2012, where he received 49.4%. In every House race where a Democrat tried to capture a Republican held seat, every one underperformed Carter. In District 54, where Democrat Bob Giebling ran against Republican Beth Baskin and Independent Bill Bozarth, Giebling received 11.74% less support than Carter and about 7% less support than the Democratic candidate in 2012. The third party candidate received a surprising 11%. Both Ezekiel Holley in HD 151 and Erick Allen in HD 40 received about 9% less support than Carter.

Of the three Democratic incumbent districts challenged by Republicans–House District 66 held by Kimberly Alexander, HD 81 with incumbent Scott Holcomb, and District 132 won by Bob Trammell–Kimberly Alexander performed worse than both Nunn and Carter, Scott Holcomb performed better than Carter but worse than Nunn, and Bob Trammell performed better than both Nunn and Carter.

As a Republican, I guess I shouldn’t be complaining. The lack of training and support for Democratic candidates made it easier for the Republican ones, and what the Democrats actually did, which was to produce and distribute the Ferguson mailer, is widely thought by many as one of the defining factors that helped the GOP win.

Of course, Abrams might be forgiven had the New Georgia Project met its goal of registering substantial numbers of new voters. Instead, there were fewer new voters registered in 2014 than there were in 2010, when there was no comparable registration drive. And under the Gold Dome, there are rumblings that Abrams’ skills as an executive are lacking, as evidenced by her mismanagement of both the NGP project and the Democratic election effort.

Part of being a good leader is having the ability to find and hire staff that can execute the organization’s goals. And that seems to be a problem for Abrams. If she could do everything on her own, it would be wonderful, but with projects like electing more Democrats to office or registering over 100,000 new voters, having competent subordinates is essential.

Some on the Democratic side think that Abrams should have run against 4th District Congressman Hank Johnson last November, believing that her legislative skills are stronger than her managerial skills. Republicans, though, hope she stays where she is, as the best Minority Leader we could have.

11 comments

  1. Ed says:

    Bozarth’s results aren’t that surprising considering he had a crack staff behind him…

    I think there’s a lot of questions Stacey’s going to have to answer but mainly if she’s being pulled in too many directions. I’m also not sure how much blame can be placed on her considering there was a GOP wave and frankly, I’m not sure how much the Dems could put in place to stymie that.

    • georgiahack says:

      Ed, I think it comes down to is that she took on more than she should have. Ambition is good and it makes us work harder, but I always try to stick to Under-promise and over-deliver.

      I would have rather had someone else heading up the voter registration component. When the whole NGP thing blew up during the cycle it got more attention because it was her organization.

  2. Scarlet Hawk says:

    Aww- thanks for the kindness, gentlemen. Both of you! It’s hard being third party, but we were grateful to have gotten the highest percentage out of any third party candidate in the state.

  3. northside101 says:

    One cautionary note on determining how districts vote in statewide races: There are a lot of “split precincts” especially in State House districts—precincts that are partially in one district and partially in another (in Cobb, you probably have some precincts split into 3 State House districts because of odd boundaries of the cities there). In HD 111 (Brian Strickland), there are 2 split precincts—one of which is North Hampton, divided between HD 73 (John Yates) and Strickland. North Hampton overall gave Deal 46%, Carter 51%, but the two House portions of the precinct voted differently. In the HD 73 part, Rep. Yates won just 42% of the vote, but in the HD 111 part, Rep. Strickland got 60%. Common sense would suggest that in estimating the Deal/Carter numbers in that district, you’d give Deal a higher percentage in HD 111 portion than HD 73 portion. Similarly in HD 105 (Joyce Chandler), there are 3 split precincts. Depending on how you calculate split precincts, you might find Nunn running less than 50% in HD 111—maybe something close to 49%. There are no split precincts in Cheokas’ district and just 1 in Gerald Green’s southwest Georgia district. Thus I would be interested in methodology of calculations in this column saying Nunn and Carter got ABC percent in districts with split precincts (HD 91 of Scott Holcombe also has a lot of split precincts).

    No doubt incumbency played a role in Republican victories in the districts mentioned, and in Greene’s case in southwest Georgia, perhaps racially-polarized voting.

    Of course, the fewer the number of districts, the less you have to figure in the split precinct issue. With Georgia’s 14 congressional districts, for instance, there may be only a few dozen split precincts, so less important there how those are estimate. In CD 14 for instance (Tom Graves), there is only 1 split precinct—in Pickens County—and Pickens (like CD 9 and 14) is so overwhelmingly Republican, race would not be an issue in apportioning that precinct. Probably would not take a rocket scientist to figure that all 10 congressional districts now held by the GOP in Georgia backed Romney in 2012 and Perdue/Deal last fall, while the 4 majority-black congressional districts in Georgia backed Obama in 2012 and Nunn/Carter last fall.

