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Posts tagged ‘Metro Atlanta’

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

Your TIGC weekend Covid-19 update: Things are bad and getting worse

Last weekend TIGC reported that 70 Georgia counties qualified as Covid-19 “red zones” and that the bug appeared to be mounting a new assault on Metro Atlanta from its fortifications in the North Georgia mountains.

Today we can report that the number of counties whose seven-day rates exceed 100 cases per 100,000 people — the “red zone” threshold set by the White House Coronovirus Task Force — is up to 96, and all 12 Metro Atlanta counties are now included in that group.

This is, obviously, part of a national trend. The AJC reported this morning that Georgia is one of 48 states that qualify as red zones. But, as usual, virus’s attacks are far from uniform, and it seems to move from one region to another in an almost deliberate manner. These two maps show its progression out of the North Georgia hills over the past week.

At the same time, the virus seems to be giving much of rural Middle and South Georgia a bit of a breather. This doesn’t mean that the virus has gone away, just that — for the moment — the seven-day case rate has fallen below the 100 cases per 100,000 people level.

But that could change, and quickly. As the bug has re-invaded Metro Atlanta, it also seems to be knifing its way back down I-75 and could easily branch off into the rural counties to the east or west.

At the moment, Whitfield and Murray counties, side-by-side neighbors on the Tennessee line, jointly constitute the hottest spot in the state. Combined, their seven-day case rate is 511.27 per 100,000 people — more than five times what it takes to qualify as a Covid-19 “red zone” — and their combined seven-day death rate is 7.59 per 100,000. The state average for the past seven days was 1.56 deaths per 100,000. The state’s three largest counties — Fulton, Gwinnett and DeKalb — had seven-day death rates of .45 per 100,000 people, .72, and .76, respectively.

The cause of the Whitfield-Murray outbreak isn’t clear. The Daily Citizen-News, the newspaper in the Whitfield county seat of Dalton, has covered the outbreak — including stories on the reluctance of local officials to impose a mask mandate — and editorialized about it. But a limited scan of its online stories (before the paywall came up) failed to find anything about what might be driving the outbreak.

In an editorial published today (November 21), the Daily Citizen-News noted Whitfield’s unhappy standing at the top of the new case-rate list and lamented the lack of citizen observance of recommended public health practices.

” … (M)any of us ignore the advice of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as we refuse to wear masks and/or practice social distancing. The lack of masks and social distancing is evident all over town. We have to do better,” the newspaper added.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020

Covid-19 Update: Much of Metro Atlanta now a red zone

The spread of Covid-19 that had turned virtually all of northwest Georgia into a “red zone” now appears to have re-invaded Metro Atlanta.

As TIGC reported in a couple of recent posts, most of the counties in the northwestern corner of the state had been posting 7-day case rates of at least 100 new cases per 100,000 residents, which would put them in what the White House Coronovirus Task Force considers a “red zone.”

Until recently, the bug seemed to be doing most of its recent and current damage in a cluster of nearly 20 contiguous counties in north Georgia, but it hadn’t re-entered the Metro Atlanta region with enough force to push the area back into the seven-day red zone. Now it has, as this map illustrates.

Indeed, the AJC reported Friday that the head of the Cobb and Douglas county health departments had issued a special warning because of rising rates in the area. The newspaper quoted Dr. Janet Memark, the director for the Cobb-Douglas health district, as saying the rates were rising even though testing was down, and that she thought state data underestimated the actual spread of the virus.

“It’s decreased demand [for testing] but yet the percentage positive is going up,” she told the AJC. “I do think we have some substantial transmission that’s happening.”

The only North Metro and North Georgia counties that escaped red zone numbers were Gilmer, Dawson and Forsyth, and they didn’t miss it by much; their seven-day case rates were 95.5, 99.7 and 90.7, respectively.

On Metro Atlanta’s western edge, Douglas and Paulding counties posted 7-day case rates in the mid-80s, and the counties on the southern edge of the Atlanta region — Heard, Coweta and Fayette — were cooler still, with case rates in the 50s and 60s.

