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Early TIGC lessons from Tuesday’s gubernatorial election

Yesterday’s gubernatorial election showed us at least a couple of things, neither of which was particularly surprising.

The first is that there is no apparent reason for Democratic candidates to venture into rural Georgia again.

To her credit, Stacey Abrams, the party’s gubernatorial nominee for the second time, made a game effort in rural Georgia, including sparsely populated counties south of Macon. She launched her campaign in, for God’s sake, Cuthbert, Ga., and hammered incessantly on the role Medicaid Expansion could play in improving the health of rural Georgians and revitalizing local economies. Her campaign website included a thoughtful section devoted to “Rural Revitalization.” (Governor Kemp’s campaign website was, shall we say, sketchier on rural issues.)

Abrams’s reward for her efforts was that she actually did worse this year in literally every single small rural county than she did four years ago. In the 110 Georgia counties with fewer than 15,000 registered voters, incumbent Republican Brian Kemp’s advantage rose by a combined total of 3.4 points. In 2018, he carried those counties 71.5 percent-to-27.8 percent over Abrams; this year, his margin was 74.9 percent-to-24.4 percent. (If there is a silver lining for Democrats in these numbers, it’s that the total number of votes cast in small rural counties south of the gnat line actually shrunk; it dropped from just under 474,000 in 2018 to just under 460,000 this year.)

There’s also a second lesson from Tuesday’s gubernatorial results, but there are a couple of different ways to read the data.

One way to read the data is that most rural Georgians are apparently perfectly happy being dirt-poor, largely uneducated, and likely candidates for early death.

Take, for example, Brantley County. Brantley County is home to just under 15,000 people in deep southeast Georgia. It is perhaps the most Republican county in the entire state. On Tuesday it delivered 92.4 percent of its vote to Kemp. That’s a bit of an increase over the vote share it’s given to Republicans in recent presidential and gubernatorial elections, so one might fairly conclude that Brantley Countians are thrilled with the service they’re getting from the Gold Dome.

Which, I’ll have to admit, makes it a little difficult to explain the county’s economic, educational and population health metrics. Brantley County is, for instance, one of nearly 40 Georgia counties that rank in the bottom national quartile for four important gauges of economic performance — per capita income, gross domestic product per capita, poverty, and median household incomes.

More specifically, out of 3,142 counties in the United States, Brantley County ranks 3,097th for GDP per capita; 3,088th for PCI; 2,971st for Median Household Income, and 2,519th for poverty. This is based on the latest data available from various federal agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Brantley County also ranks in the bottom national quartile for educational attainment; based on an analysis I published using ACS data, it ranks 3,017th nationally and 138th in the state.

Its population health numbers are no better. According to the latest data from County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, Brantley County ranks 130th out of Georgia’s 159 counties for health outcomes. Nationally, its premature death rate — a third-world 12,170 — ranks 2,546th out of 2,865 counties for which premature death data was available. That puts it in the bottom national quartile for that important metric as well.

I said above there are two ways to interpret this particular chunk of data. The second way is that rural Georgians are content to continue sucking on Metro Atlanta’s teat.

That is, I know, crude and uncharitable.

But I submit that it fairly frames the mounting political tension inherent in the state’s widening urban-rural divide. As rural Georgia’s population declines and its economy shrinks, its social service needs increase — and that growing burden is inevitably imposed on Metro Atlanta.

I’ve written about this in a couple of pieces, including this one, but I’ve had to rely on federal data. It was once possible to do this kind of analysis using state data, but not long after I started my TIGC research and began referencing that data, the Georgia Department of Revenue simply stopped reporting county-level state income tax data. I’m sure that was just a coincidence.

Pretty much from the dawn of time, rural Georgia’s politicians — a wily bunch if ever there was one — have outnumbered and dominated their city cousins. For now and probably through the end of this decade, that’s unlikely to change.

Governor Kemp and his GOP allies in the General Assembly — nearly all of whom are from rural districts — still hold the whip hand over Democratic lawmakers — all but a few of whom represent Metro Atlanta.

