Skip to content

Births in Georgia took big drop in 2020, now back at 1998 level

Births in Georgia last year suffered their biggest drop in a decade, falling 3,871, or 3.1 percent, compared to 2019, according to new data published last week by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH). The drop puts the number of births in Georgia back at 1998 levels.

While the Covid-19 pandemic almost certainly deserves some of the blame for the decline, it seems difficult to pin the entire drop-off on the plague, for a couple of reasons. One is timing. The potential impact of the virus didn’t become apparent here until February and March of last year. If Georgians began making Covid-based decisions to put off having children, the effect of those delays wouldn’t have shown up until later in the year. The public DPH database includes breakdowns by county and other factors, but not by month.

A second reason that the coronavirus is probably not entirely to blame for the drop-off is that it represents something of a continuation of a pattern that had been taking shape for more than a decade. After years of relatively steady growth, the state suffered a big reversal in the number of births in the wake of the Great Recession. Starting in 2008, Georgia began a run of six straight years of falling births. It looked like a turnaround might have been taking shape around 2014, but it sputtered pretty quickly, as this chart shows.

Births in Georgia peaked in 2007 at 150,804 before beginning the post-recession collapse. The 2020 number is 28,425 births below the 2007 peak and a near-perfect match for the state’s 1998 totals.

In 2020, 112 of the state’s 159 counties reported fewer births than in 2019. In 2019, 75 counties reported fewer births than the in 2018.

DPH is expected to report county-by-county deaths for 2020 within the next few weeks. Given the death toll taken by Covid-19 last year, those numbers in combination with the drop in births virtually guarantees that the state will see another increase in the number of counties reporting more deaths than births.

TIGC was the first to report this trend several years ago. In 2019, 78 of the state’s 159 counties reported more deaths than births, down one from 79 in 2018. This chart shows the stair-step pattern that began developing in the wake of the Great Recession.

Generally, the drop in births took place across the state and was not concentrated in, for instance, rural Georgia. This table shows regional numbers over the past five years.

Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021 (c)

Global and national trends mirroring developments in God’s Country

Couple of stories bubbled up in the national media this weekend that echo trends we’ve covered here at Trouble in God’s Country.

First, The New York Times leads today’s edition with the best piece I’ve seen yet on the global fertility bust.

About five years ago I began to pick up on the fact that a steadily increasing number of Georgia counties were reporting more deaths than births. As the chart below shows, the number of counties reporting more deaths than births began to tick up around 2010 and has now risen pretty steadily through 2019, the latest year for which county-level birth and death data is available. All but a handful of these counties have been rural.

(The Georgia Department of Public Health should report 2020 data over the next month or so.)

At the time, my focus was exclusively on Georgia and I didn’t know what was driving the change. Not long after first noticing that trend, though, I began to see it as part of a larger pattern of adverse economic, education, and population health trends that were slamming rural Georgia. Given the timing, my conclusion has been that these were trends were “aftershocks” from the Great Recession that hit in 2008 and ’09.

I still think that’s the case, but I’m not sure it explains the global nature of the baby bust. The Times piece suggests, without going into any detail, that the global phenomenon is also largely rural, but it doesn’t take much of a stab at possible causes.

It also suggests that Africa has probably the world’s highest fertility rate, which mirrors another of my TIGC findings: that the pattern of more deaths than births here in Georgia is largely among whites. I touched on this toward the bottom of the last piece I wrote about this: “While 78 counties recorded more overall deaths than births, 103 counties reported more White deaths than White births; only 48 counties reported more Black deaths than Black births.”

I’ve been meaning to loop back to that data point but never have; this gives me another reason to revisit the subject.

The other story that caught my eye this weekend was also in the Times — this report on a movement by a handful of counties in rural eastern Oregon to secede from Oregon and join Idaho.

This mirrors periodic grumbling from south of the gnat line here in Georgia. The most recent instance I’m aware of was a ballot question put to Pierce County Republicans in 2018. It asked whether the hundred-plus “counties South of Macon (should) join together to form the 51st state of South Georgia.” In a stunning display of good sense, Pierce County Republicans rejected that idea by better than two-to-one.

In most respects, the Oregon story is just another example of the urban-rural divide in American politics. It’s similar to the Georgia situation in that Oregon has one overwhelmingly dominant urban area — Portland — whose growth and economic prosperity is outstripping the rest of the state. It’s different, however, in that Portland already dominates the state’s politics, whereas, here in Georgia, Metro Atlanta is just on the cusp of doing so.

In Oregon, rural conservatives are yowling about the liberal policies coming out of Portland and the Democratic-controlled state legislature. Here in Georgia, the rural areas are still holding their own, if only narrowly.

Once this year’s final Census numbers are in, the reapportionment of congressional and legislative seats that will follow will inevitably push more political power into Metro Atlanta — no matter how effective at gerrymandering the Republicans now in command of the General Assembly prove to be.

One topic to watch is the effect reapportionment has on Georgia’s urban-rural tensions. Secession may be a long shot, but it will be interesting to see whether newly empowered urban and suburban legislative delegations (both Democrats and Republicans) begin to revisit funding formulas that have long favored rural Georgia — and how rural Georgia responds to any such development.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021

Broadband internet expansion no silver bullet for rural Georgia

(Editor’s Note: This column was initially published in today’s edition of the Georgia Recorder. It was submitted as a counterpoint to a piece that ran earlier this week in the Recorder.)

Four years ago, I spoke to the opening day session of the House Rural Development Council about my research into the alarming decline of rural Georgia.  Once I finished my presentation, the first question I got was about a subject I hadn’t even mentioned: rural broadband.

Since that meeting, it’s become clear that the deployment of broadband technology is widely regarded as central to any rural revitalization strategy in the state.  The Georgia General Assembly has created the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative (GBDI), passed legislation to help local governments prepare for broadband projects, and, most recently, appropriating funds to support broadband deployment in rural Georgia.

Now the Biden Administration is proposing to spend $100 billion on rural broadband as part of its $2 trillion national infrastructure plan.  On Tuesday, Georgia Recorder guest columnist Jay Bailey ballyhooed that proposal as one that could fuel the momentum of the work-at-home movement that took root during the pandemic and help revitalize rural Georgia.

“This trend could remake Georgia’s economic geography over the next decade,” Bailey wrote.  “As an investor, I’m betting heavily on a revival in rural economies across our state.  But in order for rural communities to fully benefit from this trend, they’ll need to have the broadband infrastructure to fully support remote work.”

I’d like to offer a couple of cautionary notes.

First, broadband is no silver bullet for rural Georgia.  It won’t replace shuttered hospitals, failing school systems, or boarded-up businesses.  Running fiber-optic cable to rural Georgia communities already in the throes of population loss and economic decline would be like serving filet mignon to a dying man who just lost his last tooth.

