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Jason Carter: Georgia Democrats should take the 'middle' path in Trump era

Georgia Democrats should appeal to disenchanted Republicans and moderates who are skeptical of Donald Trump in the 2018 election rather than cater their message to left-leaning voters, the party’s last gubernatorial nominee said in what could be a preview of another bid for office.

“Some people in the party are going to give up on the Trump voters and say we’re going to go with people who already agree with us. That to me is a recipe for division,” said former state Sen. Jason Carter. “Or we will say there’s a real opportunity for people to come together, to create a lot of room in the middle.”

Carter struck the heart of the debate facing Democrats ahead of next year’s elections in his remarks to a bipartisan group at a breakfast sponsored by the University of Georgia.

Do Democrats try to expand their coalition of younger, diverse voters and capitalize on shifting demographics to try to retake the state? Or do they craft policies to appeal to white voters who helped Trump run up the score in rural and exurban parts of the state?

Carter tried the latter approach in the 2014 race, voting for a gun rights expansion while carving out a somewhat centrist agenda in his gubernatorial run. And he raised millions of dollars to amplify his message with the help of his grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter.

Yet he still struggled to gain traction with white voters and lost to Gov. Nathan Deal by 8 points.

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who is likely to run for governor in 2018, is among the party leaders who advocate to capture and mobilize voters who are already likely to vote Democratic. The New Georgia Project voter registration group she started aims to persuade 800,000 unregistered minority voters to sign up to vote by 2024, and she often talks of the need to reach out to other low-propensity voters.

As the party prepares for another round of elections – Deal is term-limited and several other statewide seats could be vacant – Carter said Democrats can make up for lost ground by exploiting the GOP divisions that a Trump presidency has exposed.

“We are all nervous about what might happen. Even my Republican friends,” said Carter. “This is not a traditional Republican, a Nathan Deal who is going to be disciplined, measured and careful about what he says and does. With Trump, nobody knows what he’ll do.”

For Democrats to maximize the Trump effect, he said, it would require a candidate who would not “write off” a section of voters.

“The same way Romney was wrong to write off 47 percent of the vote, Hillary Clinton was wrong to write off the deplorables,” he said, invoking Clinton’s off-the-cuff jab at Trump backers.

“It’s something we can’t abide by, especially because we’re a party that’s built on inclusion. We can’t write off whole swathes of the geography of the state.”

That will require some soul-searching from Democratic leaders, he said.

“We can sit around and decide that we’re right and that we know we’re right on every single issue and find more people to agree with us,” he said. “Or the other option is to refine our message: Is it as inclusive as we think it is? Does it include everyone we need in our coalition?”

He added: “The question is, ‘How do we add people to our coalition?’ And the answer is: Wherever we can.”

Democrats have struggled to build that coalition since Roy Barnes’ defeat in 2002 presaged a steady erosion of their power in Georgia. Republicans have built commanding majorities in the Georgia Legislature and have controlled every statewide office since 2010.

Some GOP heavyweights have already lined up behind Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in next year’s contest – he hasn’t announced yet - and about a half-dozen other Republicans are considering a run.

The Democratic side is a bit sparser, with Abrams considered the most likely candidate. But Carter told the crowd not to count him out.

“Trump’s victory certainly makes it more likely for me to run,” he said.

More: Georgia Democrats struggle for a path forward after election

More: Georgia governor race: Who could be running in 2018

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.