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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. The speech therapist was wearing a Stacey Abrams T-shirt, a piece of her wardrobe that was more of an around-the-house choice for when her Republican husband was away, or something she broke out at home when she knew her guests shared 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.
But on that recent day, Baerwalde took a chance, wearing her Abrams T-shirt to the market anyway. 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. This is in the heart of the House district represented by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the rightwing firebrand who has a long history of trafficking in baseless conspiracy theories. 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. But Baerwalde nonetheless is laying the groundwork in case the MAGA fever in this corner of Georgia breaks.
“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.
A short time later on Saturday, Holly 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 really expect to win in this particular House race. 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.
Last year, in response to the unearthing of past remarks by Greene that many viewed as racist, anti-Semitic, or just plain unhinged, the House stripped her of committee assignments, at once taking away any of her nominal power to legislate but also freeing her up to devote more of her time to being a national troublemaker and disciple of Trump. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has taken to approaching anything to do with Greene gingerly because he clearly fears her fangs as he vies to be the next House Speaker. Nonetheless, she is widely expected to lead the opposition to him should Republicans take back the majority in November.
Greene is no Madison Cawthorn, the freshman representative from North Carolina who establishment Republicans happily helped to boot from Congress. 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. The top fundraising Democrat, Marcus Flowers, has collected more than $8 million. McCormack is at the almost $2 million mark, and Davis has raised a little shy 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 totally missing. AOC who? It is a Democratic Party event with very few mentions of the actual D-word. Selena Jackson-Guines, who is running for the local school board, says that lack of Democratic-specific talking points is by virtue of need. “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.”
That state of affairs has national implications. Georgia is going to be a close race this fall. 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 Walker, a Trump-backed Senate candidate, seems a lock for the GOP nomination come Tuesday.
Democrats, meanwhile, largely cleared their fields for competitive statewide races. On Tuesday, no one on the Democratic side seriously doubts that Abrams will again be the nominee for Governor and that Sen. Raphael Warnock will win re-nomination.
Georgia’s demographics are certainly changing, and the groundbreaking work of folks like Abrams have reshaped the electorate in a big way. But so, too, has state legislation that curtailed 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. If they can have a simple loss and not a blowout, they can then run up the tallies for Abrams and Warnock in cities and suburbs, where Black women have helped deliver Democrats victories in recent elections.
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.”
Still, she had strategy memos prepared for candidates for state legislature, county offices, and even those for federal offices had they made it to her 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. And, perhaps, keeping the margins in places like Hiram in a county Biden lost by 29 points two years ago. 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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