Much about the Democratic field in the 2020 U.S. Senate race in Georgia remains unclear but some things are starting to take shape. Friday, former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson took the first official step toward a run by announcing the formation of an exploratory committee.
Her announcement lays the framework and offers a peek into what a Stacey Abrams-less challenge to first-term Republican Sen. David Perdue would look like.
Abrams, who came close to becoming the first black female governor in the country in the 2018 Georgia governor’s race, is now mulling a run for some office — Senate, president or another battle against Gov. Brian Kemp in 2022.
Abrams’ first political decision will be about the Senate race, she said in TV interviews earlier this week. From there, the Democratic field takes shape and party strategists say Tomlinson is the strongest candidate likely to run if Abrams doesn’t.
The two women and the decisions soon to come will shape the race. Democrats are making a hard charge at regaining a majority in the Senate, and Georgia seems to be a key part of their plans.
What is changing in Georgia?
Thirty-four Senate seats are up for election in 2020, and Democrats will need at least a net gain of three seats to claim a majority. Of those 34, 22 seats are held by Republicans. A political forecasting website, 270towin.com, lists the Georgia race as “leans Republican.”
The 2020 Senate race in the Peach State is critical, said Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson.
“There is no easy path to winning those seats based on the states in play, which means Democrats are going to need to be competitive everywhere,” he said. “A victory for Democrats in Georgia is instrumental to winning back the majority. Republicans will need to spend a lot of money to have a chance at keeping this seat and spending more resources here means fewer resources spent elsewhere. Investing in Georgia Democrats will be key in the 2020 cycle.”
Chris Grant, a political science professor at Mercer University, said Georgia’s changing demographics and growth make the state more competitive politically as time goes on.
“(Texas and Georgia) look like they are moving closer and closer to a place where they’re competitive. I’m not saying they are competitive yet or they are truly toss-ups. I think they are definitely pink and lean red but they are getting closer,” he said.
John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who previously did work in the state for former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and President Donald Trump, said that up until the Abrams and Kemp race in 2018, Republican office seekers in Georgia made it look “too easy.” In recent years, Deal and some Georgia congressmen McLaughlin worked with won re-election handily.
However, Democrats, he said, were able to maximize their support among African American voters in the 2018 governor’s race. Republicans will have to perform better among those voters or risk another close race.
In addition, the state’s strong economy has attracted voters from other states — adding to an already growing electorate, he said.
“It’s more of a battleground than people realize. ... Democrats realized that with Stacey Abrams last year,” he said. “Four years ago, they tried the same formula, Jason Carter was running against Nathan Deal and we were able to win decisively.”
Those changes in the state make Perdue a top target for Democrats in 2020, said Amelia Penniman, a spokeperson for Democratic Super PAC and opposition research giant American Bridge 21st Century.
“It’s one of our top targets, and we are looking forward to digging into what is a wealth of potential research against him,” she said. “Georgia’s expanding electorate makes it a potential pick up opportunity for us, and I think David Perdue has gone largely untested in his first term in office. I think there are a lot of potential vulnerabilities that haven’t been explored on him.”
Stacey Abrams has a choice — Senate, president or something else a little further down the road. Her choice will likely define the Democratic field in the U.S. Senate race as Tomlinson and others have said they’ll watch and see what Abrams will do.
Tomlinson said her announcement lays the groundwork for a Senate campaign provided that Abrams decides not to run for the seat. The two women have communicated as Abrams mulls a possible Senate or presidential bid in 2020. Tomlinson is working to give Abrams space as she finishes her nationwide book tour.
“We try to stay in contact with her busy schedule, but as you know, she was offered the position as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s chosen candidate for this particular position, should she want it, and since then she’s had a lot of opportunities open up for her. We want to make sure we give her the space she needs to make the decision under these exciting circumstances,” Tomlinson said.
Abrams has also appeared on several national talk shows where questions have come up about her plans. Her decision on a White House run could come as late as the fall, but a decision on the Senate will come before that.
“I think the Senate decision is going to be pretty short-term. I intended to do it in March but because of my book tour, I had to push it back. But I do want to make a decision this month,” Abrams said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” earlier this week.
As Tomlinson waits, she met the $5,000 expense threshold spelled out by the Federal Election Commission. To remain in compliance, Tomlinson has formed her exploratory committee — an official step toward a Senate run.
“We’ve all been in conversation about how we can make sure that I remain in compliance, and remain a viable candidate, should she choose not to run,” Tomlinson said.
When asked if she’d drop out of the race if Abrams entered, Tomlinson stopped short of saying outright she’d leave but she did say that she doesn’t want to work against Abrams.
