Donald Trump is pushing conservative Georgia into becoming an election battleground. But it might not be soon enough for Hillary Clinton.
- By Molly O’TooleMolly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian.
ATHENS, Ga. — It was game day at the University of Georgia, and crowds sporting the football team’s red and black swilled Budweiser, tossed bean bags, and grilled burgers as Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson glad-handed supporters at a sunny tailgate for his re-election campaign. But anxiety still loomed over the idyllic setting in this solidly Republican state, torn over the top of the GOP ticket where presidential nominee Donald Trump sits scowling.
Isakson, Georgia’s senior U.S. senator, said he was unperturbed by a potential Trump effect on his race. An avowed conservative and defense hawk, he’s 16.5 points ahead of his Democratic opponent, millionaire investor Jim Barksdale, who’s been hemorrhaging senior staff with weeks to go before Election Day on Nov. 8.
“I don’t think either of the nominees for president have coattails,” Isakson told Foreign Policy the day before the Oct. 1 tailgate. “It’s not a party thing. It doesn’t go down ballot.”
Isakson has endorsed Trump and, unlike many of his party’s leaders, has stuck by the GOP standard-bearer. He said he agrees with Trump’s foreign policy “in some parts but not in others,” and believes the United States should remain in NATO, was right to invade Iraq, and should put more American troops on the ground in Syria. But Isakson didn’t want to get into those differences — or Trump’s more controversial platforms that have alienated voters nationwide, such as calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, and suggesting that veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder “can’t handle it.”
“If you’re trying to take me down the track of aligning myself with the presidential nominee … we’re not going to go there,” said Isakson, who chairs two Senate committees: one on veterans issues and the other overseeing lawmakers’ ethics. “My job is not to defend or support the rhetoric.”
He added, “I trust the judgment of the people of Georgia.”
The UGA tailgate was Oct. 1. Less than a week later, the Washington Post published audio of a 2005 tape in which Trump, the reality-TV-host-turned-politician, bragged about sexually assaulting women. The ensuing controversy prompted a mass exodus from Trump among an already-split GOP; many Republicans battling to maintain the party’s narrow Senate majority have withdrawn their endorsements.
In an Oct. 10 statement, Isakson said he was “disgusted” by Trump’s comments, calling them “wholly inappropriate and unacceptable.” It was just a step short of disavowing Trump altogether in an election season where the top of the GOP ticket could accelerate demographic trends in the “New South” that are pushing the reliably Republican region toward Democrats.
That may not happen soon enough to help Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton this year. Even so, for the Southern state to be moved into the toss-up column is telling for the GOP’s future: Voters and politicos alike said Trump may have done irrevocable harm to the Republican brand in Georgia, in particular with women, blacks and Latinos — voters it needs to survive.
A Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992, and Trump leads Hillary Clinton in the state by 4.7 percentage points. But he fell behind her in August and September, meaning with less than a month to go before the vote, and early balloting beginning Oct. 17, she still has a shot at taking the state.
By comparison, the Republican’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, held a 10-point lead in Georgia over President Barack Obama this time four years ago.
Sensing an opportunity to force the Trump campaign to unexpectedly spend resources in Georgia, the Clinton team and the state Democratic Party have opened 12 offices and hired 39 full-time employees statewide.
Trump’s campaign raised notoriously little cash during the GOP primary and has invested less in its national ground game, instead relying heavily on help from state parties and the Republican National Committee. In all, the GOP and its candidates have 10 field offices across Georgia, with three full-time employees.
Despite fallout from the tawdry audio tape, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said Monday the party is continuing to work with Trump. But other leaders, most notably House Speaker Paul Ryan, have signaled they are far more focused on helping down-ballot Republican candidates in congressional races since Clinton’s political fortune has begun to turn.
Clinton leads Trump by 14 points nationwide, according to an NBC News/WSJ poll conducted after the damning tape was released on Oct. 7. That makes states where Trump must win to have a shot at the White House, like Georgia, all the more critical.
Former Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican who retired last year, stoutly declared Clinton has no chance here. “Unless hell has frozen over and I didn’t know about it, it’s not going to happen,” Chambliss said.
Even so, Chambliss said, the 2016 presidential election is “the most unusual I’ve ever seen” and Trump is a “total outsider.”