But the four biggest counties in Metro Atlanta all posted seven-day case rates that put them in the red zone: Fulton at 113.3; Gwinnett, 133; DeKalb, 129.4, and Cobb, 106.8

All told, 70 counties qualified for red zone status as of Saturday’s report from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), and for a change the southern part of the state appeared to be somewhat cooler than the northern half, as this map illustrates.

While there were obviously clusters of counties in Middle and South Georgia whose numbers put them in the red zone, the vast majority — again, for a change — appeared to be seeing at least a brief respite from the virus’s siege through those parts of the state.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020

A first dive into Georgia’s June 9 primary results: a Blue tide rises across the state

I’ve been waiting for all the votes from Georgia’s June 9 party primaries to be counted before jumping into the data and trying to figure out what it all means from a TIGC perspective.  As of Monday morning, the Georgia Secretary of State’s website tells me that all 2,627 precincts in all 159 counties have now been reported, even though the results are still listed as “unofficial” and it’s not clear that all the counties’ results have been certified.  I figure that’s close enough to get started.  If something major changes, I’ll update this report later.

Two years ago, the main political story out of the governor’s race was that rural Georgia and the Atlanta exurbs barely hung on and dragged Republican Brian Kemp across the finish line and into the governor’s office.  The 130 largely rural and sparsely populated counties Kemp carried turned out at a slightly higher rate than the 29 largely urban counties won by Democrat Stacey Abrams.

The story out of the 2020 party primaries appears to be that demography is finally having its way with the state.  This year has long been forecast as the year when the state’s politics would finally tip back in the Democrats favor, and it’s looking like those forecasts might well be correct.  A strong blue tide washed over most of the state in the June 9 primaries, basically flipping the fast-growing ‘burbs in the northern metro area and cutting into Republican margins in most rural counties.

For this analysis, I’ve focused primarily on a comparison between this year’s U.S. Senate primaries and the 2014 primaries for the same seat.  That year, longtime incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss was retiring, and both parties had competitive primaries, especially the Republicans.  Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, won the Democratic nomination without much difficulty.  The GOP chose David Perdue, a cousin of former Governor Sonny Perdue, after a seven-candidate free-for-all and a run-off with then-U.S. Representative Jack Kingston.  Perdue went on to defeat Nunn and is now running for re-election to a second term.

(I spent some time rummaging around in the presidential primary numbers as well.  The results, not surprisingly, are pretty much the same as I found in the Senate data.  I may do a presidential primary breakout later.)

In that 2014 Senate primary, Republicans cast nearly twice as many votes as Democrats: 605,355 to 328,710.  Two weeks ago, the Senate primary turnout more than doubled its 2014 total – to more than 2.1 million votes – and the Democratic field outpolled Perdue, who was unopposed for nomination to another term, by nearly 200,000 votes: 1,179,198 for the Democrats to 984,274 for Perdue.  Overall the state flipped from about 65%-to-35% Republican in 2014 to nearly 55%-to-45% Democrat this year.

If the topline numbers are eye-catching, some of the subplots are downright jaw-dropping.  Perhaps most startling, the GOP stronghold across the north Atlanta suburbs and exurbs seems to be collapsing.  Cobb and Gwinnett counties were long regarded as critical fortresses in the Republican Party’s grip on power in the state.  Both flipped narrowly for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race, then stuck with Abrams over Kemp in the 2018 governor’s race.

But if those 2016 and 2018 suburban numbers hit hard at GOP HQ, the 2020 results probably felt like a lethal dose of Covid-19 – and it wasn’t just Cobb and Gwinnett.  Cherokee and Forsyth counties, which sit between Cobb and Gwinnett and are fast-growing, affluent exurbs, came in a lot less red this time around.  In the 2014 Senate primaries, both Cherokee and Forsyth delivered more than 10 Republican votes for every Democratic ballot; this year, the margin was just a little over two-to-one.

Overall, those four counties went from being an 80-20 Republican stronghold in 2014 to 56-44 Democratic territory this year, as this table details.

