Then came a text message from another county party member who had heard that the state party was organizing a similar effort, as was a nonprofit group.
“We don’t have time for this,” Bianca Keaton, the first black woman to lead the Gwinnett County Democrats, said with exasperation. “We are moving ahead with the plan we made this morning. I don’t want them in Gwinnett County.”
The exchange was yet another reminder that while Democrats see themselves as poised to take over the state, they are a long way from building the kind of coordinated effort that Georgia Republicans — and Democrats in places like Virginia and elsewhere — have long enjoyed. Turning the historically red state blue, it turns out, is harder to pull off than to predict.
Democrats see growing and diversifying suburban counties like Gwinnett, northeast of Atlanta, as their pathway to winning statewide, a potential shift largely driven by the tens of thousands who move to the Atlanta area each year from other states and countries.
Over the past 30 years, Gwinnett County has undergone a rapid and dramatic transformation from a sleepy bedroom community that was overwhelmingly white and conservative to a bustling and diverse county that has the second-largest population in the state.
In 2016, Gwinnett was one of just six counties in the nation to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton for president after backing Republican nominees in the two previous cycles. (Three of the six arein the Atlanta suburbs.) In 2018, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams won the county by 14 points, more than double Clinton’s margin, and several Democrats were elected to local seats long held by Republicans.
“What we’ve had here is an awakening,” said Keaton, who grew up in Chicago. “We’re coming out of an era where Democrats operated but were closeted. It’s only just now that it’s okay to be a Democrat. . . . You can be a Democrat and actually win here.”
Abrams’s run for governor showed Democrats what is possible. She lost the state by about 55,000 votes — and since then, more than 300,000 Georgians have registered statewide.
Abrams has urged national Democrats to invest heavily in the state in 2020, noting that it will probably be the only state with two U.S. Senate races. Democrats plan to hold a presidential primary debate Wednesday at the new Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta — angering some suburban Democrats who say their counties better illustrate what’s happening in the state. While several of the major presidential candidates have campaigned in Atlanta, only Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) has ventured to the suburbs, holding a rally in Gwinnett County in February.
“If you just focus on Atlanta, you’re going to miss all of the energy that’s bubbling on the edges,” Keaton said.
The Gwinnett County Republican Party, meantime, is scrambling to retain power in a county that’s quickly changing. Edward Muldrow, the county party’s new chairman, gets frustrated with people who move to the county for its well-regarded schools, more affordable houses and jobs — and then want to change the political composition.
“A lot of people want their school board to look like where they came from. The problem with that is that our school board is doing a hell of a job,” said Muldrow, an African American Air Force combat veteran originally from Miami. “Why mess with that?”
But Muldrow has been urging the mostly white members of his party to embrace the demographic changes and enthusiastically support conservative nonwhite candidates.
“Either you don’t know how to change or you don’t want to change,” he said. “Don’t be afraid of change, because things are changing. Don’t retreat and cry about it. Embrace the change.”
The county Democratic Party is headquartered in a former Abercrombie & Fitch clothing store on the second floor of the Gwinnett Place Mall, nearly directly on top of the local Republican Party headquarters, which occupies another former retail spot on the first floor. A life-size cardboard cutout of President Trump is stationed behind a counter where a cash register once stood.
When the mall opened in Duluth in 1984, Gwinnett County had just seen a population boom as whites moved away from Atlanta, swinging the county’s politics from Democratic to Republican. The county’s roughly 230,000 residents were overwhelmingly white.
Since then, the population has tripled and the county is now majority minority: Whites make up 37 percent of the population, while blacks are 27 percent, Hispanics 21 percent and Asians 12 percent, according to estimates provided by the Atlanta Regional Commission. Students in Gwinnett County public schools come from 181 countries and speak 100 languages.
As if a metaphor for change, the mall slowly lost its customers and stores to another mall constructed in the late 1990s, newly developed historic downtowns and smaller shopping centers packed with noodle shops, matcha and bubble tea cafes, taquerias, Korean barbecue and sushi restaurants, bodegas, Asian markets and boutiques selling quinceañera dresses. Today more than half of the mall storefronts are empty but there are still two major anchors: a Macy’s and a Mega Mart, a Korean market that moved into a former department store.
Some new arrivals are surprised when they log on to county government websites and see photos of elected leaders, said Kirkland Carden, 31, an Ohio native and the first African American elected to the Duluth City Council, who is now running for the county board of commissioners. Three of the five commissioners are white Republicans, and four of the five school board members are white.
The county’s conservative sheriff, Butch Conway, has enthusiastically embraced a federal immigration program that allows local deputies to perform the functions of immigration agents.
“Gwinnett is competitive,” Carden said, “but I don’t think we’re as blue as people think. There’s a lot of room to grow.”
The same night Clinton won the county, energizing Democrats, Sam Park — the son of Korean immigrants who grew up in the county — became the first openly gay lawmaker elected to the statehouse. Since then, a series of young, nonwhite politicianshave won local elections, and Democrats took control of the county’s statehouse delegation in 2018.
