Democrat Stacey Abrams debated Republican Gov. Brian Kemp ahead of the 2018 election he narrowly won. Will rural Georgians again be the difference in the rematch? Bazemore-Pool/Getty Images
Now that David Alfred Perdue’s bloodied political corpse has been dispatched to its final resting place at Sea Island (without, we can probably surmise, even a brief opportunity to lie in state at Mar-a-Lago), the long-awaited gubernatorial heavyweight rematch between Brian Kemp, the incumbent Republican, and Democratic Party challenger Stacey Abrams can begin in earnest.
It’s arguably been underway for a while now. Early last week, even before the party primaries, the Kemp camp fired a salvo at Abrams for what they and some in the media called a “gaffe” – a statement that she was weary of listening to Kemp brag about Georgia being the No. 1 state in which to do business while it was “the worst state in the country to live.”
I’ll offer a contrarian view.
Georgia as a whole may not deserve the “worst place to live” label, but rural Georgia arguably does. In fact, much of Republican Georgia would qualify for that title.
Abrams has since acknowledged her statement was “inelegant” but she’s doubled down on her central point – and she’s right to do so. In the process, she may have set in motion a long-overdue gubernatorial debate over what to do about the trouble in God’s country.
Let’s take a look at the 105 rural Georgia counties* with populations of less than 35,000.
Combined, these counties had an average 2020 per capita income (PCI) of $39,027. That’s just 65.6 percent of the national average** and $3,103 less than Mississippi, which is the actual state at the bottom of the nation’s 2020 PCI heap, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). Per capita income in the other 54 Georgia counties was $54,183, or 91 percent of the national average.
Those 105 counties, according to Census Bureau data for the years 2015-2019, were home to more high school dropouts than college graduates – 210,748 to 184,399. Here again, rural Georgia makes Mississippi look good: the Magnolia State actually has more college graduates than high school dropouts – 435,153 versus 306,105.
What about health status, you say? Glad you asked. The 2020 premature death rate for these 105 counties comes in at a third world number: 12,148 years of potential life lost before age 75 per every 100,000 people in those 105 counties. That’s nearly 50% worse than the premature death rate for the rest of Georgia: 8,304.
It’s also significantly worse than the actual states at the bottom of the national list. According to the latest data from County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, Mississippi is dead last with a YPLL 75 rate of 11,324 and Alabama, third from the bottom, has a comparatively stellar rate of 10,350. (Here, I should acknowledge I’m comparing slightly different sizes of apples. I’m pulling the Georgia county data from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) while relying on County Health Rankings for other state-level data. The numbers will vary slightly, but not a great deal.)
(For what it’s worth, I’d suggest Abrams should directly critique the underpinnings of the state’s much-vaunted claim to being the No. 1 state in which to do business, but I’ll save that for another post.)
It’s also worth noting, as I suggested above, that rural Georgia is overwhelmingly Republican. Those 105 counties combined gave Kemp 71 percent of their vote to 28 percent for Abrams in the 2018 governor’s race, and things haven’t changed much since then. They went 70% for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
On the basis of those numbers alone, Abrams could be forgiven if she didn’t bother campaigning or investing campaign resources outside metro Atlanta and other Democratic strongholds around the state. Every minute or dollar she spends trying to win a new vote in, say, Glascock County is a minute or dollar she won’t have to turn out a sure vote in metro Atlanta.
But she is at least making a show of going after rural Georgia’s votes. She actually kicked off her campaign in Cuthbert, Ga. I’ve been to Cuthbert. It’s not easy to get there. One route suggested by Google Maps is to cross over into Alabama, drive south to Eufaula, and turn left.
Further, she has branded her campaign “One Georgia” and regularly peppers her public remarks with references to rural Georgia. Her campaign website includes a decent section on “Rural Revitalization” that spells out pledges to expand Medicaid (which Kemp and his Republican predecessor, Nathan Deal, have refused to do, despite polls showing broad public support for it), invest in rural broadband and overhaul rural education funding formulas.
Still, it has to be said that her bet on rural Georgia is a long shot and that Kemp goes into the campaign as a prohibitive favorite. I could find no comparable language on rural policy on his campaign website, but his administration’s recent economic development wins (Rivian, Aspen Aerogels, and now Hyundai) may be a more than sufficient response. Kemp also begins the General Election campaign as a political giant-killer. He beat Perdue by a stunning 52 percentage points and knee-capped Donald J. Trump in the process, perhaps crippling him not just in Georgia but nationally.
But even if Abrams fails to cut into the GOP’s rural stronghold and comes up short again, she appears certain to force a long-overdue political discussion about the trouble in God’s country – and that will be no small public service.
*Georgia counties with populations of fewer than 35,000 people: Appling Atkinson Bacon Baker Banks Ben Hill Berrien Bleckley Brantley Brooks Burke Butts Calhoun Candler Charlton Chattahoochee Chattooga Clay Clinch Cook Crawford Crisp Dade Dawson Decatur Dodge Dooly Early Echols Elbert Emanuel Evans Fannin Franklin Gilmer Glascock Grady Greene Hancock Haralson Hart Heard Irwin Jasper Jeff Davis Jefferson Jenkins Johnson Jones Lamar Lanier Lee Lincoln Long Lumpkin Macon Madison Marion McDuffie McIntosh Meriwether Miller Mitchell Monroe Montgomery Morgan Oglethorpe Peach Pickens Pierce Pike Pulaski Putnam Quitman Rabun Randolph Schley Screven Seminole Stephens Stewart Sumter Talbot Taliaferro Tattnall Taylor Telfair Terrell Toombs Towns Treutlen Turner Twiggs Union Upson Warren Washington Wayne Webster Wheeler White Wilcox Wilkes Wilkinson Worth
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