ATLANTA – Democratic Party Chairman Mike Berlon is betting on picking up statewide races next year, but some other prominent Democrats aren’t confident about his strategy.
The clash played out Tuesday night before a capacity audience at a panel discussion hosted by the Atlanta Press Club.
Berlon is trying to broker an agreement between U.S. Rep. John Barrow of Augusta and Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn and the head of a non-profit organization.
“We no longer can afford to have these party primaries where we take six or seven Democrats and run them against each other and there’s nothing left but smoke and ruin in the end,” he said. “This time around, we’ve worked very hard to make sure that when the decision is made, these two candidates talk to each other and clear the field so we can move forward.”
But Steve Anthony, a political science professor at Georgia State University and a former executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia, predicts Berlon won’t succeed.
“I’m conflicted about that approach,” he said.
During the 1990s, Georgia Republicans tried the same tactic while in the minority with little success, he said.
He also noted that political parties have less influence over elections than the campaigns of the candidates themselves.
“Now, political parties are in existence to help recruit candidates and then get out of the way,” Anthony said. “The candidates raise the money, and the candidates are going to decide the issues.”
But the party should harass the other party in the press, as it did under Anthony’s direction, pointing out policy differences. As a result, Democrats slowed the pace of GOP gains from previous years, according to Anthony.
Berlon rejected such open warfare.
“Calling people names doesn’t work for us,” he said. “I’m more concentrated with trying to develop the party with 159 county parties.”
His strategy is to increase Democratic turnout by 5 percent in every county in hopes that will tip the balance for statewide candidates.
Berlon also drew criticism for weak fundraising. He said competition for dollars has gotten harder with the party competing for donors with political action committees.
“I’m in the nonprofit business. I’m not interested in banking as much money as I possibly can,” the chairman said.
And he was blasted for poor candidate recruitment as was highlighted by the failure to find a Democratic challenger to state Rep. Doug McKillip in Clarke County, one of the most Democratic counties in the state. Instead, Berlon said he focused on helping Republican challenger Regina Quick beat McKillip in that party’s primary.
Bryan Long, founder of the Better Georgia liberal campaign organization that has recently begun attacking Republicans, pointed out there were fewer Democrats on the ballot than in the last 100 years. It’s difficult to boost turnout with fewer candidates, he said.
“I’ve heard two things from a Democratic chairman that I thought I’d never hear,” Long said. “He’s OK with less money, and he helped elect Republicans. That’s strange.”