County 2014 Republican Senate Percentage 2014 Democratic Senate Percentage 2020 Republican Senate Percentage 2020 Democratic Senate Percentage Party Shift (R-to-D)
Cherokee 92.2% 7.8% 69.0% 31.0% 23.2%
Cobb 74.7% 25.3% 38.6% 61.4% 36.1%
Forsyth 92.4% 7.6% 66.8% 33.2% 25.6%
Gwinnett 76.8% 23.2% 35.7% 64.3% 41.2%
Totals 80.3% 19.7% 44.1% 55.9% 36.2%

As a whole, the state has shifted 19.3 percentage points in the Democratic Party’s direction since the 2014 Senate primaries.  Not surprisingly, Metro Atlanta has led that shift.  In 2014, TIGC’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region cast 43.7 percent of the state’s votes in the Senate primary and gave the GOP a 58%-to-42% advantage.  This year those same 12 counties accounted for 49.8 percent of the total vote and gave the Democrats a 70%-to-30% advantage.

Forty-two of the state’s 159 counties did tilt toward the GOP in 2020, and those counties delivered 55,669 more Republican ballots than in 2014.  But 116 counties leaned more blue in 2020, and they delivered the Democrats a combined total of 835,332 more votes than in 2014.  Four counties – – Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb – each provided more additional votes to the Democrats than the other 42 counties combined did for Republicans.

Indeed, mapping the party shift data suggests that Republicans are being driven largely south and east across the state, perhaps into the Okefenokee Swamp (if not the Atlantic Ocean) and possibly across the state line into Florida, as these maps suggest.

The map on the left shows the counties where Democrats grew their share of the Senate primary vote versus the 2014 Senate primary.  The darker the blue, the bigger the shift from Republican to Democrat.  The map on the right shows the same thing for counties that shifted Republican between 2014 and 2020.

The two counties that posted the biggest Democrat-to-Republican shifts over the past six years are Atkinson and Clinch, adjoining counties in deep southeast Georgia.  Both cast more Democratic ballots in the 2014 Senate primaries but have flipped hard Republican since then; Atkinson has shifted 67.4 percentage points to the GOP over the past six years, Clinch, 43.1 points.  Together, however, they contributed fewer than 2,700 votes to the Republican cause.

If Georgia as a whole is now more competitive than it has been in a couple of decades, that’s no longer true of the vast majority of its individual counties.  In 97 counties, at least 70 percent of voters cast their ballots for one party or the other.

Only eight counties were decided within the truly competitive range of 55%-to-45%.  Thomas, Mitchell, Meriwether, Houston, Lowndes, Telfair and Early counties tilted narrowly to the GOP (Early by a single vote, 1,417-to-1,416), while Fayette, long considered safe GOP territory, turned a pale shade of blue.  The largest of these may well become battleground counties in the fall campaigns.

At the extremes, Democrats need not bother venturing into such rural climes as Glascock, Echols, Berrien and Pierce, which, among others, gave more than 90 percent of their ballots to the Republican Party.

As one measure of just how red rural Georgia has become, Dodge and Haralson counties, the homes of the last two Democratic speakers of the Georgia House of Representatives, Terry Coleman and Tom Murphy, both champions of rural causes, gave 86 and 90.2 percent, respectively, of their votes to Republicans this time around.

By the same token, Perdue and other Republicans probably have little to gain by spending time or money in Clayton County (91 percent Democrat) or DeKalb (89.8 percent).  For the uninitiated, Clayton and DeKalb are a good bit bigger than all the high-percentage GOP counties combined.

Bottom line, if there is little obvious good news in these numbers for Georgia Republicans or rural Georgia, they should not be read as the basis for a sure bet that the state will flip this year.

GOP turnout was arguably depressed by the fact that both their Senate and presidential primaries were uncontested, and their voters had less reason to turn out, especially in the midst of a pandemic.  What’s more, Democratic Senate nominee Jon Ossoff will have his work cut out for him.  Prodigious fundraiser that he is, he barely avoided a runoff and will have to consolidate the support of his six Democratic primary opponents.