Second, all that filet mignon is really expensive.  Based on research I conducted and wrote about last fall, we’re looking at a price tag of about $2.3 billion to hardwire all the currently unserved areas of rural Georgia; an AJC article cited a $3 billion price tag. 

One local example: It would cost an estimated $8 million to wire just under 1,800 homes and businesses in tiny Baker County, located in deep southwest Georgia.  Between 2013 and 2018, according to government estimates, Baker County lost 7.7 percent of its population and saw its gross domestic product (GDP) fall 14.6 percent. 

With all due deference to the good folks of Baker County, I’m skeptical that $8 million worth of government-funded, high-speed fiber will reverse their current fortunes.  And I think it’s fair to ask: is it worth it?  Does it make sense to spend that kind of money running fiber into communities that people are leaving?

I should add that I write this as a big-spending liberal who has no problem plowing major public investments into important projects.  But they ought to make at least some economic sense, and the government should resist involvement if there are viable market solutions.

In this situation, there are viable market solutions, and here I can write from personal experience.  We moved a year ago from Decatur, where we had AT&T’s 1-gigabit internet service, to rural Oconee County, where the best service I could find was a 50 Mbps-plan from Viasat.  It’s not optimal, but it is adequate – especially for the explosion of remote workers Bailey envisions.

What’s more, satellite-based internet service appears to be on the threshold of a big improvement.  My Viasat service is delivered by a geostationary satellite situated about 23,000 miles above the planet, and slow ping rates – the time it takes to, say, load a web page – can be frustrating. 

As I write this, though, constellations of a new generation of satellites are being assembled a few hundred miles above the earth’s surface.  Known as LEOs, these low-earth orbit satellites are expected to slash ping rates dramatically.  In his column, Bailey acknowledged the potential of technologies other than high-speed fiber, including, as he put it, “even low-earth orbit satellites in some cases.” 

I’m more optimistic and would have edited out his qualifying language.  Elon Musk’s SpaceX Corporation has already launched more than 1,500 refrigerator-sized LEOs and has begun a beta program that it says will deliver download speeds of between 50-and-150 Mbps with unlimited data and latency of 20-to-40 milliseconds.  (It’s coming to Oconee County; we’ve signed up and are expecting our ground equipment in a few weeks.) 

My purpose here is not to promote the satellite industry; it could still crash and burn (literally).  But satellite internet service is available to much of rural Georgia now, and without the massive capital investment and years of construction time that broadband will require. 

My larger point, however, is that the effort to revitalize Georgia’s rural communities needs to begin not with headline-grabbing plans to run fiber to sparsely-populated, poverty-stricken rural counties, but with a focus on more fundamental building blocks.

Bailey envisions a migration of highly-educated knowledge workers from the big city to rural communities that can provide them with high-speed internet.  But without access to quality healthcare, decent schools for their kids, and other quality of life amenities, that won’t happen.  High-speed internet may be necessary to build a vibrant 21st-century economy, but it’s far from sufficient – and it’s not the right first step.

George Berry’s ‘crescent of poverty’ now an economic and political conundrum for Georgia Republicans

In the summer of 1969, a Hawkinsville, Ga., state legislator named John Henry Anderson opined to his hometown newspaper that rural Georgia was subsidizing the City of Atlanta, the state’s capital and largest municipality.

That news item somehow caught the attention of Ivan Allen, Jr., then mayor of Atlanta, and he was not pleased. He fired off instructions to the city’s Finance Department to develop a response to Representative Anderson.

The task fell to a young accountant by the name of George J. Berry. Berry dropped everything else he was working on and spent the next week researching and drafting a single-spaced, five-page response to Representative Anderson.

Berry’s recollection — passed along to me in an interview several years ago — was that Mayor Allen signed the letter without a single change. The Berry-drafted, Allen-signed letter documented that Fulton County taxpayers paid more than twice as much per return in state income taxes than the residents of Anderson’s Pulaski County and more than twice as much per capita in state sales taxes. At the same time, the letter said, Pulaski County received $324.46 per pupil in state education funding versus $267.32 that went to Fulton County.

“I would recommend to you a close examination of these facts,” the letter said, “after which it would require a fertile imagination indeed to state that “rural Georgia supports Atlanta”.”

That was a half-century ago, and much has changed in that time. Berry, of course, went on to have a storied career as arguably the most accomplished public-sector administrator in Georgia history. He served as the City of Atlanta’s chief administrative officer under Mayor Sam Massell and airport commissioner under Mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young (overseeing a massive expansion of the “world’s busiest airport” in the late 1970s and early ’80s). He ran the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade & Tourism under Governor Joe Frank Harris in the 1980s and was tapped by Governor Zell Miller to serve as chairman of the Metropolitan Atlanta Olympic Games Authority, which oversaw the city’s successful bid for the 1996 Olympics.

It was primarily in connection with his role at Industry, Trade & Tourism that I reached out to Berry in 2016. The notion of the Two Georgias was relatively new when he was serving as the state’s chief economic developer, and he told me it consumed no small amount of his time. Berry said he “struggled with this issue” but “never came up with an answer for what I called ‘crescent of poverty,'” which he described as covering much of south central and southwest Georgia. “I was not successful at all in decoding the forces” that produced the Two Georgias, he said.

Berry, who passed away in 2019, took no solace in the fact that his successors at what is now called the Georgia Department of Economic Development have made little if any progress with the Two Georgias problem. Berry’s “crescent of poverty” has expanded to include all but a handful of the 100-plus counties south of the gnat line.

Much of my TIGC work has been focused, after a fashion, on doing exactly the kind of analysis Berry did for Mayor Allen. Sadly, the Georgia Department of Revenue made that impossible several years ago when it simply, and inexplicably, stopped reporting county-level income tax data in its annual report, thereby eliminating one of the most useful data points it had been producing for decades.

Fortunately, the federal government’s Internal Revenue Service continues to report county-level data for federal taxes, and, if that’s any guide, the Fulton-Pulaski gap has widened to nearly three-to-one per return in the last half-century. In 2018, according to the IRS, Fulton County’s income tax liability was $29,922 per return versus $10,442 for Pulaski; the per capita ratio was more than five-to-one.

My purpose here is not to pick on Pulaski County. Indeed, it’s doing better than many of Georgia’s rural counties. But any study of the Two Georgias problem gets around sooner or later to an examination not just of various economic, education, and health rankings, but to the matter of taxes paid and services consumed. If anything, that kind of data brings the state’s Two Georgias problem — and the gulf between the state’s haves and have-nots — into sharper and more alarming relief.

