Bookman: Atlanta’s northern suburbs speeding state’s blue streak trajectory

October 29, 2020 6:40 am

Columnist Jay Bookman says Republicans are losing their stronghold on Georgia at increasing velocity. He points to polling that says Democrats Carolyn Bourdeaux (upper right) and U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath (lower left) are favored to beat Republicans Rich McCormick and Karen Handel Nov. 3 in suburban Atlanta congressional races.

“There aren’t a lot of pundits who would have guessed four years ago that a Democratic candidate for president in 2020 would be campaigning in Georgia in the final week of the election,” a giddy Joe Biden said in Atlanta this week. “Or that we’d have such competitive Senate races in Georgia. But we do!”

Yes, we do. And in answer to your question: My heart says yes, the numbers say maybe and history says no. Put another way, I don’t know whether Georgia will turn blue in 2020 or whether it will elect two Democrats to the U.S. Senate. But it sure as hell might, and that in itself is noteworthy.

However, if I’m not willing to venture a prediction about the presidential race in Georgia – and I doubt we’ll know the outcome of the Senate races until January — let me crawl way, way out on a limb to offer a prediction of another sort:

What we’re watching is not just Democrats becoming competitive again in Georgia. We’re witnessing the beginning of a complete transition. We may not see another Republican governor elected in Georgia in a decade or longer, and within four years Democrats will control one or both houses in the Georgia General Assembly and then keep them.

I say all that for two reasons: trajectory and velocity.

The political trajectory in Georgia is clear, as even most Republicans will acknowledge. With each election cycle over the last 12 to 15 years, Georgia Democrats have been getting stronger and Georgia Republicans have been getting weaker, culminating two years ago in a governor’s race in which a Black female Democrat who had never run a statewide race came within 55,000 votes of defeating a Republican nominee who had held statewide office for eight years.

What’s really remarkable is the velocity of the change, the speed in which it has happened.  Ten years ago, the GOP was utterly dominant. Six years ago, Democrats lost a Senate race and governor’s race by roughly eight percentage points. In 2020, they could conceivably win two Senate races and turn the state blue, and there’s no reason to believe that the trajectory and velocity of that change will slow in the years to come.  The way these things go, it could even accelerate.

Anybody who follows politics in this state knows that demographics is a big part of the change. More than a million new Georgians have registered to vote in the last four years, and they are disproportionately young, diverse and urban. In the latest poll from the AJC, Donald Trump held a 13-point advantage among Georgians 65 and older, but Biden had a 41-point advantage among Georgians under 30.

Simply put, the pipeline of new red voters needed keep the GOP viable has shrunk to a bare trickle. And when I try to imagine the scale of transformation that would have to occur within the GOP to make it competitive again among younger voters, the mind boggles. It’s like trying to get young voters to prefer rotary-dial phones, record players, Jello fruit salad or Bob Hope movies.

It’s also important to look at where the population growth is: The five inner metro Atlanta counties – Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton and DeKalb – accounted for 48% of the state’s population growth since 2010, according to Census estimates.

And how do those counties vote? In the governor’s race two years ago, Democrat Stacey Abrams carried those five inner metro counties by 38 percentage points, 68.4% to 30.5 percent. She got 150,000 more votes from those counties than Barack Obama had gotten just six years earlier.

Again, trajectory and velocity.

Look at Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District. Four years ago, Democrats didn’t seriously contest it. Two years ago, a Black Democrat won it narrowly by making gun-safety laws central to her campaign. This year, Lucy McBath is the overwhelming favorite to retain her seat.

Look at the neighboring Seventh District: Four years ago, Democrats didn’t bother to seriously contest it. Two years ago, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux lost by 419 votes to a GOP incumbent.  That incumbent stepped aside rather than get crushed by the freight train heading his way, and this year Bordeaux is the favorite to replace him.

With reapportionment looming after the 2020 census, neither district will exist in its current boundaries come 2022. Otherwise, it would be hard to see how a Republican could win either seat barring a major scandal. And while Republicans will still control the redrawing of legislative and congressional boundaries next year, they can’t make all these new voters disappear. They’ll have to put them somewhere, and the fighting within the GOP over who gets protected in redistricting and who gets sacrificed is going to leave major scars.

Then there’s the Trump factor. There’s no question that the president has contributed significantly to the velocity of these changes. His raucous blend of racism, misogyny, insult politics and basic incompetence has driven millions of Americans out of the Republican Party.

The loss of those suburban, moderate voters has been offset to a degree by Trump’s success in drawing fans of his style out of the woodwork and into the party core, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing for the party long-term. Those voters have become part of the GOP base, and they aren’t going let the party ditch them or the themes they care about.

The question is whether these changes are temporary or permanent. Theoretically, if the GOP rushes to shed its identity as the Trump Party, some of the suburban and moderate voters who have abandoned the party in recent years might be tempted to return. But I just don’t think the party is capable of such a quick turnabout or even willing to seriously attempt it. Certainly, those voters aren’t going to be drawn back by Senate candidates who campaign alongside militia armed with assault weapons.

From here on out, the candidates who can win a statewide Republican primary, who can appeal to the hard-core GOP base on issues of guns and race and immigration and culture, will have a hard time winning in November general elections. The difference between the demands of the base and the demands of the general electorate is large and growing, and it would take a very talented politician to close it. It’s a smaller scale version of the GOP’s problem at the national level, where they have won the popular vote for president just once in the last seven attempts. (Nov.  3 will make it one in eight.) The difference is that in Georgia, the Electoral College doesn’t offer them a side door into power.

In the 2018 governor’s race, Brian Kemp barely managed to thread the needle, running in the primary on guns, pickup trucks and anti-immigrant, pro-Trump fervor, then hanging on to survive in the general. I doubt he’ll be able to pull off the trick in 2022. We are witnessing the end of a political era, an era that in time you’ll be able to read about only in books, a GOP dominance gone with the wind.


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Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman

Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.