“Every time he gets to do a little better, he’ll say something that’s very much off-key and you wonder, ‘Why in the world?’” Chambliss told FP at the Oct. 1 tailgate. That was before the tape surfaced. At the time, Chambliss said Trump’s controversies haven’t seemed to sting because his anti-establishment attitude is in “large part what’s gotten him where he is.”
Republican incumbents like Isakson have no choice but to run with him, Chambliss said.
But it’s lose-lose: Stick with Trump, and they could go down with his sinking ship, forced to answer for his nativist, predatory remarks to an increasingly diverse electorate. Or abandon their nominee now, and they face not only accusations of bald political opportunism, but the vengeance of Trump’s millions-strong horde of new Republican recruits.
It’s likely too late. Throughout his unconventional campaign, Trump has already made clear to the mainstream GOP: You’re on your own.
On Tuesday, he launched into a tirade against them:
Despite winning the second debate in a landslide (every poll), it is hard to do well when Paul Ryan and others give zero support!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2016
Our very weak and ineffective leader, Paul Ryan, had a bad conference call where his members went wild at his disloyalty.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2016
With the exception of cheating Bernie out of the nom the Dems have always proven to be far more loyal to each other than the Republicans!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2016
Disloyal R's are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary. They come at you from all sides. They don’t know how to win – I will teach them!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2016
To hear it from Newt Gingrich, the former Georgia congressman and House speaker, Trump is no dyed-in-the-wool Republican — and that’s exactly why he is still winning in the state.
Gingrich would know: He supported the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 military intervention in Libya — three major U.S. foreign policy positions supported by many Republicans but now explicitly rejected by their nominee.
“I would distinguish between Trump and the Republican Party,” Gingrich told FP in an Oct. 2 phone interview.
Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP, Gingrich said, proves “the establishment’s model isn’t working.”
Add to that great GOP schism an explosion in faster-growing, more diverse, Democratic-leaning populations, particularly in the Atlanta metro area, which is pulling Georgia left. It’s a new “New South.”
The term was initially popularized by magazine editor Henry Grady after the Civil War in order to transform the South’s destroyed plantation economy into an industrial manufacturing powerhouse. During the Civil Rights era, it evolved into both a political and economic development strategy. As parts of the region resisted desegregation, some politicians decided rather than fight the emerging consensus on civil rights, they would use it to attract investment with low wages and an environment friendly to business but cold to organized labor. That strategy helped turn rural Georgia into a financial and technology center, which has partly prompted the dramatic demographic shifts of the past several decades that give “New South” new meaning, and tension.
Isakson said he was the only Republican to win statewide office in 1976, when Georgia’s then-Gov. Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, won the White House. In the 40 years since, according to the latest U.S. Census statistics, Georgia’s black population has grown to more than 30 percent of the state. Roughly 10 percent are Latinos. Women make up 51.2 percent of the state’s population.
“Well, he doesn’t help, let’s just say that,” Chambliss said of the party’s future with these groups. “But he doesn’t make it impossible.”
Charlie Harper, a GOP analyst who was enjoying a red solo cup of whiskey at the tailgate, disagreed.
“Trump cannot be the face of the Republican Party if we’re going to have a successful party for the next generation,” Harper said. On foreign policy, for example, he’s “all over the map,” and on the economy, “if a candidate is anti-trade, he’s anti-Georgia,” Harper said.
Although he has not yet decided whether he’ll vote for Trump in November, Harper said he remains concerned by the number of people falling for the GOP nominee’s stoking of populist anger that “‘someone else is getting something that we should have,’” he said.
His biggest concern is Trump’s dismal support from millennial voters. The Republican nominee is headed toward what could be the worst showing among young voters in U.S. history.
“We are currently appealing to the people who will not be alive to vote two elections from now at the expense of people that will be the majority of voters two elections from now,” Harper said.
Democrats came into the 2016 cycle having only to defend 10 Senate seats to the Republicans’ 24. Then along came Trump, prompting panic among the GOP that he could not only cost them the Senate, but potentially their historic House majority.
“The Trump cesspool will just pull them down,” said Jeff Weaver, an advisor to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a former Republican presidential candidate.
But Democrats may have squandered some of their growing demographic advantage in 2016.
In the Georgia Senate race, for example, Barksdale, the millionaire investor who framed himself as an outsider, has failed to gain traction. His campaign is collapsing, with three senior staffers leaving in one week last month. There’s been so much turnover that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee could not provide a current contact for the campaign.