To provide one limited example, I’ve recently analyzed county-level consumption of Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp spending and compared it to county-level federal tax liabilities for 2018 (the last year for which IRS data is available). This table summarizes the data for the five TIGC regions — 12 counties in Metro Atlanta, seven in Coastal Georgia, 43 in Middle Georgia, 41 in North Georgia and 56 in interior South Georgia.

TIGC’s Metro Atlanta region, with 48 percent of the state’s population, generated 68 percent of the state’s 2018 federal tax liability while using 39 percent of the federal share of Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp spending in the state. At the other end of the regional spectrum, the 56-county South Georgia region, with 11 percent of the state’s population, generated only five percent of the state’s federal income tax liability and used 16 percent of the Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp spending. Put another way, it took 82.5 percent of South Georgia’s federal tax obligation to cover its Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp costs. For Metro Atlanta, the comparable figure was only 13.2 percent.

This interactive map shows the percentage of each county’s 2018 federal income tax liability required to cover the federal share of its Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp costs.

This map illustrates the percentage of each county’s 2018 federal taxes required to cover the federal share of its Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp costs for that year. The darker the shading, the higher the percentage.

The gap between individual counties at the very top and bottom of this analysis is even more stunning. Forty-seven counties couldn’t cover their share of these social service costs in 2018. At the bottom of the pile were two southwesst Georgia neighbors, Calhoun and Miller counties, whose Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp costs amounted, respectively, to 238.6 percent and 219.5 percent of their federal income tax liabilities.

At the top were Forsyth and Oconee counties (which typically vie for the No. 1 spot in every ranking I’ve identified or developed). Forsyth County’s public healthcare and food stamp costs took only 3.1 percent of its federal tax liability; Oconee County, 4.3 percent.

If the challenge over the course of Berry’s career — from his days as a young City Hall numbers-cruncher to his stewardship of the state’s economic development effort — was difficult, it has grown exponentially more vexing in the decades since then.

What was once largely an economic development challenge has now morphed into a much more complex challenge with cultural and political dimensions. Throughout Berry’s career, Democrats dominated state politics, overwhelmingly for the most part. Republicans were only beginning to rise to power as he left the public stage. Initially the GOP staked its claim largely in Metro Atlanta, the most economically vibrant part of the state, with traditional Republican policy arguments that focused on support for free enterprise, low taxes and limited government. Democrats were increasingly dependent on rural Georgia.

Since then, the Democratic Party’s comeback strategy has been built heavily around Georgia’s growing Black vote, especially in urban areas. As that evolution has unfolded, rural whites have been drawn increasingly — indeed, overwhelmingly — to a Republican Party focused on religious and cultural issues.

The result is that today the two parties have basically swapped geographic territories, but Republicans find themselves faced with the far more difficult task of trying to serve — and maintain their political grip on — two profoundly different tribes. The party’s exurban territories — in counties like Forsyth, Oconee, Cherokee and others — are literally among the most economically prosperous, best educated and least dependent on government resources in the nation. After covering its 2018 Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp costs, Forsyth County alone left $1.5 billion-with-a-b on the federal table.

From the gnat line south, however, the GOP’s rural territory is devolving into third world status. That includes the two most Republican counties in the state, Brantley and Glascock, which, respectively, gave Trump 90.2 and 89.6 percent of their 2020 votes. They also both came up short in covering their 2018 public healthcare and Food Stamp costs — Brantley by more than $1 million, Glascock by $1.6 million.

The two counties were among 48 Middle and South Georgia counties with populations of fewer than 20,000 people that went for Trump, most of them heavily. Combined, their Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp costs burned up 96.6 percent of the federal taxes they owed — $622 million out of $643.6 million.

Republicans, then, have inherited Berry’s “crescent of poverty” not just as an economic development challenge, but as a political conundrum. Their long-term political survival in those areas may well depend on solving the economic development problem that vexed George Berry and all his successors. I’m sure Berry would wish them well, but I doubt he’d be very optimistic.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021

Moving the All-Star game punished the wrong Georgia

President Biden and Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred apparently never got the memo about the Two Georgias.

That’s about the only conclusion to be drawn from their reaction to the enactment of Georgia Senate Bill 202, aka “The Election Integrity Act of 2021.” When Biden publicly urged the MLB to strip Atlanta of this year’s MLB All-Star game, he was basically calling in friendly fire on his own party’s home turf in perhaps the most politically important state in the nation right now.

More specifically, he targeted Cobb County, home of the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park and designated site of the 2021 All-Star game. Long a bastion of GOP strength, Cobb County finally tipped Democratic in 2016 and then gave Biden a 56,000-vote margin in 2020. Kudos to the political wizards who helped him think that one through.

Georgia has been undergoing an almost biological cellular division for nearly a half-century now. With every passing year, Metro Atlanta and the rest of the state have drifted further and further apart in just about every measurable way — including economics, educational attainment and population health.

And politics. The earliest sightings of Republicans in modern Georgia took place in metropolitan Atlanta about 50 years ago. They clawed their way to prominence and ultimately dominance at county courthouses in fast-growing suburban Atlanta counties and then began to infiltrate the state legislature.

Since then, Democrats have reasserted control at most Atlanta-area county governments, but Republicans have invaded and now all but own rural Georgia — and the State Capitol. It plainly escaped the attention of the White House and the MLB that the sponsors of S.B. 202 hail not from Atlanta, Decatur, Lawrenceville or Marietta, but from such far-flung rural climes as Sylvania, Danielsville, Cataula, Chickamauga, Perry, Ocilla and Vidalia.

If economic punishment was the goal, a better strategy might have been to rattle some budgetary sabers at, for example, Augusta’s Fort Gordon, which sits next door to the Senate District represented by Senator Max Burns (R-Sylvania), who chairs the Senate Ethics Committee that produced the final version of S.B. 202 and is listed as its No. 1 sponsor, as well as other South Georgia military installations and federal facilities.

If, instead, the objective was political humiliation, you’d think they might have noticed that Burns’s sprawling, largely-rural east-Georgia district also sweeps into Augusta and brackets a certain well-tended golf course that will be ground zero for the sports media for the next several days.

Not for nothing, the 2021 Master’s Tournament, as it does every Covid-free year, will double as a post-legislative party scene for lobbyists and lawmakers and an entertainment venue for the state’s well-heeled corporate leaders, who will no doubt have to spend some of their time trying to convince their out-of-state customers and prospects that the state is not actually run by knuckle-dragging racists.

It may be a tough sell. A betting man might wager that Stacey Abrams and her minions will find their way to the gates of Augusta National in time to make the evening news. And that the estimable U.S. Representative James Clyburn (D-South Carolina) will cross the Savannah River to lend a hand. Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper can probably be expected to set up live shots at the Amen Corner.