The one good bet for the fall is that it will be a turnout election.  With a few exceptions, neither Perdue nor Ossoff will have much incentive to spend time or money trying to convert voters in their opponent’s territory.  Instead, they’re likely to put their effort into activating their geographic bases, which is virtually certain to deepen Georgia’s political divide even further.  That, in turn, will only complicate efforts to create a policy construct needed to address the challenges facing rural Georgia.

 

March 20 Covid-19 Update: 420 positive cases in 50 counties

In its Friday update, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) reported that the total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the state had jumped to 420 from 297 on Thursday and that the number of counties involved had risen to 50 from 34.

As the map below shows, the virus has continued to spread outward from Metro Atlanta and, just as significantly, in southwest Georgia, where Albany and Dougherty County have emerged as a hot spot.  March 20 Covid-19 Update

On Thursday, the only southwest Georgia counties with confirmed cases, in addition to Dougherty, were Lee, directly to the north, and Early, to the west on the Alabama line.  On Friday, DPH added Miller, Randolph, Terrell, Turner and Worth to that list.  Those eight counties are now home to 54 known Covid-19 victims.

Perhaps oddly, the only area of the state still largely unscathed is a massive stretch of sparsely populated and for the most part poverty-stricken rural counties that run from east central Georgia — in the area roughly between Metro Atlanta and Augusta — down through southeast Georgia.

Laurens County, whose county seat of Dublin is the largest city in that general region, reported its first case on Thursday.  Outside of Dublin and Vidalia, in Toombs County, these counties do not have major healthcare facilities.

Throughout the state, local officials continued to struggle to come to grips with the spread of the virus.  In Albany, Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas asked the county’s residents to shelter-in-place and indicated the county government was moving to enacting an order requiring it.  Across the state, Southeast Georgia Health System suspended most visitation rights at its Brunswick and Camden hospitals.

Political common ground hard to find in Georgia. Literally.

A few days after Georgia’s 2018 elections, I did a quick analysis and wrote a piece positing that the state’s widening urban-rural divide went beyond economics and education and extended to politics.  Rural areas seemed to be going more and more Republican while urban and suburban areas were trending more Democratic.  Recently I’ve finally gotten around to taking a deeper dive into past election results and can report a couple of things.

The first thing I can report is that the Georgia Republican Party’s rural strategy is now pretty clear.  Basically, they’re trying to run off all the Democrats.

The second thing I can report is that they’re doing a damn fine job of it.

I am only about half-joking.  One 2018 factoid that I don’t think got nearly enough attention is that Governor Brian Kemp, then the Republican nominee, cracked 90 percent in two rural counties, Glascock (in east-central Georgia, gave him 91.4 percent) and Brantley (deep southeast Georgia, 91.3 percent).  That was a first, at least in modern political history.  Kemp topped 80 percent in 27 more counties.

Even Donald Trump didn’t do that well; in 2016, he piled up 80 percent vote totals in 24 counties but never got into that 90 percent stratosphere anywhere.  Altogether, Kemp won 76 counties with more than 70 percent of the vote; you have to wonder if he wasn’t disappointed with the 36 counties he won with a relatively meager 60 and 70 percent, not to mention the 18 laggard counties that couldn’t deliver more than 50-something percent.

This pattern isn’t exclusively Republican, of course.  Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams broke 80 percent in Clayton and DeKalb counties and got into the 70s in three more counties, and the fact that once reliably red suburban counties are now trending blue has been heavily reported and well documented.  Indeed, as I was finishing up this research, Jay Bookman went up at the Georgia Recorder with an excellent piece documenting the “velocity” with which heavily populated urban and suburban counties are flipping from red to blue.  It’s a good companion to this piece.

It’s worth taking a minute, though, to recognize how and why all this is a big deal.  Up until 1990, Democratic landslides were foregone conclusions and anything less than a 25-point win was a little embarrassing.  But Republicans were clawing their way to relevance and in the 28 years since then every gubernatorial election but one has been decided by 10 points or less; the only real blowout was Governor Sonny Perdue’s 19-point thrashing of Lt. Governor Mark Taylor in 2006.

