Georgia On My Mind
It is now official and certified: Georgia, “the Peach State”, has “gone Blue” in the 2020 Presidential election, the first time this has happened in nearly 30 years. The victory was of great importance not only for President-elect Biden but of great potential significance for the Democratic Party as well. It may be the case that the Democrats have finally managed to flip what has been a Republican stronghold at the federal and state level for the last 20 or so years.
Georgia, from the time of the Civil War up until the 1960s, was part of the “Solid South”, voting in favor of the Democratic Party, against the party of Lincoln – the Republicans – in every presidential election. However, this began to change when the Democratic Party became the champions of civil rights reform during the 1960s. This was deeply resented by many in the South and prompted the Republicans to adopt what has been called the “Southern Strategy” and has been described as consisting of subtle and not so subtle racial appeals to Southern Whites.
Since then, Georgia has been a Republican stronghold in the Presidential elections. Since the 1960s, only two Democratic candidates for president have managed to win in Georgia. Even these cases can be viewed as an anomaly. Jimmy Carter won Georgia in 1976 and 1980, but he is a Georgian himself and was previously governor of the state. In 1992, Bill Clinton (another Southerner) won the state, but only by a plurality of the votes, and by a very close margin, in what was a three-party race.
The Republican takeover of Georgia, at the level of state government, was perhaps epitomized when the last Democratic Governor of the state, Roy Barnes, lost his bid for re-election, in a historic defeat in 2002. An important factor in his loss was attributed to his support for the removal of the emblem of the Confederacy from the Georgia state flag.
In the last two decades Georgia has solidified its status as a Republican stronghold. At the same time, however, the state has become a great prospect in the eyes of the Democrats for a number of reasons. Georgia has been steadily growing (the population of the state has increased by 1 million over the last decade) and getting younger (projections show Georgia adding more than 1.3 million citizens under the age of 24 by 2030). In addition, the state economy is becoming more dynamic, attracting a younger and increasingly diverse workforce, especially in cities such as Atlanta. Indeed, Atlanta has established itself as one of the major cities in the U.S. - Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International is in fact the busiest airport in the world, averaging around 100 million travelers a year.
This steady change in demographics was reflected in electoral terms for the first time in 2018, with a highly-contested governor’s race that captured national attention, between Democrat Stacey Abrams, a young Black woman, and the then-Secretary of State for Georgia, Brian Kemp, a middle-aged white man. Abrams lost narrowly, by only 55,000 votes out of some 4 million votes cast. There was great controversy around the race as Abrams claimed that Kemp had abused his office as state secretary, with responsibility for supervising the election by engaging in voter suppression. Examples cited include the purging of more than 1 million voter registrations because of “inactivity”, the closing or re-location of several voting stations in Democratic strongholds, and the adding of new prerequisites for voter registration, such as photo ID requirements. Republicans, on the other hand, defended the voter ID rules as necessary to prevent voter fraud. In any event, in recent election cycles higher voter turnout has tended to benefit the Democratic Party.
This is why, since her defeat in 2018, Abrams has been on a mission to overcome these roadblocks by playing a major role as an activist in the state, collaborating with other organizations and launching campaigns like “Fair Fight”, with the goal of getting as many Georgia citizens to register and vote. This resulted in more than 800,000 new registrations in Georgia before the 2020 election and has been credited for playing a key role in Biden’s victory in Georgia.
Abrams now has her eyes set on Georgia’s two Senate seats in an upcoming run-off election on January 5th. Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock are running against incumbent Republican Senators David Purdue and Kelly Loeffler. The race is unusual for a number of reasons: there were two Senates seats up for grabs in Georgia during this election cycle, and the winner was not decided for either of them, and each of them is now subject to the run-off. Furthermore, control of the U.S. Senate as a whole, by the Republicans or the Democrats, depend on this outcome. As it stands, it appears that the Republican will claim 50 seats in the Senate, and the Democrats 48. If the Democrats were to flip both of the Georgia seats, the consequences could be enormous for the Biden administration. In such a case, a 50-50 split between the two parties over legislation or most appointments would require a deciding vote by Vice President Kamala Harris. This could obviously smooth legislative progress for the Democrats. On the other hand, Republican victory for either or both of the seats would give the Republicans control of the Senate and likely result in gridlock of the sort that prevailed during most of the Obama Administration.
Georgia’s rules require Senate candidates to secure more than 50% of the vote to win an election. If this threshold is not met, a run-off election takes place between the two candidates securing the highest number of votes. This has been the case for both Georgia Senate races, with none of the candidates exceeding the threshold in the November 3rd elections. A further wrinkle is that the Loeffler-Warnock race is a “special election” to fill the remaining two years of the term of former Senator “Johnny” Isakson, who resigned in December 2019. Loeffler was appointed (by Governor Brian Kemp, after Kemp prevailed in his race against Stacey Abrams) and took office only in January 2020, to serve until the special election was held.
Both Purdue and Loeffler have been considered favorites to win their races as Georgia has been a “Red” state for 30 plus years. For a number of reasons, Biden’s win in Georgia by no means implies victory for Ossoff or Warnock, the Democratic candidates. First, it seems clear that Biden received support from a significant contingent of anti-Trump Republicans, who will still however likely support the Republican candidates in the Senate run-off. Second, in general, Democrats have had a history of poor voter turnout in “off-year” elections, when a President is not on the ballot. Democratic voters may show even less enthusiasm for a run-off election, held in January rather than in the classic November election period. By contrast, Republicans tend to be more motivated voters and generally have high participation rates regardless of the type of political race (local, state or national).
However, there are factors that could work in the favor of the Democrats. These include the presence of an African-American candidate, which may raise turn-out among Black voters, a key Democratic constituency in Georgia; Abrams’s efforts have increased the number of registered Black votes. In addition, both of the Republican candidates have been under heavy negative scrutiny, in connection with an “insider trading scandal” around the Coronavirus pandemic: as Senators, they were privately briefed about the probable severity of the crisis and, it is alleged, took advantage of this inside information and dumped personal holdings in a downturn in the stock market. Looming over all of this is the spectre of the now defeated Donald Trump. Both Purdue and Loeffler, as Senators, have closely followed the line of the Trump Administration, backing the President in all controversies, whether over policy or personal conduct, in order to secure the favor of his fanbase. It is unclear how their allegiance to Trump will play out in the Senate races.
Most importantly, perhaps, Georgia will be aware that their votes in the run-off may determine the balance of power in the Senate. This may well motivate voters supporting either party to turn out in January. The high stakes involved will also prompt the Democratic and Republican Parties, at both the Georgia state level and the national level, to step up efforts to get their candidates elected. This sort of “nationalization” of state elections has had negative repercussions for Democrats in other Southern races. The defeats of Democratic challengers Amy McGrath in Kentucky and Jamie Harrison in South Carolina have been attributed to backlash from heavy campaigning efforts in those states by the national Democratic Party. Under this view, Republicans were able to take advantage of a common sentiment among locals against “Washington D.C.” Abrams’ success can be viewed as demonstrating the greater effectiveness of local, “grass-roots” campaigning.
The Senate races in Georgia should further illuminate whether Georgia is in fact turning Blue generally or whether Biden’s success in this Presidential election was an outlier or anomaly stemming from various factors – anti-Trump sentiment, the outbreak of the pandemic, or record voter turnout. In other words, are we witnessing the beginning of a new era in Georgia and a realignment of the state’s political identity? If so, does this portend larger, regional trends that could result in the flipping of additional Southern States (e.g., North Carolina, or even possibly Texas) in the near future?
In any case, as the great Ray Charles once sang, Georgia has been on my mind and will continue to be up until January.