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Political Memo for Georgia Democrats

Originally published on AJC.com.

By Howard Franklin

With all the unrest surrounding Democrats these days — including President Barack Obama’s sliding approval ratings and ambitious health care agenda — it’s easy to forget that Democrats picked up seats in both houses of Congress and control of four state legislatures last year.

Evidence of a GOP meltdown is still visible — even in conservative heartlands of the South and Midwest where Republicans have weakened their brand with sex scandals and abrupt resignations. Yet, Georgians are still wondering if and when the “Democratic Renaissance” that just swept the nation will reach the Peach State. Rest assured, Georgia: If change is coming, the time is still now.

It’s been 11 years since a nonincumbent Georgia Democrat won a statewide election. And even the three remaining statewide Democrats faced competitive challenges in 2006 from virtually unknown Republicans. But former Gov. Roy Barnes hopes to change that in 2010. Now, more than ever, Democrats must seize this opportunity and cultivate fertile ground for statewide victories — for Barnes and for down-ballot Democrats to follow.

To give down-ballot candidates the best chance of riding Barnes’ momentum into statewide victories, Democrats must shift their focus from competing in primaries to winning general elections. That requires getting back to the basics, and Georgia Democrats must do five things to win beyond the 2010 primaries.

1. Present an attractive Democratic brand to voters: That doesn’t mean marching in lockstep with Obama, but presenting solutions that work for Georgia’s special challenges. Start by crafting well-defined, unifying policy positions to win over moderate and independent voters. Fortunately, Republicans have ignored a few key issues and left open the door for Democrats to lead — from solving traffic congestion to improving education and attracting good-paying jobs.

2. Acknowledge the role of race in politics: Georgia, surrogate home of the civil rights movement and birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., doesn’t always judge a politician solely by the content of his (or her) character. Obama cruised to victory in the February primary — rich with African-American voters — but lost Georgia’s 15 electoral votes by a near landslide in November. To end Republican rule, Democrats must put aside identity politics. That means resisting the urge to promote only candidates who look like the majority and putting people on the ticket who will resonate with and meet the needs of an increasingly diverse Georgia.

3. Avoid costly primary battles: The 2006 gubernatorial fight between former Secretary of State Cathy Cox and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor serves as a memorable cautionary tale. Although many Democrats chose sides, most wanted the two promising politicians to run on the same ticket in November, rather than against each other in July. Bloody primary battles jeopardize statewide elections. Mediating these disputes is often challenging without a commonly embraced leader, but that’s a luxury Democrats won’t have in the upcoming elections.

4. Run strong everywhere: Recruit good candidates across the state to run early and often. That probably sounds simple (if you live outside Atlanta) or highly impractical (if you live inside I-285), but actually, it’s neither: Even in defeat, well-funded, plain-speaking, local candidacies will help rebuild the foundation for Democratic victories in the future.

5. Lure working-class white men back: They have left the party in droves, taking their moderating sensibilities with them. In the process, Georgia’s “big tent” party has gradually leaned more leftward. Contrary to popular belief, Democrats need conservative voices, for the same reason Republicans need more ethnic and age diversity — to moderate stances and expand outreach.

The challenges before Democrats are daunting, and no single stakeholder can accomplish these things alone — not our elected officials, dedicated activists or even the state party. So my final recommendation is a no-brainer: To chart a unified course for victory, Democrats must start now and work together. Unity matters now more than ever, since Barnes’ candidacy is giving Democrats the best shot they’ve had in years.

Howard Franklin is president of Influence Factory public affairs firm and Red Clay Democrats political action committee.

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