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
Excellent. I’m posting links to your article on GeorgiaPol, https://www.georgiapol.com/2021/01/13/mid-morning-reads-for-public-radio-broadcasting-day-january-13/#comment-54989
Let me know if you prefer I not do it.
Feel free to do so. I appreciate the exposure.
Great column. Tectonic tremors and jungle rumble. Some drum rolls bring on jawdropping feats while others usher out the bad performers!
You are in the AJC:
Got your resume ready?
Fascinating piece, Mr. Hayslett. I’m posting this in the FB group for Fair Districts GA. We are a non-partisan group fighting for fair maps and more transparency in redistricting. This has some interesting implications for redistricting later this year.