For what it’s worth, my reading of the bill and various analyses is that there’s a fair argument to be made that the legislation is not quite as horrific as first thought. As an example, Democrats complained mightily that the legislation will greatly restrict ballot drop boxes used in the last election for absentee ballot applications and actual ballots. But drop boxes didn’t exist at all prior to the last election cycle; Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger used the emergency powers of his office to authorize them during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, at least, the use of a limited number of such boxes (to be located inside government buildings and available during business hours) is codified into state law.

Another relatively innocuous change cuts the window prior to elections for applying for absentee ballots from six months to, for some odd reason, 78 days. That strikes me as plenty of time to apply for an absentee ballot — although responding to a flood of requests in a shorter window of time could stress elections offices in big counties — which, frankly, might help give the state the excuse it needs to exercise a new power it just gave itself to step in and fire local elections superintendents.

Beyond that, S.B. 202 really is pretty horrific. It’s difficult to read it and avoid a judgment that it will make voting harder in large urban Democratic counties, especially in minority precincts, and easier in mostly Republican rural counties. (This subject deserves a screed of its own, which I’ll try to get to later; in the meantime, a good analysis appears in today’s New York Times.)

But even if the final version of S.B. 202 was totally benign, motive and intent matter. Stampeded following the 2020 election by a zombie-like army of Trump-enthralled rural voters convinced that their own party’s leaders had stolen the election for Biden, Republican legislators began drafting bills that stopped just short of requiring DNA tests to get an absentee ballot. Early versions of the legislation were so repellant that the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, proclaimed himself “disgusted” and refused to preside over the State Senate’s consideration of the bill, and four GOP senators found a way to avoid voting on that version of the bill.

Optics matter too. The provision outlawing giving food and water to voters stuck in long voting lines — as minority voters in urban areas often are — was amazingly bone-headed. So was Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to sign the bill behind closed doors while flanked by White legislators and sitting under a painting of a plantation — and then, for God’s sake, to put out an official photograph of the historic event.

Add to this that while Kemp was signing the bill into law, a Black female state legislator who’d had the temerity to knock on the governor’s door was being put in handcuffs, arrested and hauled away by a pair of well-fed state troopers — in full view of multiple video cameras and cellphones.

At that point, any substantive case that might — might — have been made for the law was a lost cause. “Georgia G.O.P. Passes Major Law to Limit Voting Amid Nationwide Push,” thundered The New York Times. From The Washington Post: “As Georgia’s new law shows, when Black people gain local power, states strip that power away.”

Enter now the White House and Major League Baseball, and recognize that the laws of physics also apply to politics: for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. Put another way, if Republicans do something stupid, they can count on the Democrats to do something just as stupid right back.

Thus did Biden and the MLB lurch into ready/fire/aim mode and deprive businesses and employees in an increasingly Democratic part of the state of, according to a Cobb Travel and Tourism executive, more than $100 million in projected cash flow.

Clearly, one of the Two Georgias deserved all this economic pain, radioactive headlines and political opprobrium — but it wasn’t Metro Atlanta or Cobb County. Now, though, the problem isn’t just that Atlanta is paying an economic price for rural Georgia’s retrograde politics, it’s that there’s almost certainly more to come.

As AJC sports columnist Steve Hummer put it this weekend, “The loss of baseball’s All-Star game was just the beginning. Why, with a little more work from those beneath the Gold Dome, we can become Birmingham before you know it.”

“Why,” he added a few paragraphs later, “would any major sporting league – or major company for that matter – want to have anything to do with a leadership that so eagerly gives credence to a bald-faced lie?”

Here he makes an important point. The Georgia General Assembly adjourned last week after devoting much of its legislative energy to producing a 98-page law based spawned entirely by President Trump’s fictitious claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.

One byproduct of that legislative disaster is that it spawned a political virus for which there is no obvious vaccine — and no way of knowing where or how it might spread. Aside from the economic development implications, it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder whether the 5-star Black athletes now dressing out for Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs might begin to think twice about playing football in a state where the Legislature apparently wants to hinder their right to vote.

If, for instance, running back Zamir “Zeus” White and wide receiver Georgia Pickens were to even glance in the direction of the transfer portal because of the new law, let’s just say that the likely opposite reaction would be very unequal — and would require Governor Kemp to build a bigger fence around the State Capitol to hold the UGA alumni association at bay.

If the recent presidential and Senate elections marked tipping points in Georgia politics, the enactment of S.B. 202 may prove to be an even more important inflection point in the long-running political war between Metro Atlanta and rural Georgia. My hunch as well is that one opposite and equal reaction to S.B. 202 is that voter outrage in Metro Atlanta will remain at a boiling point through the 2022 election cycle. Bad press for depriving voters standing in long lines of food and water may prove to be the least of the Republicans’ problems.

In the Two Georgias, a big, mega-million dollar hit on Metro Atlanta and Cobb County is a small price for Senator Burns and his colleagues to pay to calm the Trump-inflamed fever swamps they represent.

In fact, it’s no price at all. Which is the problem. Burns’s hometown of Sylvania is more than 200 miles from Truist Park, and most of his fellow GOP colleagues live at least 100 miles from the ballpark.

At the risk of being uncharitable, I can’t help but wonder if some of these legislators — and their constituents — aren’t laughing up their sleeves (if not out loud) at Metro Atlanta’s misfortune. For them, S.B. 202 was a two-fer. Not only did they weaken the region politically, they nicked it for tens of millions of dollars in business in the process.

I’ll close by suggesting that this need not be the end of the opening chapter of this story. Georgia’s newly-empowered Democrats in Washington — led by Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock — should make this case to the White House and Major League Baseball and implore them to reverse the All-Star game decision. It may not be too late, and a reversal would undo a major mistake and set the stage for a discussion about how to exact economic retribution on those who actually deserve it.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021

New medical study confirms what TIGC has been saying for a year now. You’re welcome.

The American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM) earlier this week published a new statistical study which basically found that American states led by Democratic governors have fared better through the worst of the pandemic than those governed by Republicans.

Opined the authors: “Gubernatorial party affiliation may drive policy decisions that impact COVID-19 infections and deaths across the U.S. Future policy decisions should be guided by public health considerations rather than political ideology.”

Gee, you think?

Actually, I’m glad to see this kind of big academic study. As eye-glazing as it can be in places, it reinforces a lot of the observations I’ve made here at Trouble in God’s Country since Covid-19 rolled in a year ago. Early on, I started noticing differences between between Georgia, where Republican Governor Brian Kemp was famously loathe to impose restrictions because of the pandemic, and North Carolina, where Democratic Governor Roy Cooper acted pretty quickly and decisively to begin closing down his state.

The two states have a lot in common, including demographics, economics, educational levels, and population size. Pretty much from the get-go, North Carolina was performing more Covid-19 tests and reporting more confirmed cases but fewer deaths.