“The next generation is coming into its own,” Park said, “and it has a new perspective.”
Republican leaders in the county are trying to make the case that they are not all old, white men — and that their party’s values could line up with those of nonwhite conservatives, especially those actively involved with churches. The windows of the county GOP headquarters are decorated with the hashtag #walkaway, a conservative movement that urges nonwhites to walk away from the Democratic Party.
Complicating the effort is that Republicans in Georgia have embraced Trump, who is increasingly scorned in suburbs nationwide, and conservative causes like severely limiting access to abortion. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) said in a 2018 campaign ad that he drives “a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals.” But since taking office, Kemp has proposed a limited expansion of Medicaid and surprised his critics by appointing minorities to judicial and criminal justice positions.
Muldrow is defensive of the president, saying criticizing Trump would show weakness.
“We always accuse the Democrats of being wishy-washy and twisting the narrative. In the GOP, for too long, we’ve been okay with weak leadership,” Muldrow said. “Love him or hate him, he’s a Republican president and what the Republican president says or does, so be it.”
On Saturday evening, the Georgia Chinese-American Republicans — formerly known as Chinese Americans for Trump — gathered in the mall office to recognize several dozen high school students, several of whom gave speeches that praised Trump.
“Everyone of you here tonight is the future of our country, plain and simple,” Muldrow said in addressing the audience of more than 60 and a handful of journalists from local Asian media outlets. Muldrow then asked everyone to stand and chant: “We are keeping America great! We are keeping America great!”
Several in the audience said they immigrated to the United States to escape communism or socialism in their home countries — and are now alarmed by some of the things they hear during the Democratic debates.
Jacqueline Tseng, who is running for Congress in the area, moved to the United States from Cambodian as a refugee when she was 5 said she worries when she hears Democrats talking about free education, free health care and limiting access to guns.
“I’ve lived through communism,” she said. “This is the playbook they use. It’s unfolding before my eyes. It scares me.”
Yet much of the potential, for either side, seems untapped. Wandering the hallways at the mall Friday were local residents who said they had never been contacted in any way by either party.
Ictiandro Sarduy, who moved to the United States in 2005 from Cuba and works as a mechanic, said that he votes in most major elections for Democrats but mostly avoids talk of politics and doesn’t know anything about the 2020 candidates.
To the 36-year-old immigrant, Gwinnett County is the American Dream: Work is plentiful, people are kind, and the cost of living is lower than in Northern Virginia, where he first moved after leaving Cuba. Within two years of moving to the county, he was able to save enough money to buy a house. He recently attended a Thanksgiving dinner at his daughter’s school in Lawrenceville and marveled at the diversity. “I didn’t see a lot of white kids,” he said.
Janell Smith and Darius Watts, a black couple in their 20s who live in nearby DeKalb County, the strongest Democratic county in the state, said they have never voted — although Watts thinks that he might next year because he wants Trump out of office. They could name two of the numerous Democratic candidates: Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and “the vice president from Obama.” Watts said it’s difficult to find time to research as he works several jobs, including as a server at a Chinese restaurant and splitting firewood, but he hopes to do so in the next year.
On the second floor of the mall a few nights earlier, Gwinnett County Democratic Party officers gathered for their monthly meeting, which was frequently derailed by debates over who needed to do what and exactly how much the growing party could demand from its volunteers.
Over the past several months, the county party has spent much of its time composing bylaws and other governing documents, and rebranding with new signage, T-shirts and an upgraded website that has yet to launch. All of that building has taken time, frustrating members who are tired of meetings that can drag on for hours and would rather be out organizing.
At the meeting, several members expressed concern that the diversity committee had not been meeting and lacked anything beyond “black and white diversity.” Others asked when the party would finally compile a list of county events, especially multicultural ones, so they could attend and the party could begin being a regular presence. One member urged the group to do more to engage the diverse potential voters who packed the county but can be difficult to reach and reluctant to get politically involved.
Keaton responded that the party would do all of these things — but first, they have to build the proper infrastructure so that they are fully prepared for the high-profile year ahead. Each of the elections next year is an opportunity to harness the immense potential of the county. Clinton and Abrams have shown that Democrats can win this county, and now comes the difficult task of winning enough votes to dramatically offset Republican ballots in dozens of other counties.
It’s a daunting task for the team of volunteers.
“It’s almost December,” Keaton said, “and we have so much that needs to be done.”
There is widespread optimism that Democrats will lodge another round of victories in the county in 2020, but the idea of a Democratic presidential candidate winning the state remainselusive to some.
“I say that we have to win in 2020 — and I’m very serious about that — but, in reality, it’s really 2022 or 2024,” said Michael Murphy-McCarthy, who helped found a local Indivisible activist group after the 2016 election and then reluctantly got involved with the party.
“When I first got involved, I was just angry, and I went to a lot of protests. . . . Now, I take the long view.”
Scott Clement, Nicholas Diakopoulos, Madison Dong and Jason Holt contributed to this report.