Georgia’s Tilt Toward Blue an Ominous Specter for GOP Heading into Election

October 24, 2020 by Dan McCue
A Town square in Rural Georgia. (Photo by Dan McCue)

President Donald Trump was in his element. Standing before more than 1,000 supporters who had jammed a large hanger facility at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, Ga., he promised a “red wave” would crush Democrats in November.

He had not a moment of doubt, he said, that Georgia would remain defiantly on the Republican side of the ledger when the dust settled — no matter how the “left-wing corrupt media” tried to convince people otherwise.

But Trump’s presence in Georgia, mere days before the November 2020 election signals just how concerned the GOP is about the state.

As Democrats continue to consolidate support in Atlanta’s vote-rich suburbs, Republicans have been digging deeper and deeper into the state’s more rural communities, trying to wring every vote they can out of them to offset the loss of support in suburbia.

That they’ve done it before gives some Republicans in the state a measure of relief — after all they say, Democrat Stacy Abrams dominated the suburbs in 2018, but Republican Brian Kemp was still able to narrowly win the governorship by capturing roughly 90% of rural Georgia.

At the same time, the attention the Trump campaign is paying to the state is a testament to the fact this is not a formula for long-term success for the party in The Peachtree State.

“There is an argument to be made that 2020 could see a repeat of what happened in the gubernatorial race of 2018,” said Charles Bullock, III, distinguished professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia.

“If you are in an urban area — actually in Atlanta, for instance — you’re probably in a Democratic area,” he said. “But once you get out into the outer suburbs, and certainly into the countryside — unless you’re down in one of the old ‘Black Belt’ counties, you’re in a heavily Republican area.’

The Black Belt Bullock referred to is part of a region stretching across the Deep South, where formerly enslaved Blacks settled in the late 19th century.

The region, roughly akin to other geopolitical designations, like the “rust belt,” “sun belt” or “Bible belt,” cuts through the center of Georgia, on a diagonal.

Bullock noted that as he spoke, he was speaking from a county in northeast Georgia, far from the heart of the Black Belt, but certainly rural.

“I’d say this county is at least 80% for Trump, and among White males here, they are probably 90% for Trump,” he said. “So you look at these things and think, okay, it’s setting up to look a lot like 2018. The real issue then becomes which group and which region, votes the most,” he said.

“Now, just by virtue of his being on the ballot, you’d expect this election to bring out more Trump supporters than came out in 2018. At the same time, however, Democrats usually do far better, turnout wise, in a presidential year,” Bullock continued.

“That, coupled with having a Black candidate, Raphael Warnock, leading the pack in the jungle primary for the short-term Senate seat, could come together and tilt the state to the Democratic side,” he said.

The jungle primary is the special U.S. Senate election in November that will fill the final two years of retired Sen. Johnny Isakson. It’s called a jungle primary because all of the candidates appear on the same ballot. There are no partisan Republican and Democratic primaries.

As it stands now, Warnock, the Democrat in the race, holds a significant lead in recent polls to the incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler, and Rep. Doug Collins, both Republicans.

While he doesn’t have the 50% of votes plus one that will allow him to avoid a runoff election, Warnock currently stands at about 40% in opinion polls conducted through the middle of September, compared to 22% for Collins and roughly 20% for Loeffler.

“It would be surprising if Warnock won the seat outright. Very surprising. In fact, if you’re a staunch Republican, you might have a heart attack. That’s because the last time a non-incumbent Democrat won statewide was 22 years ago,” Bullock said.

“In fact, there are a lot of voters in Georgia, at least in terms of statewide office, who haven’t known anything but Republican success,” he said.

Toss-Up State in Name Only

Carl D. Cavalli, professor of Political Science at The University of North Georgia, said for many years, perhaps more than a decade based on Gallup surveys and the like, party identification has been nearly evenly split in the state of Georgia.

About half of Georgians identified as Republicans, half as Democrats, “and what difference there was between them was within about five percentage points,” he said.

“That’s why Georgia has, time and again, been listed as a toss-up state, despite the fact Republicans have won statewide election after statewide election after statewide election,” Cavalli continued. “And that, of course, is largely due to population distribution.

“Democrats have tended to be crowded into urban areas, and so there are a lot of ‘wasted’ votes in Democratic areas, and so the relative balance that exists hasn’t played out on the local level in terms of electoral victories.”

Of course, the population distribution Cavalli was speaking of is at the very heart of the gerrymandering controversies that have erupted in a number of states in recent years.

But the professor went on to note the Republican party in Georgia has been much better organized than its Democratic counterpart — at least until recently.

“The analogy I use is that we’re 10 years behind Virginia,” he said. “Over time, subtle changes have occurred — and are continuing to occur that are making what was once a reliable Republican state a reliable Democratic state.

“Now, I’m not saying Georgia will necessarily become a reliably Democratic state by any means, but it has become a topic of conversation where once, even four years ago, the state was considered to be pretty solidly Republican,” Cavalli said.

Tipping Point for Democrats

Rather than declaring Georgia blue or even purple, Cavalli said “we may be reaching a sort of tipping point.”

“Again, very much like Virginia did a decade ago,” he said. “We may be reaching a tipping point where Democrats will once again become competitive, and not just statewide, but in many areas of the state where they haven’t done well in the past.