But that rough statewide equilibrium has masked tectonic shifts taking place beneath the surface.   First of all, Georgia’s Democrats and Republicans have basically swapped geographic territory over the past three decades.  In 1990, the state’s popular Democratic lieutenant governor, Zell Miller, carried 141 counties and posted a relatively modest 8.3-point win over Johnny Isakson, at the time a suburban Republican state senator.  In 2018, Republican Kemp carried 130 counties in his squeaker over Democrat Abrams, the party’s first female and African-American nominee.  Here’s what the raw 1990 and 2018 maps looked like.

 

That’s only part of the story, however, and it is a bit deceptive.  The way those Democratic and Republican voting blocs are assembled has changed radically over the past three decades – and those changes bring the state’s political divide into even sharper relief.

In 1990, Miller beat Isakson 52.9%-to-44.5%, and that spread was generally reflective of what you found around the state.  Fifty-three of the state’s 159 counties were decided in that middling 55%-to-45% range.  Another 50 counties were carried with less than 60 percent of the vote.  In other words, the vast majority of the state’s counties were fairly competitive.

Map the 1990 results based on the extent to which each party carried a county and you get paler shades of blue and red (left).  1990 Shaded MapYou even get some nearly colorless counties; Miller led in six counties with pluralities in the high 40s (Coweta County tipped his way by two votes out of nearly 12,000 cast).  Isakson’s best performance was 61.8 percent, in his home Cobb County.  Miller’s best showing was 75.1 percent in Chattahoochee County, one of seven rural counties where he topped 70 percent.

Last year was very different.  The closest gubernatorial race at least in modern history – Kemp’s 1.4 percent win over Abrams – was forged on the most divided and hyper-partisan political terrain in the state’s history.  Only 15 counties were decided with less than 55 percent of the vote, and only 19 more were won with less than 60 percent.

Put another way, in 1990, 60 percent was the ceiling in 103 of the state’s 159 counties – the most either Miller or Isakson got in any of those counties.  In 2018, 60 percent was the floor in 105 counties – the least either Kemp or Abrams got.  2018 Shade MapThe pastels that were so prevalent in 1990 were in shorter supply last year, especially the reds (right).

As one illustration of the magnitude of the rural shift, Miller’s native Towns County gave him 73.5 percent of its vote in 1990; last year, it went 81.7 percent for Kemp.

The real question in all this is, of course, so what?  How do the shifts and balkanization of the state’s political geography affect policy-making and legislating, especially as it relates to the problems of rural Georgia?  I won’t pretend to know, but my hunch is we’re headed for a reckoning.

For now, both the Georgia House of Representatives and State Senate are still safely in Republican hands, and they can be expected to advance and defend rural interests (even at the expense of urban taxpayers).

But the 2020 Census and the subsequent reapportionment will inevitably change that.  All the mischief that is likely to occur both in counting the bodies and redrawing the lines won’t be able to completely defy the gravitational pull of Metro Atlanta and Georgia’s other urban communities.  Rural Georgia will lose seats, and that will have political and policy consequences.

Exactly what they will be remains to be seen.  The one certain thing is that political common ground is, literally, getting harder and harder to find.

 

Rural Georgia: Doing its part to send Metro Atlanta kids to college

One recurring theme in my Trouble in God’s Country research is that Metro Atlanta is paying the lion’s share of taxes in Georgia while consuming a much smaller portion of social services, such as Medicaid and food stamp benefits.  Rural Georgia, generally speaking, doesn’t cover its costs for those services.

In at least one regard, however, rural Georgians seem to be doing their best to balance the books.  They’re spending millions of dollars on Georgia lottery tickets that help send tens of thousands of Metro Atlanta kids to college.

Of course, a fair number of rural Georgians get advanced education through lottery-funded HOPE scholarship grants – at either University System of Georgia (USG) institutions or one of the state’s technical colleges – but Metro Atlanta is clearly getting the better end of this particular deal.

