EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is republished from the blog “Trouble in God’s Country” by Charles Hayslett. Hayslett is a former journalist and public relations professional whose blog focuses on how politics affects health, education, and economics in rural Georgia.
Two years ago, the main political story out of the Georgia governor’s race was that rural Georgia and the Atlanta exurbs barely hung on and dragged Republican Brian Kemp across the finish line and into the governor’s office. The 130 largely rural and sparsely populated counties that Republican Governor Brian Kemp carried turned out at a slightly higher rate than the 29 largely urban counties won by Democrat candidate Stacey Abrams.
The story out of the 2020 party primaries appears to be that demography is finally having its way with the state. This year has long been forecast as the year when the state’s politics would finally tip back in the Democrats’ favor, and it’s looking like those forecasts might well be correct. A strong blue tide washed over most of the state in the June 9 primaries, basically flipping the fast-growing ’burbs in the northern Atlanta metro area and cutting into Republican margins in most rural counties.
For this analysis, I’ve focused primarily on a comparison between this year’s U.S. Senate primaries and the 2014 primaries for the same seat. That year, longtime incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss was retiring, and both parties had competitive primaries, especially the Republicans. Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, won the Democratic nomination without much difficulty. The GOP chose David Perdue, a cousin of former Governor Sonny Perdue, after a seven-candidate free-for-all and a run-off with then-U.S. Representative Jack Kingston. Perdue went on to defeat Nunn and is now running for re-election to a second term.
In that 2014 Senate primary, Republicans cast nearly twice as many votes as Democrats: 605,355 to 328,710. Two weeks ago, the Senate primary turnout more than doubled its 2014 total – to more than 2.1 million votes – and the Democratic field outpolled Perdue, who was unopposed for nomination to another term, by nearly 200,000 votes: 1,179,198 for the Democrats to 984,274 for Perdue. Overall the state flipped from about 65%-to-35% Republican in 2014 to nearly 55%-to-45% Democrat this year.
If the topline numbers are eye-catching, some of the subplots are downright jaw-dropping. Perhaps most startling, the GOP stronghold across the north Atlanta suburbs and exurbs seems to be collapsing. Cobb and Gwinnett counties were long regarded as critical fortresses in the Republican Party’s grip on power in the state. Both flipped narrowly for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race, then stuck with Democrat Abrams over Republican Kemp in the 2018 governor’s race.
But if those 2016 and 2018 suburban numbers hit hard at GOP HQ, the 2020 results probably felt like a lethal dose of Covid-19 – and it wasn’t just Cobb and Gwinnett counties. Cherokee and Forsyth counties, which sit between Cobb and Gwinnett and are fast-growing, affluent exurbs, came in a lot less red this time around. In the 2014 Senate primaries, both Cherokee and Forsyth delivered more than 10 Republican votes for every Democratic ballot; this year, the margin was just a little over 2 to 1.
Overall, those four counties went from being an 80-20 Republican stronghold in 2014 to 56-44 Democratic territory this year, as this table details.
|County||2014 Republican Senate Percentage||2014 Democratic Senate Percentage||2020 Republican Senate Percentage||2020 Democratic Senate Percentage||Party Shift (R-to-D)|
As a whole, the state has shifted 19.3 percentage points in the Democratic Party’s direction since the 2014 Senate primaries. Not surprisingly, metro Atlanta has led that shift. In 2014, the 12-county metro Atlanta region cast 43.7 percent of the state’s votes in the Senate primary and gave the GOP a 58%-to-42% advantage. This year those same 12 counties accounted for 49.8 percent of the total vote and gave the Democrats a 70%-to-30% advantage.
Forty-two of the state’s 159 counties did tilt toward the GOP in 2020, and those counties delivered 55,669 more Republican ballots than in 2014. (The red map at the top of the page shows these 42 counties). But 116 counties (shown in the blue map above) leaned more blue in 2020, and they delivered the Democrats a combined total of 835,332 more votes than in 2014. Four counties – – Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb – each provided more additional votes to the Democrats than the other 42 counties combined did for Republicans.
Indeed, mapping the party shift data suggests that Republicans are being driven largely south and east across the state, perhaps into the Okefenokee Swamp (if not the Atlantic Ocean) and possibly across the state line into Florida.
The two counties that posted the biggest Democrat-to-Republican shifts over the past six years are Atkinson and Clinch, adjoining counties in deep southeast Georgia. Both cast more Democratic ballots in the 2014 Senate primaries but have flipped hard Republican since then; Atkinson has shifted 67.4 percentage points to the GOP over the past six years, Clinch, 43.1 points. Together, however, they contributed fewer than 2,700 votes to the Republican cause.
If Georgia as a whole is now more competitive than it has been in a couple of decades, that’s no longer true of the vast majority of its individual counties. In 97 counties, at least 70 percent of voters cast their ballots for one party or the other.
Only eight counties were decided within the truly competitive range of 55%-to-45%. Thomas, Mitchell, Meriwether, Houston, Lowndes, Telfair and Early counties tilted narrowly to the GOP (Early by a single vote, 1,417-to-1,416), while Fayette, long considered safe GOP territory, turned a pale shade of blue. The largest of these may well become battleground counties in the fall campaigns.
At the extremes, Democrats need not bother venturing into such rural climes as Glascock, Echols, Berrien and Pierce, which, among others, gave more than 90 percent of their ballots to the Republican Party.
As one measure of just how red rural Georgia has become, Dodge and Haralson counties, the homes of the last two Democratic speakers of the Georgia House of Representatives, Terry Coleman and Tom Murphy, both champions of rural causes, gave 86 and 90.2 percent, respectively, of their votes to Republicans this time around.
By the same token, Perdue and other Republicans probably have little to gain by spending time or money in Clayton County (91 percent Democrat) or DeKalb (89.8 percent). For the uninitiated, Clayton and DeKalb are a good bit bigger than all the high-percentage GOP counties combined.
Bottom line, if there is little obvious good news in these numbers for Georgia Republicans or rural Georgia, they should not be read as the basis for a sure bet that the state will flip this year.
GOP turnout was arguably depressed by the fact that both their Senate and presidential primaries were uncontested, and their voters had less reason to turn out, especially in the midst of a pandemic. What’s more, Democratic Senate nominee Jon Ossoff will have his work cut out for him. Prodigious fundraiser that he is, he barely avoided a runoff and will have to consolidate the support of his six Democratic primary opponents.
The one good bet for the fall is that it will be a turnout election. With a few exceptions, neither Perdue nor Ossoff will have much incentive to spend time or money trying to convert voters in their opponent’s territory. Instead, they’re likely to put their effort into activating their geographic bases, which is virtually certain to deepen Georgia’s political divide even further. That, in turn, will only complicate efforts to create a policy construct needed to address the challenges facing rural Georgia.