Jody Cooley is a little nervous.
He admits as much Friday as his wife, Lora, rushes around a pavilion in Gainesville’s Longwood Park, tying balloons, adjusting a microphone, positioning signs — putting the final touches on what will, in minutes, be the official start to a challenge Democrats in Northeast Georgia have not mounted since 2008.
Cooley is running for Congress.
Days after a contentious runoff election for the Republican nomination, the choice for Northeast Georgians in the 20-county 9th District U.S. House seat is now between Cooley, a Democrat, and Republican Doug Collins.
Both men are attorneys from Gainesville.
But Collins is well-funded, has political experience and represents a party that has dominated the
district in recent elections. He also has been campaigning throughout the region for nearly a year.
Already, more than 39,000 of the district’s voters have showed their support for Collins in the party primary, and he has the support of Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who many in Northeast Georgia voted to re-elect every two years for nearly two decades from largely the same House district.
And Cooley, sitting on a bench in Longwood Park minutes before he gives the first speech of his campaign, is “pretty nervous.” He’s never done this before. And he seems to understand that he’s expected to lose in November.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to come,” he says of the imminent party.
It’s a legitimate fear.
In 2010, Georgians voted Republicans into every single statewide constitutional office.
And after a round of redistricting by state lawmakers last year, the Deep South’s last remaining white Democrat in the U.S. House, John Barrow, faces a tough re-election bid as representative of the state’s 12th District.
If Barrow loses in November, it’s likely the last nail in the coffin for white Democrats in the South, at least in the short term, says University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock.
Running as a ‘Reagan Democrat’
Lining the road near the park are Cooley’s campaign signs. After a year chock full of Republican candidates and races that ended in the primary, these are the first to appear in Hall County from a Democratic candidate.
They read: “Common sense, Finally!” But they don’t contain the word Democrat.
Cooley refers to himself as a “Reagan Democrat” in reference to President Ronald Reagan, the Republican role model of modern politics. He admired U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn and former Gov. Zell Miller, who, now more conservative than moderate, has supported Collins in the race already.
Cooley might have some crossover appeal this election with moderate Republicans, Hall County’s Democratic Party Chairman Jim Taflinger says.
Already, Taflinger is “amazed” at the number of Republicans who have told him they’re supporting Cooley.
“There is a large population that is center-right and center-left and a lot of the ideology talk today doesn’t fit in those two categories,” Taflinger said. “(Cooley) doesn’t get caught up in this ideology lingo, and I think people find that refreshing.”
Cooley is approaching his campaign as an effort to share ideas, no matter the outcome.
He says he thinks voters want to hear a “fresh, moderate voice” talking about issues that “really affect people at the kitchen table.”
A lot of what Cooley says steers away from the popular political rhetoric of Republicans. He calls promises to repeal the affordable care act health law “short-sighted” and says any pledge not to raise taxes is “unrealistic.”
“To me, that’s not effective leadership,” he said. “It might be good politics, but it’s not effective leadership.”
He doesn’t want to talk about abortion or gay rights.
Collins spent much of his Republican campaign against Martha Zoller questioning her stances on those two emotional issues. Cooley says abortion is already “settled law” and marriage is a matter of faith and personal view, not government business.
“We’re not going to have much of a debate about what my position is,” Cooley said.
Instead, Cooley wants to talk about budget compromises. He wants to talk about immigration reform and bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan. He thinks lawmakers need to rethink recent regulations on community banks.
“I want to raise these issues even if it doesn’t get me elected,” Cooley said.
GOP rules in district
That, Bullock says, might be the best thing Cooley can do for his party in the 9th District this year: lay groundwork.
Democrats don’t do well in these parts. In the two decades since Deal switched to the Republican Party in the 1990s, Democrats have challenged the seat only four times.
Jeff Scott was the last to do so. In 2008, he fell short of even 25 percent of the district’s voting support.
Scott’s performance was only slightly better than that of John Bradbury and James Harrington, who challenged Deal in 2006 and 2000, respectively.
The most successful a Democrat has been in the district since 1994 was the nearly 35 percentage points McCracken Poston nabbed in the polls during his 1996 challenge to Deal.
While Bullock says Democrats on the ballot in Georgia may have a better chance this November with President Barack Obama — who received 47 percent of Georgians’ votes and spurred strong turnout among black voters in 2008 — on the ballot, it’s not likely to help in the 9th, where 88 percent of registered voters are white.
Democrats in Georgia, according to Bullock, “have not yet fully adjusted to the fact that they are the minority.”
For generations, Democrats in the state did not have to worry about candidate recruitment. This year, however, Cooley was the only candidate on Hall County’s Democratic primary ballot.
And the local party’s ability to recruit another likely depends on how Cooley’s campaign goes, Taflinger said.
It’s part of the reason Cooley says he is running, because he never sees anyone run for office with his self-described moderate ideals.
He sees “a lot of good” in a contested election.
“If we never offer moderate candidates who are willing to stand up and try to offer common-sense solutions, the extremes are only going to rise in power,” he said. “I think, at some point, people will push back against the extremism.”
If Cooley manages to become visible in the district, building grass-roots support, or “bench strength,” in each of the 20 counties, then the Democratic party may begin to be able to regroup for the future, Bullock said.
And, maybe one day, the party might have a chance at winning a congressional district seat.
“It’s planting olive trees,” Bullock said. “You don’t harvest it, but your children or your grandchildren will.”
On Friday, as people begin to stream into the Longwood Park pavilion, Cooley wraps up an interview and heads to join the party — his party.
As his opponent nears the beginning of his second year on the campaign trail, for Cooley, this party in the park is just the beginning.
Someone at the park says she is glad he stepped forward. Cooley is visibly nervous, but he’s not alone, as he feared he would be.
“It’s not nobody,” he said.
Hall returning to in-person school on hybrid schedule Jan. 19