I’m not sure this qualifies as real news.  It probably won’t come as a surprise to political leaders and policymakers who work in these areas.  Also, I should stipulate that the Georgia lottery and HOPE scholarship data I’ve been studying comes with a handful of significant caveats.  Available data from the University System of Georgia (USG) and the U.S. Census Bureau make it possible to paint pretty precise county-level and regional pictures of educational attainment patterns and college enrollment trends throughout the state.

The lottery and HOPE data are a little fuzzier and the resulting pictures are therefore a bit blurrier.  After studying the data for a bit, I’ve decided the best way to tell this story is to present two views – a big-picture, macro view, and then a more isolated micro snapshot.

First, the big picture, and here the caveats are especially important.  Lottery sales are reported on a county-specific basis, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a lottery ticket sold in a particular county is purchased by a resident of that same county – or even a Georgia resident.  Inter-county or interstate sales aren’t tracked, although it’s pretty obvious that many of the Georgia counties on the Alabama border are pulling in millions of dollars from that state[i].

HOPE scholarships, meanwhile, are awarded to students in their county of residence, not their county of origin.  Odds are that the initial awards do go to students in their county of origin, but it’s also obvious that many students effectively move to their college towns and establish residence there while they’re still receiving HOPE awards.  Even a cursory review of data for college communities makes that clear.

Still, the big picture is a useful starting point.  For that I organized lottery sales and HOPE scholarship data by my five Trouble in God’s Country regions – 12 Metro Atlanta counties, 41 North Georgia counties, 43 Middle Georgia counties, 56 South Georgia counties, and seven Coastal Georgia counties.  Here’s how those numbers shake out:

Regional Lottery and Hope Analysis

The obvious takeaway from this is that Metro Atlanta and North Georgia were the only two regions that got larger shares of the HOPE scholarship grants than they ponied up for lottery tickets.  The largely rural areas of Middle, South and Coastal Georgia didn’t do nearly as well.

For the micro view, I organized a cluster of 16 largely rural counties in interior Middle and South Georgia; I’m calling it the South Central Georgia Cluster[ii]Cherokee S. Georgia MapAll these counties are far enough away from a state line that they shouldn’t get a lot of interstate lottery dollars, and most (with a couple of exceptions) are well off the beaten path of the major interstate highways.  In other words, it’s a fair presumption that their lottery sales are largely local.

As a point of comparison, I chose Cherokee County, an exurban county on the northern edge of Metro Atlanta (that’s the green county in the northern part of the map).  In 1994, the 16-county cluster of rural counties was home to a little more than twice as many people as Cherokee County – 231,402 to 107,569, according to Census estimates for that year.  But from the git-go, the rural counties were more enthusiastic lottery players.  In 1994 (the first full year of the lottery), lottery sales in those 16 counties were 3.6 times as much as in Cherokee County.

Today, the populations are roughly equivalent: 254,149 for Cherokee County versus 271,182 for the 16 rural counties, based on 2018 Census Bureau estimates (the latest available).

But lottery sales in those 16 counties are still more than double Cherokee County’s: $151.9 million to $69.3 million.  If Cherokee County and the 16 South Central Georgia counties constituted a state of sorts, here’s what their total respective shares of the lottery sales and HOPE grants would look like over the life of the programs:

South Central Cherokee Comparison

Perhaps more interesting than the total shares of lottery sales and HOPE grants is the way the trend lines evolved over time.  From 1994 through 2011, the 16-county South Central Georgia Cluster received more in HOPE scholarships than Cherokee County.  But in 2012, both areas took major hits in HOPE funding (as did the state as a whole).  The South Central counties suffered a 43.2 percent hit in HOPE scholarship grants and still haven’t gotten back to their 2011 level; Cherokee County dropped 26.5 percent but recovered more quickly and had gotten nearly all the way back to its 2011 high by 2017.  The result has been that Cherokee County passed the 16 rural counties in HOPE grants in 2012 and has been widening the gap ever since.

