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HIRAM, Ga.—Andrea Baerwalde had something of a fashion crisis recently as she prepared to go to her local grocery store. Stacey Abrams was the T-shirt that Baerwalde was wearing. It was part of her closet she had either worn around her house for her Republican husband’s absence or at her home because she was aware of how her guests viewed her politics. In her northwest Georgia neighborhood, where political signs have repeatedly gone missing from her yard, she didn’t want to needlessly provoke her neighbors.
Baerwalde wore her Abrams shirt to the market on the recent occasion. There, in between canned goods and produce, a stranger approached her, and in a low, conspiratorial whisper told the interim chairwoman of the Paulding County Democrats, “I like your shirt.” The two women quickly moved on, having acknowledged that there were still a few Democrats in their part of Georgia, a MAGA-powered exurb about an hour north of Atlanta.
“You just can’t be an out Democrat,” Baerwalde says.
That’s an understatement—and a challenge. It is located in the House District represented by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. This rightwing firebrand has a history of spreading conspiracy theories and trafficking. Yes, this area is “a red sea” in the words of almost every candidate vying for a Democratic nomination here. The landscape is miles and miles of mega-developments, the kind that have made Paulding County one of Georgia’s fastest-growing areas, where some schools are well over their capacity and construction just can’t keep up. Baerwalde is still laying the foundation for MAGA fever to this part of Georgia.
“On paper, it looks impossible,” says Wendy Davis, one of the three major Democrats running in Tuesday’s Georgia primary to face Greene come November. “But the last time we had a candidate was in 2002. It’s been 20 years since Democrats tried here.” Her uncle, John Davis, represented the area for more than a decade in the 1960s and ‘70s, and she is betting voters will have had enough of their Trumpist congresswoman by November.
“I don’t need Republicans to wave signs on the corner. I just need them to understand how they’re embarrassing this district every weekend on Saturday Night Live,” Davis says.
A short time later on Saturday, Wendy McCormack, another contender for Greene’s seat, made a similar point in the same café where the Paulding County Democrats were meeting over platters of fried chicken, catfish, and all the sides. “There are Democrats here. They’re just in hiding,” McCormack half-jokes before turning serious. “This is a dangerous race. Folks are standing with her with machine guns.”
Most Democrats don’t ReallyThis House race is expected to be won. Even after redistricting led to Georgia’ 14th district gaining part of Cobb County—which supported Joe Biden by 14 points in 2020—the broader district is still solidly Republican, voting for Trump by 48 percentage points two years ago. But Greene’s style of unapologetic antagonism and populist rage has rubbed plenty of Republicans the wrong way, and voters in Atlanta’s affluent exurbs may be growing weary of the Trump Show, especially after the Jan. 6 debacle. In 2020, Greene had her worst showing of any of the district’s 12 counties in Paulding, but she still won here by 31 points, or more than 13,000 votes.
After the discovery of Greene’s racist and anti-Semitic past remarks, many people responded to Greene’s last year.,The House removed her from committee assignments. This not only took away her power to legislate, but it also allowed her to spend more time being a national problemmaker and disciple Trump. Kevin McCarthy, Minority Leader has been cautious about approaching Greene’s issues because he fears for her vengeance as he vies for the position of House Speaker. However, it is highly probable that she will lead the opposition against him in the event of a Republican win.
Greene, the North Carolina freshman representative who established Republicans helped to get rid of Congress, is not Madison Cawthorn. That variety of fight isn’t forming here, as much as some tried. As much as she embraces the fringes of mainstream conservatism, she still has the support of her people; one poll found her with a 60% job approval rating—almost unheard of for anyone in politics.
That’s not to say liberals have given up on ousting Greene. Marcus Flowers has raised more than $8,000,000, making him the top fundraiser for Democrats. McCormack stands at almost 2 million, with Davis just short of 500,000. But compared to Greene’s haul of almost $9.3 million, combined with the power of incumbency in a tough district, her challengers can’t take too optimistic of a tone just yet.
Listening to the Democratic candidates tick through their agenda, though, it’s striking for what they never mention. There’s no Nancy Pelosi. Joe Biden is completely absent. AOC, who? This is an event of the Democratic Party with few references to the D-word. Selena Jackson Guines, who is running as a candidate for the local schoolboard, believes that there is a lack of Democratic-specific talking point. “We are in a sea of red, but all parents of all parties want the best education for their kids” she says. “The minute I introduce myself as a Democrat, a lot of people just stop listening.”
This state of affairs is going to have national consequences. This fall’s race in Georgia will be close. On the Republican side, you’ve got hyper-competitive primaries where the Trump-loving and Trump-wary wings of the Republican Party are spending heavily to either advance or to contain the former president’s influence in competitive contests for Governor and Secretary of State. Herschel, who is Trump-backed Senate candidate seems very likely to be the GOP nominee come Tuesday.
The Democratic Party, however, has cleared most of their candidates for the competitive statewide elections. No one from the Democratic side is seriously concerned that Abrams, the Republican nominee for Governor, will be renominated and Sen. Raphael Warnock won’t win the re-nomination.
Georgia’s demographics are certainly changing, and the groundbreaking work of folks like Abrams have reshaped the electorate in a big way. However, state legislation has also restricted voting rights.
That’s why Democrats are watching rural and exurban areas like Paulding County closely, hoping that, come November, they can limit their expected losses to a cut and not a gash. A simple loss, not a blowout can allow them to increase the number of Abrams/Warnock votes in urban areas and suburbanities, which are home to Black women who have contributed in recent election victories.
And that’s why Baerwalde and her friends still show up to call neighbors, write postcards, and try to help candidates campaign as Democrats without ever calling themselves that.
“I’d really like to say yes, we can win this district; people are really fed up,” says Baerwalde, the Democratic chair in a county that in 2017 had white supremacists burning a swastika on private property after an Atlanta rally. “It may just be wishful thinking.”
She had still prepared strategies memos to be used by candidates for county and state offices as well as federal offices if they could make it to the event. The talking points in the blue folders address the ongoing shortages of baby formula (“the Trump administration played [a role] in stiffening foreign competition in the baby formula market), the economy (“unemployment is way down, news business startups are way up”), and prices (“it’s not inflation, it’s price gouging”).
Absent that, Baerwalde is just going to keep having what are quickly becoming weekly meet-ups for like-minded neighbors in the communities just beyond Atlanta’s suburbs proper. Perhaps it’s keeping margins intact in Hiram, a county Biden lost 29 points in two years. It—and other places like it—helped him win Georgia by keeping his rural deficits containable; Hillary Clinton lost the county by 41 points in 2016, after Barack Obama lost it by 44 points in 2012.
It may be deeply disheartening work, down to the point of policing one’s uniform for picking up milk and eggs. But if Democrats are to have a shot at keeping Warnock in the Senate or picking up other statewide chances, the folks in places like Paulding matter, even if they’re unlikely to keep Greene from returning to Washington for a second term.
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