Georgia's political reality far more complex than abrupt 2020 flip to blue

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The popular political narrative these days tells of Georgia gradually flipping toward the Democrats, but it’s more accurate to say Georgia is returning to normal.

The GOP has ruled Georgia for less than 20 years. An upset in 2002 gave the state its first Republican governor in 130 years, and the GOP majority in the state’s legislature did not emerge until 2005.

Republicans fared better in presidential elections, carrying Georgia each time since 1996 before President-elect Joseph R. Biden broke the GOP’s winning streak in November.

Now, with both of Georgia’s Senate seats headed to a Jan. 5 runoff, Democratic victories might not be such a shocker.

“That thesis is correct,” said Roy Barnes, an attorney who was the last Democratic governor of Georgia. “Georgia is not a monolithic state. The idea that all of a sudden it’s turned around, that’s just not true.”

Each party has drifted too far toward the extremes, says Mr. Barnes, although he thinks the extent to which the candidates in Georgia’s runoffs are portrayed as extremists has reached caricature proportions.

In recent history, Georgia Democrats like Mr. Barnes and former Sen. Sam Nunn enjoyed good relationships with such Republican lawmakers as retired Sen. Johnny Isakson, former Gov. Nathan Deal and the late Sen. Paul Coverdell.

Those kinds of relationships no longer exist in the political dogfight between Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue and their respective Democratic challengers, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

Should either Ms. Loeffler or Mr. Perdue win their runoffs, Republicans would maintain a razor-thin majority in the Senate. But while victories by Mr. Warnock and Mr. Ossoff could have major repercussions in Washington, they would not signal a radical shift in Georgia.

“The Democrats held on for longer in Georgia than they did in other Southern states,” said Jeffrey Lazarus, a political science professor at Georgia State University. “The timing played out a bit differently here.”

A larger part of the narrative is true, according to Mr. Lazarus and other professors. Namely, they say that the Deep South drifted toward the GOP in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act and other legislation passed in the mid-1960s.

But Georgia Democrats were always of a more moderate, centrist ilk, similar to another Southern son, Bill Clinton of Arkansas. A coalition of urban Black and rural White voters supported that sort of politics, according to Mr. Barnes.

The Atlanta coalition now includes many White people from the city’s suburban counties, which previously had been a thing apart from Atlanta and strongly Republican, said former Democratic adviser Pope McCorkle, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

“You were either from Atlanta or you weren’t,” Mr. McCorkle said. “So that kind of [slowed down] the Atlanta coalition’s rise.”

In neighboring North Carolina, the Democratic base lacked a “Democratic kicker” of a major city, which helped Republicans take hold there based on the strength of the rural vote, said Mr. McCorkle.

Similar geography also helped Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi.

“I thought North Carolina would go [Democratic] before Georgia, but it didn’t,” said Ron Faucheux, a former elected official in Louisiana who is now a political analyst in Washington. “Georgia has always been eclectic; Florida, too.”

Like many others, Mr. Faucheux warned it is too early to slot Georgia solidly in the Democratic camp. Should Ms. Loeffler and Mr. Perdue hang on to their seats, Republicans would have taken three statewide races in the last two years.

Democrats hung on to the levers of power in Georgia in part because “the shift of White Democrats to the GOP didn’t happen overnight,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University.

What’s more, Georgia elections have traditionally been closely contested affairs.

“What you are noticing is the period in the 1980s and 1990s where Senate races that didn’t involve Sam Nunn were highly contested, with close margins and no clear partisan advantage,” Ms. Gillespie said. “That’s because the realignment of White voters was under way. By the time the realignment finished in the 2000s, Republican margins solidified.”

The results of the last two elections, however, showed that the Republican advantage was never very solid in Georgia. The new Democratic coalition quickly coalesced in the state.

“The Democratic coalition we see in Cobb, Gwinnett, or DeKalb counties has fully matured, and it is putting us back the way we were,” Mr. Barnes said.

Georgia has a high percentage of Black voters (32.6%) and that populace is surging, signaling what could become a decisive Democratic edge.

“Between 2000 and 2019, Georgia’s eligible voter population grew by 1.9 million, with nearly half of this increase attributed to growth in the state’s Black voting population,” according to a recent Pew Research Center report.

That slice of the electorate is putting Democrats back on top after a brief Republican rise.

“Georgia Democrats have become more competitive because the nonwhite electorate has grown, and the party has made a concerted effort to register and turn out likely Democratic voters who are mostly, but not exclusively, of color,” Ms. Gillespie said.

The biggest questions heading into the January runoffs will be whether that coalition turns out in force.

Neither Mr. Ossoff nor Mr. Warnock has answered questions about whether they want to pack the Supreme Court or increase the number of states that comprise the Union. On the other side, Mr. Perdue and Ms. Loeffler have tried to balance support for other Georgia Republicans with accusations by President Trump that Georgia’s election was crooked.

“Both parties have taken some crazy positions, and there is a big center in Georgia crying out for representation that nobody is giving them,” Mr. Barnes said.

Historically, turnout in runoffs is lower than that in a general election, and November’s election shattered turnout records in Georgia and elsewhere.

The Democrats who until recently ruled Georgia will need the party’s new coalition — the one largely focused around Atlanta and its suburbs — to triumph.

“It is reverting in terms of partisan terms, and now you’re seeing the Atlanta coalition be the dominant one,” Mr. McCorkle said. “It’s when there is less than extraordinary turnout, that’s where you see Republican victories and runoffs have always been a chore for Democrats.”

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