The Countdown Begins

Politics

There's been a major political realignment in Georgia over the past 15 years as we finally became a two-party state.



For more than a century, the state was ruled by a Democratic Party made up of two mini-parties: white conservatives from the rural counties and an urban group of African-Americans and white liberals. There were tensions between the two factions but in the absence of a credible Republican alternative, they could generally keep the coalition together. Georgia voters largely preferred Republican candidates in federal elections but were content to keep electing Democrats at the local level.



That dynamic changed as the GOP slowly gathered strength in the 1990s, and you could see more of the rural conservatives changing their preference from Democrat to Republican at all levels. This realignment accelerated in 2002 when Sonny Perdue upset Roy Barnes in the governor's race, and the process was largely completed when federal judges tossed out the Democrat-designed legislative election districts in 2004.



Thus we have seen a huge Republican wave flooding out Democrats in rural areas and building on its existing strength in suburban and exurban counties around Atlanta. The GOP now controls the governor's office and the legislature and one day will likely have most of the judgeships as well.



How long this new alignment will hold is the compelling question in state politics. In recent election cycles, Republicans have achieved dominance because they have done a much better job of organizing, raising money and recruiting good candidates. The Democratic Party, by contrast, appears all but brain dead in the face of the GOP onslaught. Small wonder that some Republicans confidently predict they will be in charge for a long, long time.



But will they? The next big wave in Georgia politics will come sweeping out of the Latino community, the fastest-growing segment of the state's population. Many Hispanics are U.S. citizens, but increasing numbers of them are undocumented immigrants drawn here by a labor market that needed lots of workers for the construction, food service and carpet industries.



The growth of Latinos, both in raw numbers and in registered voters, is nothing short of astounding. The 2000 census counted 435,227 Hispanics, who made up 5.3 percent of the state's total population. By July 1, 2004, official population estimates had Hispanics increasing to just below 600,000, or 6.7 percent of the total population. Where Georgia's population as a whole increased by 7.8 percent in that period, Latino numbers grew by 37.4 percent.


Those "official" numbers don't include many Latinos who aren't legal residents. Some demographic experts put the real number at more than 1 million, making up as much as 12 to 14 percent of the state's population.



A smaller percentage of Latinos are registered to vote, but even so the growth rate is stunning. In January 2001 the official number of registered voters who identified themselves as Hispanic was 1,100. By August of this year that total had increased more than 36-fold to 39,941.



Georgia's burgeoning Latino bloc is up for grabs and this is a group that would appear to be a good fit for the Republican Party: They tend to be more religious and more socially conservative; a lot of immigrants also come here with the ambition to start their own small business.



Republicans, however, have been doing anything but making Latinos feel welcome. The GOP leadership in the legislature is pushing bills that would deny government services to persons who can't prove they are legal residents. Republicans passed the new law to require photo IDs for voters in part to hold down Hispanic turnout. Immigrant-bashing is expected to be a major Republican tactic in next year's elections.



"I'm concerned that we're alienating this giant block of future voters," said a prominent Republican figure.



That leaves the Democrats, who normally would be expected to go after a segment of the populace that has been spurned by Republicans and has tended to vote Democratic in recent elections. This party is so demoralized and bereft of resources, however, that it's hard to see how it could take advantage of the opening. If Democrats ever wake up from their long sleep, they may be able to ride this new wave to some interesting destinations.



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