In Georgia’s first congressional district, the Democratic Party has written itself off as irrelevant. Rep. Earl “Buddy” Carter (R-GA) ran unopposed for re-election in 2016 for a seat that Republicans have easily fended off Democrat challengers since Jack Kingston won the seat in 1993 and held it until 2015. Prior to that, a Democrat had held the seat for over 100 years. The district only has a Cook Partisan Index of +9 in favor of Republicans, making it one of the weakest Republican congressional district strongholds in Georgia.
Trump won the district in 2016 by 15 percentage points, a margin of victory likely increased by the fact that no Democrat ran against the Republican incumbent in Congress. At the local level throughout the district, Democrats have failed to bother competing, further contributing to their electoral shortcomings. Out of 17 counties in the district, 8 counties have no Democratic County Chairs.
Over the past few years, progressives have worked to change that within the district. “Two years ago, we set out to do something about the lack of organization in the 1st district and we’ve come a long way. Just by reaching out to people we have formed 3 committees and helped spark the rejuvenation of a few that were stagnant,” said Lisa Ring, the Chair of the Bryan County Democratic Party and Vice Chair of the Georgia Rural Democratic Council who is running for Congress to unseat Rep. Carter in 2018, in an interview with me. Ring served as co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ Georgia delegation during the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primaries.
Progressive groups now exist in three counties in Georgia’s 1st congressional district where no County Democrat organizations yet exist. She cited gerrymandering, racism, and an identity crisis within the Democratic Party as factors that have contributed to her congressional district shifting in favor of the Republican Party. “Candidates who once ran as Democrats, switched parties after gaining office,” Ring said. “And often, Democrats side with Republicans on policy issues to gain favor with them, or because it is politically advantageous. Party lines are blurred.”
In Savannah, Georgia, the largest city in Georgia’s 1st Congressional District, Republican Eddie DeLoach defeated incumbent Democrat Mayor Edna Jackson in 2015, becoming only the third Republican to hold the office in over 100 years. The race was a symptom of the Democratic Party disintegrating into irrelevance throughout the district, in part failure on the party to meet the demands of voters who wanted change.
Ring added that Democrats must stop shunning progressives and resisting change to restore confidence in voters. “Parties have to feel the pulse of the nation and respond by embracing it.” Ring continued, “Holding on to the traditional way of politics is a losing strategy. Opening up to ideas like, eliminating superdelegates and getting big money out of politics, would also go a long way in restoring confidence.”
A large obstacle to restoring that confidence is the systemic racism that exists throughout the United States, especially in Georgia. Republicans have relied on voter suppression tactics like gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and voter restrictions that largely impact communities of color. “Gerrymandering is significant,” explained Ring.”We have districts with prisons where inmates constitute a percentage of the population for congressional districting, yet they are ineligible to vote. When people are struggling to survive and disengaged from the political process, and when political leaders are selling out their communities for profit, potential voters feel powerless.”
In Georgia, and across the country, Ring affirms that the Democratic Party needs to choose to be the vehicle that makes change possible in order to win, rather than preserve the status quo or insist on advocating for incremental reforms easily undermined by Republican opposition. “We are living in a time that follows no historical rules. Tradition, the status quo, and rigid strategies that lack creativity, are obsolete. If the Democratic Party recognizes the mistakes they’ve made, people will respond,” noted Ring, citing that one of the most important focal points Democrats need to make is serving the needs of black communities, rather than taking their support for granted as inevitable given the alternative being Republicans. “The party has to listen to black communities and respond to their concerns with relevant solutions. This can only be done by reaching out and offering a seat at the table.”