  4. northside101 says:

    All the new minority voter registration did not seem to do much—black turnout in Georgia last year was only up about 2,500 statewide from the 2010 midterm cycle Interestingly, in Carter’s home base of DeKalb, black turnout dropped by 2,734 between 2010 and 2014. Perhaps Carter came across as “GOP Lite” to some black voters (opposed to tax increases, favoring the death penalty), and thus his stances were not “naturals” in motivating the minority base. Black turnout statewide in Georgia last year was 48 percent, while white turnout was 55 percent—which goes a way to explaining the 8-point wins of Perdue and Deal in their respective races. In th e heavily (70%+ Republican) CD 9 (Doug Collins) and CD 14 (Tom Graves), it isn’t likely you will find anytime soon vulnerable GOP-held State House seats.

    In statewide elections, Democrats often carry metro Atlanta (which is now 29 counties). President Obama won the region in 2008 and 2012, and Nunn and Carter narrowly won the region last fall. But in the other 40 percent or so of Georgia (the 40 or so percent of the state’s voters who are outside metro Atlanta), it is GOP landslide territory—both Nunn and Carter lost the “other Georgia” by roughly 3-2 margins. And therein lies the problem for Democrats running statewide—if they can’t win districts like CD 12 (one-third black), or the near 30-percent black CD 1 and 8—it is hard to see in the next few years how they can win statewide—even with landslide showings in Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton and Rockdale Counties and the D trend in Cobb, Douglas, Gwinnett, Henry and Newton Counties.

    On State House races, perhaps as bizarre as Democrats not contesting districts that potentially were competitive or trending that way was their contesting districts that are hopelessly Republican. Some examples: HD 1 at the northwest corner of Georgia, where Republican John Deffenbaugh got 73 percent; HD 12 in Pickens and adjoining counties where Republican Rick Jasperse got 83 percent, and HD 50 in Johns Creek where Lynne Riley (now Revenue commission) took 70 percent.

    As for House Dist 54 in Buckhead (Beth Beskin), it looks like the independent (Bozarth) basically took votes from the Democrat, Gibeling. Beth Beskin’s 59% showing in that seat last fall was in line with the 58% Mitt Romney won in that Buckhead district in 2012 and not too far from the 56% Governor Deal won there against Jason Carter. A Democrat probably could only win HD 54 in the event of a scandal or a GOP nominee who is too far to the right (like a Rick Santorum type).

    • I think you’ll find some of those “missing” black voters in DeKalb if you look in Gwinnett, Rockdale, Newton etc. My memory was that Jason outperformed Roy. I don’t know if that was because non-blacks also went down, but I think at least some of it is that in places like DeKalb, Fulton and Atlanta, the whites moving into the state aren’t as Republican as the ones who are already here.

      That’s a bad long term trend for the GOP, though as we Democrats have learned, it doesn’t necessarily translate into overnight success.

      • Harry says:

        Democrats could pick up a congressional seat in the Seventh by nominating a relatively social conservative candidate such as Brad Ashford, who last year defeated a “bipartisan” Republican in Nebraska. A lot of Gwinnett conservatives would cross over and vote for a personable and reasonable Democrat. Many of us certainly don’t like Rob Woodall and would like to see him retired.

  5. northside101 says:

    Christ, that is correct on DeKalb. Barnes won the county by 110,295 votes in 2010, while Carter carried it by 117,598 votes last fall. The change was more to an increase for Carter than a decrease for Deal; Deal’s vote totals in DeKalb (2010-2014) dropped by 433 votes (from 45,109 to 44,676), while Carter’s 2014 DeKalb total was 162,274, compared to 155,404 votes for Barnes in the county in 2010. Perhaps the Carter increase was due to being the “hometown boy” and some Republicans voting for Carter. However, Nunn won DeKalb by an even bigger margin—123,250 votes—than did Carter. Of course in terms of margin (surplus votes for Democrats), no other county comes close to DeKalb for Democrats—Nunn’s second largest margin was in Fulton, which she carried by 83,096 votes—about two-thirds the winning margin she had in DeKalb.

    Clearly in DeKalb, most of the solid GOP precincts are north of Interstate 85—basically Brookhaven and Dunwoody. Republicans used to run strong in Northlake and Tucker areas of the county, but you won’t find even a handful of heavy (say 60%+) GOP precincts in those areas anymore. The Hugh Howell and Smoke Rise precincts off of the Stone Mountain Freeway nearly went for Nunn last year.

    With Cobb and Gwinnett becoming more politically marginal (though still GOP-leaning), Cherokee and Forsyth Counties increasingly are bearing the load for the GOP statewide. Perdue won Cherokee by 36,995 votes and Forsyth by 34,810 votes, while Cobb favored Perdue over Nunn by 27,488 votes and Gwinnett gave Perdue just a 20,766-vote margin over Nunn. The combined GOP margin in those 4 countries in favor of Perdue was +120,060 votes, still not matching the 123,250 vote margin Nunn had in DeKalb. Increasingly the GOP statewide margins depend more on medium-sized counties (say 50,000-150,000) and of course the rural vote.

  6. Dave Bearse says:

    The post was devoid of reference to incumbency, which in Georgia means north of a 95% chance of re-election, to which a couple of percentage points may be added when the incumbent is in the general election.

    Strickland ran his first race as an incumbent, but Cheokas and Greene collectively have 42 years in the state house.

    Beskin, after two previous failed attempts, prevailed in a three-way race powered by the GaGOP leadership’s big money.

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