South Central Cluster Cherokee Trendlines

This matches a pattern I’ve seen in other education-related data.  As I noted in my last post, up through 2010, Metro Atlanta had trailed the other 147 counties in the state in fall freshman enrollment at USG colleges.  But those lines crossed in 2011 and the gap has been widening ever since.  The same pattern shows up in a comparison of Gwinnett County and all 56 counties of interior South Georgia from late 2016.

I’ve got more work to do on all this.  I need to take a deep dive into enrollment patterns at the state’s technical colleges, and I’m expecting to get a breakout on HOPE scholarship grants by type of institution – USG, technical college, or private college – fairly soon.  I’ll try to update all this within a couple of weeks.

Even with that work still to be done – and with all the caveats stipulated above – it seems fair to suggest that a lot of poor folks in rural Georgia are sending a lot of Metro Atlanta kids to college.

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[i] I figured this out when I was trying to get a handle on lottery sales patterns in different parts of the state.  One approach I took was to calculate lottery sales per capita – in other words, to divide total lottery sales by population.  The state average for 2018 was $437.08 per capita.  Far and away the top producer was Quitman County at more than $4,800 per capita.  One of the smallest and poorest counties in the state, Quitman County sits forlornly on a stretch of the Chattahoochee River that is known as Walter F. George Lake in Georgia and Lake Eufaula in Alabama; Quitman County’s top economic asset in this regard is no doubt the Ernest Vandiver Causeway, which spans the lake and connects it to the State of Alabama, which is one of about a half-dozen U.S. states that still doesn’t have a lottery of its own.  While Quitman County’s per capita sales dwarf those of all other counties, seven of the top 10 per capita sales counties border Alabama, and two others are just east of Quitman County.

[ii] The counties included in the South Central Georgia Cluster are: Atkinson, Bacon, Ben Hill, Bleckley, Coffee, Dodge, Irwin, Jeff Davis, Laurens, Montgomery, Pulaski, Telfair, Toombs, Treutlen, Wheeler, and Wilcox.

Coming to Rural Georgia from Outer Space: Broadband Internet Service

I’ve been arguing pretty much since the rural broadband craze started that we’d be nuts to plow probably at least a billion tax dollars — most of it from Metro Atlanta — into running fiber to Georgia’s most sparsely populated counties.

Give the private sector and advancing technology time, I’ve felt, and we’ll probably get a better solution long before the state could plow up all the red clay in rural Georgia and put fiber in the ground.

Satellite-based internet has been around for years, although one of the legitimate raps on its potential as a consumer solution has been speed: the satellites are so far above the Earth that it takes a while for the signal to bounce back and forth.

Well, now comes SpaceX with the launch of 60 low-orbit satellites designed to solve that problem: https://nyti.ms/2M8E4nH

Per the New York Times’s story, these new satellites will orbit the planet at a much lower altitude than the current 22,000 miles: “The Starlink satellites will orbit much lower — between 210 and 710 miles above the surface. That reduces the lagginess, or latency. SpaceX has said performance should be comparable to ground-based cable and optical fiber networks that carry most internet traffic today. Starlink would provide high-speed internet to parts of the world that currently are largely cut off from the modern digital world.”

The Times’s story indicates it’ll take nearly 2,000 of these low-orbit satellites to blanket the planet, but my hunch is SpaceX will get that done long before the State of Georgia could hardwire rural Georgia — and we won’t have to pay for it.

Breaking News: Pierce County GOP opposes secession

Well, darn.

For a few days there I thought we had a major story brewing down in Pierce County.

Leaders of the Republican Party in that deep South Georgia community had included a question on Tuesday’s party primary ballot asking whether the “counties South of Macon (should) join together to form the 51st state of South Georgia.”

Going into Tuesday’s election, I would have bet a cup of coffee it had a fair chance of passing. I have spent a good bit of time in South Georgia over the years and folks down there can be a provincial lot.  Many don’t much care for Atlanta.

But in a perhaps surprising display of common sense, Pierce County’s Republicans voted better than two-to-one not to break away from North Georgia and Metro Atlanta.  The final tally was 703 ayes to 1,844 nays.

On a personal level, I’ll confess to a certain amount of disappointment a new State of South Georgia is now apparently off the table.