Based on the latest data available from the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker, North Carolina has since significantly out-performed Georgia. As of Thursday, March 11, Georgia, with a population of 10.6 million, had more than a million confirmed and probable cases and 18,117 Covid-19 deaths; North Carolina, whose population is only slightly smaller at 10.4 million, has recorded 879,825 such cases and 11,622 deaths.

A week or so after that first Georgia-North Carolina comparison last March, I posted a new piece that broadened the focus and compared a half-dozen Old South states led by proudly conservative Republicans (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee) to three deep blue West Coast states led by liberal Democratic governors (California, Oregon and Washington).

The two regions had very comparable populations — 51.4 million for the three West Coast states versus 51.9 million for the six Old South states. But the regions’ governors were taking very different approaches in fighting the virus. The governors on the West Coast, which bore the brunt of the virus’s initial attack, took early, dramatic actions to shut down their states and limit the virus’s spread, while the Old South’s GOP governors were openly resisting most public health-driven actions.

At the time of that initial report — not even a month into the pandemic — the West Coast had suffered 543 deaths versus 500 for the Old South, but the Old South was already piling up more cases: more than 24,000 versus just over 18,500 for the West Coast.

I pulled fresh numbers from the CDC’s Covid-19 Data Tracking website on Friday, and the Old South’s performance now looks much worse in comparison to the West Coast (where, again, the virus initially turned Seattle into the public health equivalent of Chernobyl and has continued to savage the California coast) than it did last April. The Old South states have racked up 25,000 more deaths than the West Coast and a million more confirmed and probable cases, as this table details:

The AJPM study found that the Republican-led states had lower case and death rates for the first several months of the pandemic, but that those trend lines crossed — on June 3, 2020, for case rates and a month later, on July 4, for death rates.

That’s generally in line with another TIGC observation. I tracked county-level case and death rates on an almost daily basis for the first several months of the pandemic by the political party each county sided with in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election. Early on, the virus did most of its damage in urban areas that were heavily populated and largely Democratic, such as Metro Atlanta; the virus was indeed slow to show up in sparsely-populated rural areas of Georgia that largely sided with Governor Kemp and other Republicans.

But it did get there — and, just as the authors of the AJPM study found, the trend lines eventually crossed. By my calculations, the death rate in counties that went for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams had been higher — that is, worse — from the opening days of the pandemic through most of August; they crossed on August 25, 2020. The case rate trend lines were a little slower to intersect, but finally crossed on September 9.

11-3-covid-data-table.jpg (328×125)

I took another look at this phenomenon following last year’s presidential election and found the same pattern, as this table to the right shows. By election day, President Donald J. Trump’s Georgia counties had significantly worse case rates, death rates and 14-day case rates than his then-Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.

The authors of the AJPM study were careful to avoid asserting causality in the statistical relationship between the governors’ party affiliation and their states’ Covid-19 results. And, indeed, there are a variety of factors other than politics that probably contribute to different outcomes. In an early piece speculating that rural Georgia might eventually be harder hit than the state’s urban areas, I cited the facts that rural Georgians were generally in poorer health than their city cousins and had access to much frailer health care delivery systems. At that point, the political differences were just beginning to come into focus.

But, statistical limitations aside, it now seems silly to ignore the obvious political relationships and implications. It’s often said that the 50 states function as laboratories for American democracy. For a year now, that’s clearly been the case where America’s response to Covid-19 is concerned. But it’s a shame we all wound up being used as human guinea pigs.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021

Long-time friend and long-ago colleague Terry L. Wells contributed to this article. He first spotted and posted to Facebook an article about the AJPM study, without which I probably would have missed the whole thing.

GOP options for growing their base? Embrace the Biden child care allowance, or go for the graveyard vote

As of Wednesday afternoon, it’s official: the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill now headed to President Biden’s desk didn’t get a single Republican vote in the U.S. House or Senate. I will leave it to various mystics, shamans, and readers of animal entrails to find any actual logic in the GOP’s lock-step opposition to the bill (which enjoys solid public support, including from a majority of Republican voters), but I do have to wonder if any among their ranks recognize the importance of one component of the bill to their hopes of rebuilding a political majority.

I’m referring, of course, to the $100 billion child care benefit included in the bill. Under this part of the legislation, the federal government will send parents a $300 monthly child care stipend for every child under the age of 6 and $250 for every child between 6 and 17. This is in addition to the $1,400 in direct stimulus payments most Americans will receive under the legislation.

Democrats, of course, see the child care benefit as a means of helping parents get back to work, supporting early childhood development, and lifting millions of American kids out of childhood poverty. Republicans, apparently, see it as yet another step down the slippery slope to godless communism. U.S. Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) issued a joint statement saying they could support an expanded child care tax credit, but not the advance cash payouts.

“That is not tax relief for working parents,” Lee and Rubio harrumphed. “It is welfare assistance. An essential part of being pro-family is being pro-work. Congress should expand the Child Tax Credit without undercutting the responsibility of parents to work to provide for their families.”

Well, okay. But even if Lee, Rubio, and their GOP colleagues don’t buy into the Democrats’ squishy child- and family-friendly arguments, you’d think they might see the raw political benefit of, basically, being able to use tax dollars to bribe Republicans of child-bearing age to have children.

(This is not a novel concept. European countries confronting their own baby busts have resorted to all manner of financial incentives. Don’t believe it? Google “countries paying people to have babies”. My personal favorite is the “Do it for Denmark” campaign, which features public service advertisements like this one.)

While Democrats will also benefit from this aspect of the Biden plan’s child care allowance, Republicans arguably have more to gain from it. A huge chunk of GOP voters are, after all, old and dying off.

And by “GOP voters,” I mean primarily white voters, a great number of whom reside in rural areas. TIGC has reported for the past couple of years on the increasing number of Georgia counties that now have more deaths than births. The number of counties reporting more deaths than births has increased steadily since the Great Recession. That number peaked in 2018, when 79 of the state’s 159 counties reported more deaths than births; in 2019, 78 counties fell into that category and one had exactly the same number of deaths and births.

As jarring as those numbers may be, they become starker still when you drill down and look only at white births and deaths. In 2019, 103 largely rural Georgia counties buried more white people than were born; 81 of those counties voted (heavily, in most cases) for Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler over Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in the January 5, 2021, runoffs that turned the U.S. Senate blue.

The two maps below may help clarify the challenge facing Republicans. The one on the left shows the state’s political divide as it stood after the January 5th runoffs for the U.S. Senate. Democratic victors Ossoff and Warnock dominated Metro Atlanta, expanded the party’s grip on the black belt that runs from southwest Georgia north and east to Augusta, and won in significant coastal counties (all shown in blue); the Republican incumbents, Perdue and Loeffler, prevailed primarily in small rural counties and some growing exurban counties around and near the Metro Atlanta region (shown in Team GOP red).