“And I think this is especially true in places where the Democratic suburbs are expanding out into what were once more rural areas,” he added.

Cavalli said that trend has manifested itself in polls, particularly those that have shown Joe Biden ahead in the state.

“I, personally, would not say Biden’s clearly in the lead because everything I’ve seen in regard to the polls is within the margins of error. So I would not trust that. In fact, I am actually predicting that Trump will win the state,” he said.

“But that aside, I think it’s going to be very close, and that’s the story. What once should have been a blowout for any Republican is now a narrow, narrow contest … a toss up … between the two parties,” he continued.

“I think on Election Night we will see something very much like the governor’s race two years ago, with maybe even a narrower margin of victory — and maybe Biden will win. I’m certainly not ruling it out,” he said.

Asked how Trump could thread the needle and secure a victory, Cavalli said he believes it will come down simply to the Republicans having a better organization statewide than the Democrats in the closing weeks of the election.

“I think that’s what will help put them over the top, and I think that will impact a lot of races lower down the ticket, because one thing we don’t see as much as we used to is voters casting a split-ballot. If they vote for Trump, it’s likely they’ll vote Republican down the line.”

Congressional Questions

When it comes to the state’s congressional races, Bullock predicted incumbent Democrat Lucy McBath will win hers in the 6th Congressional District.

McBath, who became a gun control advocate after her son was fatally shot, narrowly edged out Karen Handel for a seat held by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Johnny Isakson before he became a U.S. senator, and Tom Price before he became U.S. Health and Human Services secretary.

This year’s race is a rematch between McBath and Handel, who is hoping Republicans will mobilize in the district. But Bullock said McBath’s 2018 success really was about the growth of the suburbs as a Democratic stronghold, “and this year, she’s also strongly ahead in fundraising.”

The other race that has caught Bullock’s attention this year is in the 7th Congressional District, where five-term incumbent Rob Woodall is retiring, and Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, who lost to Woodall by only 419 votes last time, is currently leading the pack.

“Woodall was significantly spooked by the outcome last time, to sit out a bid to a new term,” Bullock said.

The district, one of the most diverse in the entire country, that takes in about half Gwinnett County, while the rest is in more rural — and red — Forsyth County.

“So that race is going to come down to which of these counties votes more,” Bullock said.

Coronavirus Response is Key

The question then may come down to how voters in those respective areas feel about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, Bullock said.

As in many other battleground states, Georgia has seen a surge in both new voter registrations — which tend to be younger voters and historically good for Democrats — and mail-in voting, which members of the party also prefer, as compared to Republicans.

Bullock said while younger voters appear to feel motivated this year, older voters who supported Trump in the past may be less inclined to do so because of how he handled the pandemic initially and because it seems to be getting worse again.

And the virus itself is tied to another issue older voters tend to worry about – the economy.

“The argument that Republicans are trying to make directly to these voters is that the economy in the first three years of the Trump administration was great, and that if not for the virus it would still be great, and it’s going to be coming back some,” Bullock said.

“If they can convince this older block of voters that the economy is going to come back, at least some, once the pandemic is over, they might stick with him, but it’s hard to see that argument generating the level of enthusiasm the GOP might need to win this time around,” he said.

He noted that uncertainty abounds in Republican races in Georgia this year — and pointed to the state’s other U.S. Senate contest, between incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff.

Polls have shown the contest a dead heat for weeks. This is particularly noteworthy in the context of history. In five of the six Senate elections held in Georgia since 2000, the Republican has won comfortably with margins of victory ranging from a low of 53% to a high of 58%.

And what happened in that sixth contest?

The Republican won, but had to get through a runoff election to secure a final victory.

A sure sign of just how much the outcome of the Perdue/Ossoff is in doubt is how much money the candidates and the national super PACS that support them are spending on advertising in the state.

“Money is being poured into Georgia because it could go either way,” Bullock said. “From what I’ve heard, they’ll have spent into the nine figures before this is said and done.”

And yet, he hedges when asked if this is finally the year Georgia turns blue, maybe for good.

“A while ago I did a ranking of where the various southern states stand in terms of a Democratic renaissance, and Georgia has come quite far along that path, though not as far as, say, Virginia,” he said.

“At the moment, I’d say Virginia is already blue; Florida, probably could go blue, then North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas would be sixth, in my mind,” he said.

The mention of South Carolina brought to mind the hotly contested Senate race there between incumbent Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Jaime Harrison.

Bullock predicted Graham will win, precisely because the state hasn’t come as far as Georgia in terms of evolving to blue.

“I’ll offer this comparison, which tells you something about the direction Georgia is headed in and how it compares to a neighboring state,” Bullock said. “In 2018, both Georgia and South Carolina saw one congressional district flip, from Republican to Democrat.

“But at the same time, the Democrats in South Carolina picked up, I think, one seat in the state Senate,” he said. “Well in Georgia, the Democrats picked up 14 state House seats and two state Senate seats.

“At the same time, the gubernatorial race between Kemp and Abrams was incredibly close, while in South Carolina, the governor was handily re-elected,” he said. “And that, again, shows you why the Republicans are so worried about Georgia this time around.”

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