The Last Of A Dying Breed

If you have the opportunity between now and election day, you should try to attend a speech or political event hosted by Gov. Sonny Perdue or Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor. You’ll be seeing a bit of political history not likely to be repeated in our lifetimes.

That’s because Perdue and Taylor are probably the last gubernatorial candidates who will come from towns in rural areas south of the gnat line. They are the last of a dying breed in Georgia politics.

This trend is a reflection of the state’s changing demographics and political realignment. Georgia’s rural counties, once reliably Democratic, have been slowly turning Republican, which is why you see legislators such as Butch Parrish, Richard Royal and Tom McCall switching from the Democrats to the GOP.

Perdue won his upset victory over Roy Barnes in 2002 because in rural country after rural county, white voters outraged by Barnes’ actions on the state flag or some other touchy issue stormed to the polls and voted for Perdue. Not long ago, those same voters would have been happy to vote for a Democrat for governor. No more.

Republicans are becoming the dominant party in rural Georgia, however, at exactly the time when rural counties are losing their clout in state politics. Rural residents make up a smaller percentage of the statewide vote in every election cycle and will continue to do so as Metro Atlanta keeps adding new citizens.

Metro Atlanta is now the 800-pound gorilla in state politics, as you see from the returns in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Taylor received nearly 46 percent of his total votes from just 10 counties in Metro Atlanta (Secretary of State Cathy Cox got the same percentage of her votes from those same counties).

The trend holds true for Republicans as well. In the GOP primary for lieutenant governor, Casey Cagle got nearly 49 percent of his votes from 10 counties in Metro Atlanta as he trounced Ralph Reed.

Oddly enough, Perdue and his GOP allies accelerated this decline of rural political power when they filed and won the Larios lawsuit that resulted in federal judges redrawing the lines of legislative districts in 2004.

Democrats had traditionally drawn these districts with wide population variances so that rural districts with smaller populations would have more representation in the Legislature than their populations justified – while suburban districts were overpopulated and thus represented by fewer legislators than they were entitled to. When the judges drew the boundaries in the Larios lawsuit they did away with these deviations, which resulted in a shift of legislative seats (and political clout) from rural to suburban areas.

Rural voters, in other words, have been done in by members of the very party that they now support – surely one of the bitterest ironies of Georgia politics.

Little wonder, then, that a Democratic Party strategist said recently, “Our future is in the suburbs.” Democrats and Republicans from now on will be fighting for votes in counties surrounding Atlanta, because that is where the balance of political power resides. If your political base is in the rural counties, as was the case with Perdue in 2002, it’s a rapidly diminishing power source.

This also means that, after this election cycle, statewide candidates will be more likely to come from Metro Atlanta. Look at the race to succeed Perdue on the Republican ticket in 2010 – the leading candidates will be Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, House Speaker Glenn Richardson, and the person expected to be the next lieutenant governor, Casey Cagle. Each of them is from Metro Atlanta.

The days are gone when a candidate for governor would kick off his campaign by holding a barbecue in Alapaha. Now, you launch a campaign with a major media buy in the Atlanta market.

Just as with campaign tactics, that same kind of rural to urban shift will happen with statewide candidates. I don’t think you’ll see people from small towns elected to Georgia’s highest office anymore. The next few governors, I suspect, will come from a Metro Atlanta county.

That’s why, whether you cast your ballot for Perdue or Taylor on election day, you will be helping to put the finishing touches on the end of a long political era in Georgia.

Tom Crawford, editor of the news service, covers politics for Georgia Trend.

Categories: Political Notes