The map to the right contrasts counties that had more white deaths than births (those in red) in the five-year period from 2015 through 2019 versus those that had more white births than deaths (blue). The two maps are obviously not a perfect match, but the extent of the overlap ought to give any sentient Republican strategist at least a mild case of insomnia and heartburn.

If the maps fail to trouble GOP war planners, the graph below might — especially over the long term. It spotlights a data point that I really hadn’t been looking for and that surprised me enough that I’ve completely double-checked my work. I went back to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s OASIS website and pulled all the raw data a second time and then rebuilt my spreadsheet from the ground up, and can now report the following:

For the past 10 years, blacks in Georgia have been posting more net births (births minus deaths) than whites.

From 1994 (the earliest year for which the Georgia Department of Public Health has data) through 2007, whites maintained an unsurprising and even growing advantage in this category, as this graph shows.

The white surplus of births over deaths peaked in 2006 at 44,768, dropped a little in 2007, and then plunged by nearly 10,000 in 2008. The black surplus of births over deaths also began to shrink around the same time — in 2008 — but not nearly as severely. The net effect was that the black and white lines crossed in 2010 and blacks have been building a growing advantage ever since. In 2019, net white births were just under 11,000 — about one-fourth of the all-time high in 2006; net black births for 2019 fell just short of 22,000, nearly double the number of net white births.

I’ve written before about the demographic, economic, and education-related aftershocks of the Great Recession — patterns and trends that began to take shape in 2008 and ’09 and have continued ever since. Without exception, these trends have taken a harder toll on rural Georgia, and this one — a demographic shift with clear political implications — seems certain to do the same.

This, then, is the demographic and political maelstrom facing Georgia Republicans. Right now the most visible GOP strategy seems to be to pass legislation that would make it harder for Democrats to vote. But at least one Georgia Republican leader has been on the record with a visionary strategy designed to respond directly to the rapidly developing demographic tsunami: Brant Frost. the party’s second vice-chairman, proclaimed in 2019 that the party’s path to continued dominance was to out-breed their Democratic Party adversaries.

“Christian and conservative women have a 35 percent fertility advantage over Democrat women,” Frost told a meeting of Oconee County Republicans in 2019.  “And the more conservative a woman is, the more likely she is to be married and have lots of kids – three, four, five, six kids.  And the more liberal and leftist a woman is, the less likely she is to even be married and have any children at all …”

It’s unknown just how much traction Frost’s plan has gotten among Republican women, but the Biden child care allowance might well provide just the kind of cash stimulus that would give his plan a real boost.

Either that, or Republicans may want to rethink their opposition to the graveyard vote.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021

Forget the “two Georgias,” welcome to Massassippi

I can’t remember whether he wrote it or said it, but years ago the legendary Atlanta Constitution editor Bill Shipp opined that if you lifted Metro Atlanta out of Georgia, what was left would be worse off than Mississippi. I remember it because I’m from Mississippi and my first reaction was: Really? There might be an area that was dumber and poorer than my home state?

That was long enough ago that it was difficult to round up and analyze the data you’d need to prove Shipp’s point one way or the other. Now, though, all you need is an internet connection, a spreadsheet and a little time, and recently I found myself plowing through a fresh batch of education data and decided to put the Shipp thesis to the test.

And guess what? On at least one count, he was — and is — right: Mississippi has a slightly higher percentage of college graduates than the 147 Georgia counties that lie outside Trouble in God’s Country’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region.

In Mississippi, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), 21.8 percent of adults 25 and older hold college degrees. For Georgia’s 147 non-Metro Atlanta counties, the figure is 21.3 percent. If those 147 counties constituted a state unto themselvces, it would rank next-to-last nationally for this metric. West Virginia stands dead last with 20.3 percent of its adult population holding college degrees.

All of which begs the question: If Georgia’s 147 non-Metro Atlanta counties are, collectively, so close to the bottom of the college education pile, where would the Great State of Metro Atlanta stand?

Pretty dang close to the top, it turns out. For TIGC’s 12-county region, the share of adults holding college degrees is 41.1 percent, and that would put it No. 3 nationally — behind the District of Columbia (57.6 percent) and Massachusetts (42.9 percent). Colorado would be No. 4 at 40.1 percent, and no other state tops 40 percent.

It wasn’t always this way. The 1970 Census found that there were fewer than a quarter-million college graduates living in the entire state of Georgia — and a slight majority of those lived in the 147 counties outside TIGC’s Metro Atlanta region.

According to the latest ACS estimates, which cover the period 2014 through 2018, the state is now home to more than two million college graduates. Metro Atlanta, with 47.2 percent of the state’s adult population, claimed 63.2 percent of those college graduates — 1.32 million. The other 147 counties are home to 52.8 percent of the adult population but only 36.7 of the college graduates. TIGC’s 56-county South Georgia region still has more high school dropouts than college graduates, according to the ACS data.

It’s now been more than 40 years since the state’s political and civic leaders began fretting about “the two Georgias.” Today, I’d submit moved well beyond that split and are looking at a mash-up of the states of Mississippi and Massachusetts — the Schizophrenic State of Massassippi. That kind of tortured combination may be difficult to comprehend, but it could be our future — and the educational divide is just the beginning. It already extends demonstrably to economics, population health, politics and a range of cultural issues.

To understand the impact of the educational differences on economic performance, we need look no further than the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’s data on county-level gross domestic product (GDP). According to that data, Metro Atlanta produced 62.43 percent of the state’s GDP in 2018 and generated more than 76 percent of its economic growth over the previous five years. Today, fully three-fourths of Georgia’s GDP is produced north of the gnat line.

As bad as the educational divide is, it’ll probably get worse before it gets better — if it ever does. One disturbing trend previously unearthed here at TIGC is a stunning drop-off in enrollment at University System of Georgia (USG) institutions from the 147 non-Metro Atlanta counties. Based on an analysis of a decade’s worth of USG fall enrollment data, the non-Metro Atlanta counties were sending more new freshmen to USG institutions up through 2009.

But that changed in 2010, as the Great Recession began to take its toll: fall enrollment from the 147 non-Metro Atlanta counties fell off a cliff and started a five-year slide, as the graph here shows. Metro Atlanta took a one-year hit in 2011, then began a slow and mostly steady recovery year and got back to its high water mark in 2018. The other 147 counties finally enjoyed a little recovery in 2015 but then plateaued and have been flat since then.

