Georgia Democrats are close to tipping the state their way for the first time in years this November, and they want Joe Biden to give it a nudge with a home-grown running mate.
Retirements, resignations, the political calendar and the coronavirus pandemic have all conspired to load up Georgia’s ballot with key races this fall, including two Senate seats that could decide control of the chamber, a state House that could flip just before the legislature kicks off redistricting, competitive House races and 16 Electoral College votes that are up for grabs for the first time since the ‘90s. And two of Georgia Democrats’ highest-profile leaders — Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — have been a part of the monthslong conversation about Biden’s vice presidential pick.
A half-dozen Georgia Democrats granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly conceded that both women’s lack of prior federal experience could make them long shots for the vice presidency. Some noted that Abrams has noticeably faded from public VP speculation in recent weeks, while Bottoms has enjoyed an elevated profile as she battles Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp over the response to the coronavirus. But they also said that Biden has a rare chance to tip a long-coveted state into the Democratic column with a surge of attention, investment and enthusiasm that would come with picking a running mate from Georgia.
“Given that Georgia is so, so competitive, and it’ll be the hardest fought battleground in the country this year, I think that’s a compelling argument for adding someone from Georgia to the ticket,” said Democrat Jon Ossoff, a former congressional aide who is challenging Republican Sen. David Perdue.
Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is running in a special election for Georgia’s other Senate seat held by appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler, said a Georgian on the ticket “could only help,” though he and Ossoff noted that Biden “will have to decide who he thinks is the best candidate for him.”
“It’d take an already supercharged Democratic electorate up to the next level,” said Bob Trammell, the state House Democratic minority leader, who’s drawn multimillion-dollar spending commitments against him from the GOP’s national state legislative campaign committee.
Earlier this week, Biden said in an interview on MSNBC that four Black women are on his vice presidential shortlist. In addition to Abrams and Bottoms, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Reps. Val Demings (D-Fla.) and Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and former national security adviser Susan Rice are all potential picks for Biden.
When Biden has disclosed some of his own requirements for the job, he has focused on things like day-one readiness, a strong working relationship and a “simpatico” worldview. Winning particular states hasn’t figured in those public criteria, and those considerations have rarely played a big role in running mate selections, said Joel Goldstein, a scholar of the vice presidency and a professor emeritus at St. Louis University School of Law.
A boost in a particular state “tends to be the icing on the cake for a pick that you’re making for other reasons,” Goldstein said.
But apart from winning their state, Democrats noted that picking a vice president from Georgia would send a clear message about the evolution of the Democratic Party, both in terms of Biden’s 2020 strategy and where the party’s strengths will lie in the future. The South and Sun Belt have “largely been abandoned by Democrats” in recent years, said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC.
“It would be a signal that Democrats are no longer ceding the South, and it would also send a signal about the importance of Black voters to the Democratic Party,” Shropshire continued.
More immediately, selecting a VP from Georgia would “be an indicator that there’s real investment in the state’s potential” which “creates a real opportunity for a cascading effect down ballot,” said Abigail Collazo, a Georgia-based strategist who managed Sarah Riggs Amico’s Democratic Senate campaign earlier this year. “If you invest in Georgia, there are so many opportunities here, so many competitive races here, it could have a huge ripple effect.”
Republicans are already preparing for a fight to maintain their hold on the state. President Donald Trump’s campaign has started airing TV ads in the state, while Senate Leadership Fund and One Nation, the super PAC and nonprofit aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have reserved more than $20 million combined ahead of November.
The Republican State Leadership Committee, which directs national money into state-level races, has called Trammell, the Democratic state House leader, a “top national target.” Democrats are 16 seats away from flipping the chamber, which would give them a seat at the table when state legislative and congressional districts are redrawn following the 2020 census.
Democrats, too, have spending planned in the state. Majority Forward, a nonprofit aligned with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, recently started a $3 million ad campaign against Perdue, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved $2 million in Atlanta, which could defend Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) and go after a neighboring open congressional district. (The National Republican Congressional Committee has also booked $1.4 million in Atlanta ads.) But Biden’s campaign hasn’t yet booked airtime in the state, though the campaign has called Georgia part of its “expansion” battleground map.
“As much as I could tell you about how good our prospects are, nothing I could say would testify more strongly to it than their own investment,” Trammell said. “If one of them were VP, it’d bring even more attention to the state.”
Abrams’ narrow loss in the 2018 gubernatorial race opened eyes nationally to Democrats’ progress in Georgia, and she has since built a strong national profile, nearly matching the name recognition enjoyed by Harris and Elizabeth Warren in recent public polls, despite the fact that Abrams has not run for national office.
But Bottoms was one of Biden’s earliest backers, endorsing him a day after he suffered tough blows on his record over federal busing from Harris during the first presidential primary debate. She also campaigned for him in Iowa. That early loyalty “is a big deal” and “goes a long way in Biden world,” said one Georgia Democrat, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly.
Bottoms — who drew strong, early praise from House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a key Biden ally — gained serious traction over the summer, as she faced twin crises: squaring off against Kemp in a lawsuit over municipalities mandating mask orders and addressing nationwide protests over police accountability and racial injustice.
“This moment has created a unique space for [Bottoms] to get national coverage around Covid-19 and around all the uprisings, and dealing with two high-profile killings of Black men has [showed] her ability to react as local leader and drive a message that’s galvanizing the country,” said Glynda Carr, president and chief executive of Higher Heights, citing the killings of both Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks.
After the death of George Floyd, Bottoms delivered an impassioned plea to protesters, telling them that if they “burn down this city, you’re burning down our community.” She urged them to register to vote and added that she “hurt like a mother would hurt” when she saw the video of Floyd’s death.
“I’ve watched you like millions and millions of Americans have on television of late,” Biden said of Bottoms during a campaign roundtable. “Your passion, your composure, your balance has been really incredible.”
Last month, Abrams said in an interview with CBS’ Stephen Colbert that although she’s “said many times that if called, I will answer, but I have not received any calls.” In subsequent interviews, Abrams directed questions to the Biden campaign for comment, adding that she believes she has “demonstrated my capacity to lead and I’ve shown my interest in the job, but fundamentally and ultimately, it is Vice President Biden’s decision.”
In the meantime, Abrams has built a political organizing machine devoted to registering and turning out voters in the state, an infrastructure that already helped to deliver record high participation in the June primary.
In 2018, she “came within a hair’s breadth of winning [the governorship], which surprised everyone,” said former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, the last Democratic governor to serve the state. She earned the most votes of any Democrat in Georgia’s history, as well as tripling turnout among Asian American Pacific Islanders and Latino voters over the previous midterm year. Her machinery was on display during the June primary, when Democrats outvoted Republicans and set a new record for turnout.
“Either of them would increase the enthusiasm, and enthusiasm always brings out higher voter turnout,” Barnes said.