National issues dominate Democratic debate in Georgia spotlight

Reporters monitor Wednesday's debate on TVs set up in a media center adjacent to the debate hall at Tyler Perry Studios in southwest Atlanta. Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder

Georgia’s controversial anti-abortion law and claims of voter suppression in last year’s gubernatorial race made cameo appearances in Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta, but pressing  issues in the potential battleground state otherwise faded into the backdrop as the day’s impeachment proceedings and other national issues took center stage.

The highly anticipated debate in Atlanta largely glazed over Georgia-centric issues until the closing questions, when moderators with MSNBC and The Washington Post pressed candidates for their reactions to voting rights issues in Georgia and the state’s new law banning most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey tied both issues together. He said Georgia’s so-called “heartbeat” bill is “the result from voter suppression” – a reference to last year’s bitterly fought gubernatorial race in Georgia.

Booker was among the candidates who name-checked Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for Georgia governor who lost a close race to now-Gov. Brian Kemp amid controversial instances of voter roll purging and other actions.

Abrams “would be governor of this state right now” if not for voter purges and gerrymandering, said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Georgia Republicans routinely dismiss claims of voter suppression in last year’s election.

Several candidates also sparred over their strategies for wooing black voters, who represent a powerful voting bloc for Democratic candidates that both they and President Donald Trump have sought to win over with visits to Atlanta this month.

Reporters swarm Pete Buttigieg (far left) in the “spin room” after Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate at Tyler Perry Studios in southwest Atlanta. Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg faced scrutiny over his ability to persuade black voters, as did former Vice President Joe Biden, who claimed he enjoys “a long-standing relationship with the black community.” Booker shot back, saying “that’s not true.”

As in prior debates, the presidential hopefuls underscored sharp differences between each other on core issues like health care and tax policy, with the 10-candidate field splitting between progressive or more moderate positions. They also took expected jabs at the president’s trade war with China and the impeachment inquiry into actions on Ukraine.

No longer an afterthought?

Wednesday’s Democratic debate, the fifth held since June, came amid a week of speeches, roundtables and fundraisers by top presidential candidates in Atlanta.

National party leaders picked Tyler Perry Studios, often cast as a Deep South foil for Hollywood, in majority black southwest Atlanta. The venue was chosen over rumored alternate locations in more suburban areas like Sandy Springs, where U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath last year flipped a congressional seat long held by Republicans.

Choosing Atlanta over a suburban location signals national Democratic operatives are most keen to see which candidate black voters will back in the spring primaries, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. The bustling southern city also gives the party a chance to test its strength with younger voters peeling away from Republican views their elders favored, Bullock said.

Picking Atlanta as the host city is also a sign that the city and Georgia no longer figure as the afterthought in national politics it has been the last few decades, Bullock said. The state has not held a similarly high-profile political event since the 1988 Democratic National Convention at The Omni arena in Atlanta, he said. Democratic candidates returned to Atlanta four years later for a presidential debate at the Carter Center.

Since then, presidential hopefuls have been content making the occasional stop in Atlanta for a fundraiser or two before the state’s primary election.

“After that, we were just written off,” Bullock said in a phone interview. “The fact that we’re having this now indicates Georgia is going to be one of the toss-up states. All signs point in that direction.”

The last time Georgia tapped a Democrat for president was in 1992, when the state’s voters backed then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. When Clinton ran for re-election, Georgia narrowly went with his opponent, Republican Bob Dole, and has been reliably red for decades. But the margins are becoming slimmer, with Trump winning Georgia by 5 percentage points three years ago.

State Democratic party leaders say that is about to change and they are hailing Georgia as a battleground state ahead of next year’s Nov. 3 general election.

They highlight gains last year including the win for McBath in Sandy Springs, several state House and Senate seats flipped in the Georgia and a close race for governor that Democrat Stacey Abrams narrowly lost to Republican Brian Kemp. Georgia Democrats now look to flip 16 seats to gain control of the state House of Representatives and win the two U.S. Senate seats on the ballot next year, including one open seat.

“Georgia is not only the future of this country and the Democratic Party, but we’re the present, y’all,” state Sen. Nikema Williams, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, said at the party’s annual fundraising dinner last month. “We are a battleground state, and I’m just glad everyone else is realizing what I’ve been saying for years.”

Georgia’s Republican Party leaders, meanwhile, call local Democrats’ appraisal of their chances in next year’s election overblown. They especially criticize Medicare-for-all and wealth tax policies that Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders favor, arguing they don’t reflect what most Georgians want.

“The fact that they have picked Georgia as a debate location continues to show a complete disregard for the will of voters in our state,” said Stewart Bragg, executive director of the Georgia Republican Party.

Beau Evans
Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College.