The contrast gets to be even starker if you look only at the state’s two flagship institutions of higher education, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. In 2018, as the graphs at the left show, Metro Atlanta overwhelmingly dominated enrollment at both universities. Some 71 Georgia counties didn’t send a single new freshman to Georgia Tech that year; at UGA, the same was true of 22 counties.

Georgia’s current crop of politicians are, of course, concerned with the divide and its implications. Governor Brian Kemp launched a “rural strike team” in 2019, and he and the General Assembly this year may begin putting some money into rural broadband. Earlier this month Kemp announced a public-private initiative that would plow more than $200 million into providing hardwired internet service to 80,000 locations in 18 mostly Middle Georgia counties. Whether that bet will pay off remains to be seen, of course — especially without improvements in more fundamental local education needs.

They had better hope they do. Otherwise we may have to bring Shipp, the old Constitution editor who regularly used an old manual typewriter like a sledgehammer, out of retirement to start warning that we’re closing in on West Virginia.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2021

New “Distressed Community” ratings reinforce view that Georgia’s haves and have-nots split along the gnat line

A couple of years ago I stumbled across a Washington, D.C., think tank that calls itself the Economic Innovation Group. EIG’s stated mission is “to advance solutions that empower entrepreneurs and investors to forge a more dynamic economy throughout America,” and the smart folks who work there do an awful lot of terrific research that has helped bring much of Trouble in God’s Country’s work into sharper relief.

One of its most impressive products is what it calls the Distressed Communities Index, or DCI. The DCI is the product of a calculation cooked up by EIG that blends together seven economic data points mined from U.S. Census Bureau data: 1.) the percent of the adult population without a high school diploma; 2.) the housing vacancy rate; 3.) the percentage of prime-age adults not currently in work; 4.) the percentage of the population living below the poverty line; 5,) median household income as a percentage of the state’s median household income; 6.) percent change in the number of local jobs, and 7.) percent change in the number of business establishments.

EIG produces its DCIs at county and zip code levels, and it measures distress on a scale that it describes as from “approaching zero” to 100.0. “Approaching zero” is good; 100.0 is bad. I got my first look at EIG’s 2018 DCI report and did a couple of posts about it (including here and here). Now they’re back with a 2020 edition based on Census Bureau data from the period 2014 through 2018, and I’ve spent the past several days rolling around in the numbers.

I’m not sure there are any huge headlines, but there are more than a few middle-sized and small ones.

Probably the first one to mention is that Oconee County — as it did in the 2018 report — still has the best Distressed Community Index in Georgia. This won’t be a surprise to anybody who follows this sort of thing. Oconee County, located next door to Athens-Clarke County and about an hour from Metro Atlanta, has for several years now been ranked by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) as having the strongest economy in the state.

The more interesting Oconee County factoid is that its DCI improved significantly between 2018 to 2020 — from .5 to .2 — and that improvement appears to have moved it into the top 10 in the national rankings. While EIG doesn’t include national rankings in its dataset, it is possible to sort all 3,133 U.S. counties by their DCI score and then assign rankings based on that sort. That exercise pushes Oconee County into a tie for fifth place with Douglas County, Colorado, and Sarpy County, Nebraska.

(For those of you who are wondering, the top four counties in EIG’s list are Lincoln County, S.D.; Broomfield County, Colo.; Loudon County, Va.; and Hamilton County, Ind.)

The second medium-sized headline out of the EIG data is that it demonstrates once again the expanse of the gap between Georgia’s geographic haves and have-nots. At the bottom of EIG’s 2018 DCI pile is Wheeler County, which earned a Distressed Community Index of 99.9, and that put it pretty close to the bottom of the national pile as well. It tied with two South Texas counties for 3,129th place out of a total of 3,133 counties.

The only state to have a wider gap between its highest- and lowest-rated counties was Virginia. The aforementioned Loudon County, Va.,– part of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area — posted a DCI of 0.1 to tie for second place while, across the state, Buchanan County, Va., scored a perfect 100.0 and tied with its adjoining Appalachian neighbor, McDowell County, W.Va., for last place.

Here in Georgia, Oconee and Wheeler counties are about 150 miles and three hours apart, connected on a north-south line by U.S. 441. But that time and distance only begins to hint at the socioeconomic chasm between the two counties, as this table detailing the metrics that go into EIG’s DCI shows. Wheeler County’s problems are, across the board, obviously orders of magnitude worse than Oconee County’s.

While EIG does not include formal national rankings in its data, it does slice the 3,133 counties into national quintiles — and here, at least, there’s a little good news for Georgia. This time around, Georgia has significantly more counties in the top national quintile and fewer in the bottom quintile than it did in the 2018 report. Put another way, Georgia’s overall DCI profile has arguably improved, at least a little bit.

Predictably, though, the regional distribution of those counties is anything but even. Twenty-five Georgia counties made it into the top national quintile, and 17 of those are located north of the gnat line; three are on the coast, and four are in Middle Georgia. South Georgia’s only placement in the top quintile is Lee County, the affluent white flight county just north of Albany and Dougherty County, and its index score and ranking actually tumbled significantly between the 2018 and 2020 reports. In 2018, it had the ninth-best DCI in the state; in the most recent report, it had fallen to 23rd. Its TIGC-calculated national ranking fell from 180th in 2018 to 598th in 2020, near the bottom of the first quintile.

In contrast, the lowest-ranking county in TIGC’s Metro Atlanta region improved both its DCI and its ranking. Clayton County, the only Metro Atlanta county in the fourth quintile, improved its DCI from 74.3 to 68.6 and its statewide rank from 79th to 75th. Its national ranking, according to TIGC’s unofficial calculations, improved from 2,322nd in 2018 to 2,150th in the 2020 report.

Throughout my work on Trouble in God’s Country, I’ve waffled on the question of how best to characterize the divide between Georgia’s geographic haves and have-nots: Urban vs. Rural, Metro Atlanta vs. Everybody Else, North vs. South. In recent months, I’ve gravitated to the North vs. South view — with the understanding that North includes (and is driven by) Metro Atlanta and that South is everything from about the gnat line south.

The new EIG data, mapped below, reinforces that view. The key takeaway from this map isn’t that the best-scoring counties are concentrated in and around Metro Atlanta — that’s no surprise. It’s that the largest group of the middle-range counties — those shown in the lighter shades of blue — surround the Metro Atlanta region, reflecting region’s expanding economic influence.

The Georgia coast can claim a handful of counties with decent DCI ratings, and several others are scattered across rural Georgia. But with those few exceptions, the farther you get from Metro Atlanta, the darker the shades of blue — and the worse the DCI scores — become.