It probably would have moved my home state of Mississippi up in the national rankings overnight.

In one fell swoop, it would almost certainly have created the poorest, sickest and least educated state in the union. Folks in Mississippi (and for that matter Alabama) would have been able to look forward to saying “thank God for South Georgia” when all the new national education and economic rankings come out each year.

Alas, I guess that’s not to be.

More seriously, the Pierce County initiative, unsuccessful though it was, does beg a serious discussion about the relationship between South Georgia (and, more generally, rural Georgia) and Metro Atlanta in particular – especially given the way the head of the Pierce County Republican Party, Kay Godwin, framed the issue going into Tuesday’s election.

“We don’t get anything from Atlanta,” she told The Blackshear Times. “This is an effort to force them to pay attention to us.  We are not going to secede, but I hope it passes so maybe it will produce action across the state.”

As the talking heads on cable news like to say, there’s a lot there to unpack.  I’ve emailed Ms. Godwin and asked her to expand on her comments, but at this writing I have not heard back from her.

Let’s start with “we don’t get anything from Atlanta.”

That’s nonsense.

The reality, probably not fully appreciated in any region of the state, is that Metro Atlanta has been subsidizing the rest of the state — and South Georgia in particular — for decades.

The Fiscal Research Center at Georgia State University took a mind-numbingly deep dive into this issue nearly a decade ago and found, basically, that as of 2004 (the most recent year for which the author could get comprehensive data) the 10 core Metro Atlanta counties generated 51 percent of state government revenues and consumed only 37 percent of the state’s expenditures, leaving the rest for the other 149 counties.

That’s very much in line with my own Trouble in God’s Country (TIGC) research.  Working with federal IRS data that’s available online, I found that in 2013 the 12 counties I classify as Metro Atlanta incurred right at two-thirds of the state’s federal tax liability — $20.4 billion versus $10.6 billion for the other 147 counties – while consuming, to cite just one example, only about a third of the state’s Medicaid expenses. And that was with less than half the population: 4.65 million people in Metro Atlanta versus 5.34 million in the other 147 counties.

Let’s narrow that focus to South Georgia. Working with that same 2013 data, we find that the 56 counties that make up my TIGC South Georgia region incurred about $1.7 billion in 2013 federal income tax liability, or about 5.5 percent of the state’s total.  At the same time, it consumed about 17.2 percent of the state’s Medicaid benefits.  The level of subsidy implied by these numbers should cause local leaders to pause before they start complaining about Atlanta not doing anything for them.

Truth is, South Georgia (and for that matter most of rural Georgia) is in a world of hurt. In some respects these areas are literally dying, and the breadth and scope of the problems afflicting just about everything from the gnat line south demand some sort of comprehensive solution.

I’ve touched on economics in this piece, but I could make parallel cases using educational and healthcare data.

South Georgia is the least educated and least healthy region of the state, and those facts translate into both an inability to support itself and a dependency on public support for Medicaid and other services.

Atlanta will have to be involved — both in the form of state-driven remedies and as a source of necessary funding. The longer the problems go untended, the bigger — and more expensive — they will become.

The real problem for Ms. Godwin and South Georgia is that these societal and fiscal problems are coming to a head just as their worst political nightmares are also coming true.

For all of Georgia’s history — up until right about now — rural Georgia ruled the political roost. Rural areas generally were smart enough to elect wily young politicians to the legislature and leave them in place to hold Atlanta at bay.

But that’s changing.

By my count, just under half of the current House and Senate districts lie partly or wholly within my TIGC 12-county Metro Atlanta. With the next census and reapportionment, political power will concentrate even further in Metro Atlanta, probably giving it a majority of the legislature.

South Georgia can forget about ever again electing a governor.

What this means is that the political powers who will soon hold virtually all the purse strings may soon be asking why they should be diverting tax dollars generated in Metro Atlanta —which has its own problems — to South Georgia.

Given that reality, South Georgia probably needs a better strategy than demanding “action” and “attention” by threatening to secede.

Who knows? We might take you up on it.

© Trouble in God’s Country 2018