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.
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.