The EIG data and its DCI scores are in line with other assessments that make it clear that Georgia’s economic strength is concentrating more and more from roughly the gnat line north — as is its population growth and, therefore, its political power. This will ultimately — and sooner rather than later — undo a rough balance of political and economic power that has prevailed in the state for more than a century. It will also complicate the process of addressing the challenges in the state’s rural areas south of the gnat line.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Following is a complete list of Georgia counties with their EIG DCI ratings and ranks, and the national quintile they fall into.

The making of a political earthquake that tipped the U.S. Senate

If football is a game of inches, politics is one of fractions — a glacial shift in demographics, incremental growth in voter registration, tiny changes in voter turnout.

In isolation, individual events like these may seem small and insignificant. In combination, they are like the grinding of tectonic plates that can remake an entire landscape.

That’s what’s been happening in Georgia for the past decade. The first big tremor finally hit on November 3, when the state sided with a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1992. An even bigger shaker hit last Tuesday, January 5, when Georgians deposed incumbent Republican senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue and replaced them not just with Democrats, but with the Black pastor of Martin Luther King’s church and a 33-year-old Jewish television documentary producer. Neither had held office before.

But it’s the aftershocks that are already rippling across the state that will reshape Georgia’s politics for generations to come. They will also spell an end to rural dominance at the State Capitol, although the death throes may go on for several years.

The dust hasn’t even settled on Tuesday’s Senate runoffs and the state’s political sights are already being leveled at 2022 and the next round of races for the state’s constitutional offices, including one of the two U.S. Senate seats, governor, lieutenant governor and — perhaps most notably — secretary of state.

Brad Raffensperger, the Republican incumbent secretary of state, is almost certainly being considered for a John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award, but right now he can’t leave home without a bodyguard. Now halfway through his first term, Raffensperger was a low-profile state legislator before throwing his hat in the ring for secretary of state; then, having an (R) after his name was enough to allow him to squeak past John Barrow, a former Democratic congressman, in a runoff.

Now, his insistence on actually counting Georgia’s presidential and senatorial votes — and his temerity in standing up to direct pressure from President Trump — may have doomed him politically. The current political firestorm may pass, but right now it’s difficult to see how he survives a credible GOP primary challenge, which he will almost certainly draw.

And then there’s the governor’s race. The Republican incumbent, Brian Kemp, is in little better shape than Raffensperger.  Kemp was already saddled with horrific Covid-19 numbers when the presidential election blew up in his face.  Long accustomed to easy walks in the park in presidential elections, Georgia Republicans were plainly caught off guard when, very late in the race, the Peach State suddenly started showing up on national battleground radars.

Kemp was placed in the exquisitely difficult position of having to tell the president — to whom he quite literally owes his election — that any effort to have the Georgia General Assembly overturn the state’s election results would be doomed to failure.  Trump is now promoting the likely gubernatorial candidacy of former U.S. Representative Doug Collins, the frenetic Gainesville Republican who defended Trump during the House impeachment fight.

Whoever survives that death cage match will probably face Stacey Abrams in the 2022 General Election. The architect and field general of the Democratic Party’s rebirth in Georgia, Abrams might yet be recruited to some high-profile position in Joe Biden’s Washington, but the smart money is that she’s hanging around for another run at the governor’s office, which she very narrowly lost to Kemp in a runoff two years ago.

Runoffs have, indeed, become a thing in Georgia. They were put into place by the state legislature more than a half-century ago after a U.S. Supreme Court “one man/one vote” decision drove a stake through the heart of Georgia’s infamous county-unit system. Runoffs became the new rural bulwark against Atlanta’s growing (Black) population and rising (Black) political power — and they worked until they didn’t.

Which brings us back to fractions (and, increasingly, whole numbers).  Population growth and demographic shifts may have favored the Democrats in recent years, but Republicans have stayed in the game by outhustling them at the polls.  In the 2018 governor’s race, the 29 mostly urban and suburban counties that sided with Abrams were home to well over half-a-million more registered voters than the 130 largely rural counties that went for Kemp.  But the voter turnout in the Kemp counties was 61.5 percent versus an even 60 percent in the Abrams counties; that edge, and the Republicans’ continuing hold on at least a portion of the suburban vote, enabled Kemp to squeak by.

In the 2020 General Election – with Trump at the top of the ticket – Republicans actually grew their turnout advantage.  The Republican counties turned out 68.8 percent of their voters to 65.3 percent for the Democratic counties – a plump, 3.5-point advantage – and Perdue built a daunting 100,000-vote lead to take into the runoff.  Even though Loeffler trailed Warnock in the 20-candidate “jungle primary” for the other Senate seat, she was presumed to have a similar advantage going into the runoff.

But without Trump on the ballot – and with his regular assaults on Kemp, Raffensperger and the reliability of Georgia’s elections system – the GOP turnout advantage fell to about 1.2 percentage points.  At the same time, based on data available from the Secretary of State’s office, the Democratic-voting counties fattened their already big lead in the total number of registered voters by more than 150,000, and the political algebra simply became overwhelming.

As did the voting options.  In the early in-person and mail voting, Ossoff and Warnock ran up 400,000-plus vote margins that Perdue and Loeffler couldn’t erase with strong election day showings.  In the end, Ossoff won by 51,150 votes and Warnock by 89,404.  Both margins were outside the recount margins and big enough that both Perdue and Loeffler threw in their respective towels, thereby depriving the state’s barristers of another marathon round of post-election litigation.

Those margins may, of course, exaggerate the state of play in Georgia politics, but it’s difficult to find much good news for the state’s Republicans in these latest results.  They did have some down-ballot victories, but all in all this year’s extended political season brought the urban-rural divide into starker relief.

For the GOP, Metro Atlanta was basically reduced to fly-over country.  Trump’s three rallies on behalf of Perdue and Loeffler were held in Valdosta, Macon and finally Dalton (where, incidentally, the local 14-day Covid-19 case rate was more than six times the number required to make the Trump White House Coronavirus Task Force’s red zone list).  For his part, Vice President Pence made a final campaign swing, on January 4, through Milner, Ga. (pop. 654).  Suffice to say, neither Milner nor Dalton quite got the job done. 

The general election and runoff results almost certainly presage a period of Republican-on-Republican political violence that will extend through the current regular session of the Georgia General Assembly and a special reapportionment session later this year, when any remaining survivors will convene to draw new legislative district lines.  Further GOP collateral damage seems certain, especially in South Georgia.

At this point, the Georgia Republican Party’s options appear limited.  A state party official’s apparently serious 2019 suggestion  that Republicans use what he called a “fertility advantage” to outbreed Democrats has yet to yield much known success.  In the wake of last Tuesday’s Senate runoffs, the only known GOP policy response has not been to propose legislation addressing their districts’ economic, educational or healthcare needs, but, as the AJC reported last week, to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, ballot drop boxes and unsolicited absentee ballot application mailings. 

© Trouble in God’s Country 2021