At Issue: What Lies Ahead?
The Georgia Republican Party’s majority in the state legislature is very much tied to its ability to hold onto a critical mass of suburban Atlanta votes in this November’s election. By that, I mean holding onto enough seats in the General Assembly to maintain a majority for another two years.
The 2020 elections are crucial, in part because the once-a-decade legislative redistricting process will begin next year, which in turn will influence the competitiveness and the makeup of the state legislature for the next decade.
The decades-old urban-rural partisan divide in the U.S., in which cities tend to vote Democrat and rural areas and small towns vote Republican, is a trend that’s holding steady for the most part. But over the last 10 years, as American suburbs have become more diverse and transient, suburban areas that were once Republican strongholds have given way to a more even split between the parties, or in some cases have tilted toward the Democratic Party.
This new reality was first felt in Georgia in the 2016 presidential election, in which Hillary Clinton carried most suburban Atlanta counties, including Cobb and Gwinnett. The trend accelerated in 2018 as Stacey Abrams easily carried most Metro Atlanta counties with the exceptions of Cherokee, Hall and Forsyth.
The Democrats’ 2018 showing in Metro Atlanta was aided by the Democratic Party and the national media’s anti-Trump movement, and by the normal tendency for the president’s party to lose ground in midterm elections. It’s also true that Georgia Democrats managed to flip 11 seats in the State House from red to blue, cutting the Republicans’ advantage in that chamber from 116-64 to 105-75.
Another byproduct of the growing Democratic Party strength in the suburbs was the 2018 victory of Lucy McBath in the 6th Congressional District and the close finish in the 7th Congressional District race – Republican incumbent Rob Woodall narrowly beat Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux that year. This “blue wave” can also be seen in a number of county and municipal offices that have been captured by Democratic candidates in the last eight years.
But it’s the state legislature that holds the key to the fortunes of Democrats and Republicans for the foreseeable future. Fortunately for the GOP, Brian Kemp won the governor’s office in 2018, maintaining Republican control of the most powerful job in the state. Now Republicans will try to hold onto the State House this November. Democrats would have to flip 15 seats in the Georgia House to take control. It’s doable, but difficult.
The good news for Republicans is that it is a presidential election year, and Donald Trump will be on the ballot. If President Trump carries the state, as is expected, that voter turnout will likely enable other Republican candidates to do well in most of their races. In that scenario, it’s very difficult to see the Democrats winning control of the State House this election year. But even so, the GOP has to do a better job of appealing to and turning out voters in key suburban counties, or the elections of 2022, in which Donald Trump will not be on the ballot, could prove to be a very different story.
All of this helps to explain the emergence of Kelly Loeffler, appointed by Gov. Kemp to fill the unexpired term of retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. Studies of voting patterns in Cobb, Gwinnett, Fulton and Forsyth counties, as well as public opinion surveys, strongly suggest that the main problem Republicans are having in Metro Atlanta, as well as in metropolitan areas around the state, is female voters.
For many reasons, including anti-Trump attitudes, the impact of social issues and new voters from blue states, the loss of female votes has contributed mightily to the swing toward Democrats in Atlanta’s suburbs. Republicans must respond to at least slow that trend. The GOP doesn’t have to win the female vote outright in most counties to be competitive, but they do have to win enough to get their candidates over the 50 percent hurdle.
One thing that would help is more female candidates in the GOP. Which brings us back to Loeffler. It’s not hard to understand the governor’s reasoning. It’s a move for the long term, specifically 2022, when Kemp himself will be on the ballot, along with all of the Republican candidates for the state legislature.
But Republicans will have to compete for female votes in other ways, too, through engaging directly on the issues, being responsive to input and recruiting female candidates in competitive districts. With the suburbs up for grabs, every election from now on will be a precinct-by-precinct fight.