The votes were counted last November, but Democrats lost Georgia more than a year ago.
In 2016, Democrats fielded the fewest candidates in decades (or as far back as records show).
For the third cycle in a row, Democrats failed to contest enough seats in the state House of Representatives to even win back the chamber if everything broke their way. Likewise for the chamber across the hall, where Democrats fell two short of contesting enough districts for a majority.
In effect, the minority party ceded the majority to their opponents long before Election Day.
Is it realistic that the Democrats could have seized back power if they had qualified more candidates? In today’s climate, no. After brutal gerrymandering in 2010, it will likely take a few election cycles and a Democratic governor to claw their way back up top.
But they could have done better. Today, the House GOP is hovering dangerously close to the supermajority they held for years until State Representative Taylor Bennett (D-Brookhaven) narrowly broke it with an unexpected special election win. In the Senate, Republicans continue to cling to their one-seat supermajority.
With more candidates running for legislative seats across the state, Democrats could have put some distance between the majority party and their hold on absolute power. Republicans already hold every statewide elected position, and with a supermajority in both chambers, they would be able to put constitutional amendments on the ballot (as they did this year with Amendment 1, the failed school takeover measure) and, more importantly, override vetoes by a governor who may, after 2018, be a Democrat.
So, how well could the Democrats have done this year? Pretty well, and it wasn’t only recruitment totals that led to such a crushing defeat: candidates that the Democrats fielded were badly outmatched in resources. In the 15 most competitive GOP-held legislative races, where Democrats on the ballot have a history of getting 40 percent of the vote or better, Democratic legislative candidates were outraised nearly 8 to 1 on average. Democrats lost all but two of those races.
But they didn’t have to. Post-election analysis reveals multiple missed opportunities across the board. For example:
- Hillary Clinton won 69 state House districts and received 40 percent of the vote or better in a whopping 93 state House districts. Democrats currently hold 62 House seats.
- Clinton won 21 state Senate districts and received 40 percent of the vote or better in 25 districts. Democrats currently hold 18 Senate seats.
The districts where Clinton prevailed were clearly winnable this year. The 40 percent-plus districts could have been far more competitive.
With the right candidates in the right races, Democrats could have been competitive in 69+ state House districts and 21+ state Senate districts this year, in spite of the Trump victory. The minority party lost 7 state House seats and 3 state Senate seats won by their top-of-the ticket candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Hope on the horizon
These failures are a symptom of last-minute recruiting. Identifying potential candidates and encouraging them to run for office must be a continuous, year-round effort, and yet many of the candidates who qualified did not announce their campaigns until shortly before they signed up to run. With such lackluster recruiting, Democrats ended up with candidates in too few races, and many were ill-prepared for the brutal, well-funded and highly sophisticated machine of the opposition.
If Democrats had begun their recruitment process in 2014, Election Day in 2016 would have looked very different. They would have recruited higher-quality candidates in more races, forcing the Republicans to split their resources across more districts. They would have been able to challenge vulnerable yet unopposed incumbents, such as State Representative Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody), who faced no Democrat in November despite his high-profile drunk driving arrest earlier in the year.
Democrats would have been able to dash GOP hopes for constitutional amendments in the new year, or force the majority to compromise on issues like education and health care. They would have had a growing caucus to use as a launchpad for legislative elections in 2018 and 2020, and most importantly, would have given millions of Georgians a real choice on the ballot.
There is hope on the horizon, but time is running out: it’s 22 months until the next election and only 13 months until qualifying. If Democrats truly want to make serious gains they must start their recruiting process now.
Why? Because the Republicans already have.
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