As Metro Atlanta’s population and economic muscle continue to grow, it will almost certainly grow more and more difficult for ruling Republicans to exact the taxes needed from Metro Atlanta to support the schools, roads and social services in Brantley County and other impoverished rural counties.

I won’t try to predict exactly how or when Georgia will hit an inflection point over these political and economic tensions, but it’s on the horizon. Brian Kemp’s legacy may well depend on whether he manages to somehow bridge the divide between urban and rural Georgia — or leaves office four years from now with the state’s political regions poised for what would amount to a destructive internecine war.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m glad Abrams campaigned in red Georgia. Now when they complain that the Ds don’t make an effort to campaign there the Ds can just reference Abrams ’22 campaign.

    IMO Abrams lost because the Ds didn’t vote like ’20. It would have been a landslide victory for the Ds if that had happened. Unfortunately Trump wasn’t on the ballot.

    Earlier this year you blogged about whether or not the tax refunds would help Rs in the suburbs, but now I think the tax refunds were meant for rural Georgia and now I do think that’s why Kemp increased his vote share in those areas.

    I think your being pessimistic about a internecine war between urban & rural Georgia because Walker did NOT DO WELL! About 10% of Kemp’s voters voted for Warnock. Kemp is pretty hard right (let’s face it, all he is doing is enriching himself – but I think the Rs guvnor candidate in ’26 is going to be as bad as Walker and the Rinos will vote blue.

    November 10, 2022
    • Charles Hayslett #

      I applauded the fact that Abrams campaigned in rural Georgia as well, but I also questioned the efficacy of that campaign decision. In political campaigns, resources are finite (as I think I wrote in one earlier post): time and money spent in, say, Randolph County is time and money that can’t be devoted to turning out the vote in bigger and more reliable Democratic regions. I don’t know whether ignoring rural Georgia would have helped, but she suffered huge dropoffs in just about every Metro Atlanta county — and got crushed in the northern ‘burbs. Kemp’s margins were so big it probably wouldn’t have mattered.

      November 10, 2022
      • Yes you are right that that Abrams would have been better off not worrying about the red areas, but it was a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario since Abrams was heavily criticized for not campaigning in red Georgia in ’18.

        I think the real problem for Abrams is that under 40 year old voters didn’t turn out like they did in ’18 and ’20. The under 40 early vote was less than 18% which was NOT good for Abrams – I still haven’t seen any demographic data for the final vote total yet.

        Maybe focusing on just the blue areas would have changed that, but then again it might not have made a difference.

        Finally, I do think that if Abrams had campaigned more against Georgia’s six week abortion law that probably would have helped her.

        November 10, 2022
  2. Mike St Louis #

    I’m surprised so little mention is made of the power of incumbency. Kemp was an enormously different candidate from 2018, simply because he has been in the news daily for four years and Georgia hasn’t fallen off a cliff. Even the D governor in Kansas, who only won in 2018 because she faced a historically bad, wildly-unpopular R opponent, was re-elected against a normal R. I think incumbent U.S. governors must win 90%+ of the time?

    As for rural areas, I don’t understand why people don’t either understand or rebel that their R leaders are stopping them from having the medical care and economic vitality that full Medicaid expansion would contribute to the State. That is the almost unimaginable policy decision that is killing rural Georgians literally as well as economically. TIGC — Do you know if there is any appreciation of this among rural Georgians?

    November 11, 2022
  3. Bill Hendrick #

    What he hell is wrong with this state? I have the answer. Racism. Stacy never had a chance. Oh, and ignorance, too. How could somebody as rock dumb as ole Herschel get so many votes? Very discouraging. But Challie you go a great job analyzing all this. Maybe two or three more women will fess up to having abortions paid for by Walker.

    November 11, 2022
  4. This is the way I would read it. “One way to read the data is that most rural Georgians are apparently perfectly happy being dirt-poor, largely uneducated, and likely candidates for early death.” In fact, having lived there I can tell you they would argue they have it made and big cities like Atlanta suck.

    November 11, 2022

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