More TIGC lessons from the 2022 governor’s race
Further notes from a deep (and continuing) dive into the results of Georgia’s 2020 General Election:
Georgia is as divided politically as it is economically, educationally, and health-wise — and those divisions have all taken shape over roughly the same time period. I’ll start here with a little history lesson. In 1990, Lt. Governor Zell Miller, a Democrat, made his first run for governor and defeated his Republican opponent, State Senator Johnny Isakson, by 8.3 percentage points. In our just completed 2022 gubernatorial contest, incumbent Republican Brian Kemp defeated his Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams by a comparable 7.6 points.
But the way Miller and Kemp assembled their winning majorities could not have been more different — and this is important to understanding our current political environment and the challenges the state faces in reconciling the differences between Atlanta and Notlanta.
In 1990, 45 counties were decided by less than 10 percentage points. This year, only 10 counties were decided by that margin. In 1990, Miller cracked 70 percent of the vote in a grand total of seven counties. This year, Kemp hit that threshold in 90 counties, including four where he rolled up 90 percent of the vote and 31 where he broke 80 percent. One of those 80 percent counties was Miller’s native Towns County; in 1990, Towns County voters gave their native son 73.5 percent of their vote; this year, they gave Kemp 84.5 percent.
These maps offer political portraits of Georgia in 1990 and 2022. Over the course of three decades, nearly every rural county in the state switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP — but that’s not the most important takeaway from these maps.
The most important takeaway is the extent of that switch. The darker the red or blue, the higher the percentage of the vote each party received. While Democrats dominated the state in 1990, its winning map was made up largely of pastel blues while the 2022 map features darker shades of blood red throughout most of the state.
In the last century, the vast majority of the state was politically competitive. Few if any counties tilted so heavily in one direction that it made no sense for candidates from the other party to campaign in them. Generally, there were enough votes in play almost everywhere to justify at least a quick campaign stop and press interview by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Indeed, in 1980, Norman Underwood, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat then held by Herman Talmadge, made campaigning in every single county in the state a significant element of his platform. The only part of the pledge that seemed dubious was whether he had the logistical wherewithal and the time — in a relatively short campaign — to meander all over the state (my recollection is that he made it). This year, when Democrat Abrams started her campaign in rural Randolph County and vowed to campaign in “every region” of the state, some observers (yours truly included) wondered if that was a good use of her time and money.
I don’t know where the tipping point is, but it seems to me that communities that tilt 75 or 80 percent in either direction might be fairly regarded as hostile territory by the other party, and not worth significant campaign time or resources.
Moreover, the same forces that shape the political and electoral environment animate the policy-making thinking of legislators elected by those respective communities. I submit that’s true whether you’re considering the challenges facing rural Georgia or the hot-button cultural issues that have a way of working their way into the General Assembly.
(Case in point, stay tuned for more on Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney’s ruling that Governor Kemp’s vaunted anti-abortion “heartbeat bill” is unconstitutional under Georgia law. That drops the hottest of hot potatoes onto the Gold Dome and confronts the Republican majority in the General Assembly with a choice between trying to pass a new bill or waiting to see if the appellate courts reverse McBurney’s decision.)
Another key takeaway from last week’s election results is that Abrams lost significant ground in just about every major urban county in the state. In last week’s first hot take on the election, TIGC focused on the results in Georgia’s rural counties, where Abrams lost ground against her 2018 performance. Your humble TIGC scribe was focused on the rural trees, and in the process I overlooked the larger statewide forest: the picture was pretty much the same everywhere, and for Team Abrams that picture was not pretty.
In traditionally reliable urban climes, Abrams’s losses appear to be due first and foremost to plunging turnout numbers — drops which were largely matched by drops in her own vote totals. This was true in Metro Atlanta and in other Democratic strongholds across the state. Particularly disappointing to Abrams had to be the results of vote-rich DeKalb and Gwinnett. Compared to the 2018 governor’s race, those two counties saw their total turnout plunge by more than 15,000 votes each, and Abrams’s vote totals suffered similar drops (see table below).
The picture was much the same in deep blue fortresses along the gnat line — Muscogee, Bibb and Richmond — as well as Chatham County and elsewhere. In those four counties alone, Abrams saw her vote total versus 2018 drop nearly 17,000 votes, while Kemp fattened his total (in, again, Democratic territory) by more than 3,300 votes. In TIGC’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region, Abrams’s margin over Kemp fell from 62.2%-to-37.8% in 2018 to 59.5%-to-40.5% in this year’s election. In the process, Kemp boosted his Metro Atlanta totals by nearly 46,000 over his 2018 numbers while Abrams saw hers fall by more than 60,000.
Meanwhile, Kemp was also mopping up in Atlanta’s northern ‘burbs. Following the 2020 presidential election, I wrote that the GOP was working to build a political Maginot Line across North Georgia and that the North Georgia hills were the future home base for the state’s Republican Party. The leading edge of that line is the fast-growing suburban and exurban precincts across north Atlanta.
In recent election cycles, Democrats had made gains in those areas, winning Cobb and Gwinnett counties and cutting into GOP margins in Cherokee, Forsyth and other counties. This time around, Kemp & Company held the line and regained fair chunks of lost ground (as the table below shows). Indeed, in contrast to the situation in virtually every Democratic stronghold, voters turned out in bigger numbers in Cherokee, Forsyth and other hill country counties. There was a smidgen of good news for Abrams in these numbers: she grew her vote totals in Cherokee and Forsyth, but only by a fraction of Kemp’s gains.
And, yes, it looks like ticket-splitting really happened this time around. Incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock — being challenged by Trump-backed former UGA football star Herschel Walker — outpolled Abrams in all 159 counties and rolled up nearly 132,000 more votes than she got. That gave him a lead going into the December 6th runoff against Walker.
Stay tuned for more on what all this is likely to mean.
(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022