After publication Wednesday, the Barksdale campaign said in a statement that it has since hired new staff, and accused Isakson of having “gone into witness protection” after the release of the Trump tape.
Ted Daywalt, a friend of Isakson and part-time political pundit, noted that Georgia has 159 counties, second in the United States only to Texas, and may as well be two states — Atlanta, and everywhere else. That makes it hard for challengers to do enough door-knocking to unseat established politicians in statewide office who’ve spent years — in Isakson’s case, 40 — building up name recognition.
Daywalt served 28 years in the Navy and runs VetJobs, an online military jobs board. The sizable military presence in Georgia — more than 681,000 veterans — contributes to the staying power of conservatism in the state, he told FP.
He was elected as a Trump delegate to the GOP convention in July. His arguments against Clinton are familiar: the Benghazi attacks, her use of a private email server as secretary of state and questions as to whether she made classified information vulnerable, and former President Bill Clinton’s affairs.
But he confessed his support for Trump is less about him and more “ABH”: “Anyone but Hillary.”
Later, Rey Martinez, a Cuban cafe owner and the vice mayor of Loganville, a city outside Atlanta, spoke to a handful of people at a “Hispanics for Trump” event in an empty shopping center. Jennifer Hazelton, the state spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, called it “the saddest mall in the world.”
Martinez sees himself as an evangelist for the Trump doctrine among Georgia’s growing Latino community. His pitch: Latinos are worse off after eight years of Obama.
“Forget Twitter wars, forget Ms. America pageant, forget birth certificates,” he said. “I’ve got six words for you: What do you have to lose?”
He claimed there are a lot of “closet Hispanics,” who won’t come out as Trump supporters because of the “backlash.”
“Just because I support Trump doesn’t mean I’m deplorable,” said Martinez, also a Navy veteran, referring to Clinton’s comments at a fundraiser that half of the Republican’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables” for sharing his sexist and xenophobic rhetoric. Martinez added that he had to look the word up in Spanish. “How dare she — I served my country 25 years.”
Trump, he said, “speaks my language.”
At the other end of the political spectrum is Antonio Molina, chairman of the Latino caucus of the Georgia Democratic Party. Molina became a U.S. citizen in 2005 after serving in the Navy as a gas turbine mechanic when former President George W. Bush, a Republican, provided a shortcut to citizenship for permanent residents serving in the military.
He first registered Republican, like his father, who fled Cuba for Florida. When his family moved to Georgia and he witnessed anti-Latino discrimination, he changed his party affiliation. His mother, originally from El Salvador, is a Democrat, which usually makes for heated debate between his parents.
But not in 2016. His father, who has never voted Democrat, will cast a ballot for Clinton.
“The reality is we have the numbers now to change the state,” Molina said. Though Georgia’s Latino voters are generally a “sleeping giant,” Trump’s divisiveness may finally be enough to spur a sizable turnout: “When someone is pretty much demonizing and threatening your community,” Molina said, “we’re seeing sectors of the Latino community, like businesses, getting involved who usually don’t.”
Democrats remain concerned about an enthusiasm gap for Clinton among minority voters, as was evident in her primary race against Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont liberal. But early investments in Latino outreach in Georgia appear to have paid off with increased voter registration, Molina said — a trend the Clinton camp is counting on nationwide. The number of registered Hispanic voters is likely to be record-setting in 2016, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
That Trump wraps his anti-immigrant rhetoric in national security doesn’t surprise Molina, who harkens back to Bush’s advocacy for immigrants in the military as a model of how much Republicans have changed. It’s the same shift that has turned people like Jake Edwards, a law student, against the GOP.
Edwards grew up in rural Georgia and has never voted Democrat. But as he walked toward the football game on Oct. 1, he said he would “absolutely not” vote for Trump, and will instead cast his ballot for Clinton.
“It’s like if you need a double-bypass surgery, and you say, ‘I don’t agree, I want a dentist,’” Edwards said. “I don’t understand why politics is a sphere where we always say we want an outside candidate.”
Yet, as Chambliss put it, “Georgia is still Georgia.”
But sometimes, tradition only goes so far in Georgia. That day, the home team UGA Bulldogs went on to lose the football game in the final minute, 31 to 34 — and were quickly booted out of their national ranking.
This story has been updated with comment from the Barksdale campaign.
Photo credit: The Washington Post / Contributor