“Stacey Abrams and I have been in the trenches of Democratic politics in the state of Georgia for a very long time, and we’re excited about the fact that finally all this hard work is paying off,” Tomlinson said. “It is a two-party state, and we are well poised to have a Democratic senator in the United States Senate from Georgia. So we want to make sure that we’re not working against each other, or that our efforts are not colliding in that shared objective.”
Some are hoping Abrams chooses the Senate race.
Abrams has had several meetings with Democratic leaders about the Senate, and others including Georgia U.S. Rep. John Lewis have said Abrams would make a great senator.
Close ally and friend state Sen. Carolyn Hugley said residents of Georgia would prefer that Abrams run for U.S. Senate. Hugley was minority whip in the Georgia state house when Abrams was minority leader.
“I think that the citizens of Georgia would prefer that (Abrams) pursue the U.S. Senate and work specifically on behalf of Georgia,” Hugley said. “I don’t know what the future holds.”
Hugley added that whatever Abrams decides that she would be around to help.
“My only encouragement to her is that she should seek office. Whatever she decides that she wants to pursue, I’ll put on my campaign boots and get ready to go out there and work as hard as I can,” Hugley said. “It’s going to be Stacey’s call. Once she makes that call, we’ll know where everybody else fits.”
Who is Tomlinson running against right now, and who might jump into the race?
Five others filed paperwork for the 2020 Georgia U.S. Senate race. Perdue is the lone Republican who has officially filed with the Federal Election Commission.
“Well, I think she’ll be a good candidate,” Perdue told a (Macon) Telegraph reporter about Tomlinson’s announcement Friday. “I’m anxious to see how the Democrat primary runs next year, and we’ll see who the candidate against us will eventually be.”
None of the other household names among Georgia Democrats have filed with the FEC. Three Democratic candidates have filed for the Senate race but none of them have reported contributions to the FEC.
▪ Akhenaten Amun, teacher and former lieutenant governor candidate in 2018
▪ Marckeith DeJesus, former candidate for Georgia state Senate and House
▪ Elaine Williams, a minister who ran for president in 2016.
Independent Clifton Kilby III has also filed paperwork.
Two big names among Georgia Democrats rumored to run are waiting on Abrams.
Jon Ossoff, the former candidate for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District who lost to Karen Handel in 2017, has publicly encouraged Abrams to run. Sarah Riggs Amico, Abrams’ ticket mate in the 2018 governor’s race, formed a fundraising campaign to encourage Abrams to run for office in 2020.
“Sarah Amico is the only other person I’ve heard mentioned,” said Howard Franklin, a Georgia Democratic strategist.
Other rumored runners include Jason Carter, the grandson of former president Jimmy Carter, and Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that neither are likely to run.
While Ossoff may have some support inside the party, Tomlinson still has the advantage, Grant said.
“Tomlinson has lots and lots of inside support,” Grant said. “Our Democratic party does have some factions ... and I think Tomlinson has both sides. I think she has a lot of support from metro Atlanta.”
How does Tomlinson stack up?
Franklin, a Georgia Democratic strategist, said in an email that Tomlinson would have prominent supporters behind her should she decide to run.
“Teresa Tomlinson was a popular downstate mayor who enjoys significant ties to the capital city. She racked up lots of impressive accomplishments over two terms, and has thoughtfully cultivated support across the state party and with fellow municipal leaders. She begins the race with plenty of prominent endorsers and contributors, and I only expect that list to grow,” he said.
Grant, the political science professor, said that Tomlinson is the odds-on favorite in the Senate race for party regulars provided that Abrams doesn’t run.
The former Columbus mayor is very well-known in elite circles of the state, and she’s a formidable challenger to Perdue, he said.
“I would put Tomlinson as a tier-1 candidate in Georgia for a challenger,” he said. “She’s got some background. She’s very popular with Democrats. She certainly has people — both in Columbus and Atlanta — that like her a lot.”
McLaughlin, the Republican pollster, said Perdue will be stronger than Democrats expect in 2020. Perdue, who has been supportive of Trump, likely won’t face a stiff primary challenge, he said.
“He’s been an effective national leader. He’s been good for Georgia and good for the country,” he said. “He’s been very effective talking about immigration reform.”
Abrams, he said, would probably lose if she ran for Senate. Outside of Abrams, McLaughlin said he isn’t sure Democrats have a strong candidate to compete against Perdue.
“If they are looking for a candidate outside the Atlanta market, it won’t be as strong for them,” he said. “I haven’t heard of a strong name, or as strong a name (as Abrams.)”
Ledger-Enquirer reporter Tim Chitwood contributed to this story.