Georgia’s Midterm Elections Reveal Historic Voter Realignment

November 12, 2018

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Georgia’s hotly contested governor race has overshadowed the real significance of the state’s mid-term elections: the biggest geographic realignment among its voters in decades.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the metro Atlanta suburbs went strongly Republican, and ever since, the GOP has dominated Georgia politics, even while many rural counties retained their historically Democratic voters. 

All that has changed. The election map reveals the decades-old status quo has been reversed, with Democrats making strong gains in the inner suburbs, and Republicans running up huge margins in the exurbs and rural counties.  

Republican Brian Kemp won the governor’s race (though litigation and recounts that are unlikely to change the outcome continue) largely because he and his team saw this change coming and built a highly effective machine for turning out rural voters. This campaign strategy was also enough to allow Republicans to take all but two statewide offices without runoffs. (A Public Service Commission seat and the Secretary of State’s post will go to a December runoff.) 

However, as is usually the case, even the most effective campaigns have their limits, as votes for the U.S. House tell a slightly different story than the sweeping Republican takeover at the state offices. Two incumbent Republican U.S. House members representing suburban districts faced strong challenges, and it appears that unless recounts change the slim margins, one seat will go Democratic and the other will remain Republican. Notably, both seats were two of the most Republican districts in Georgia a few short years ago.

High voter turnout

The other big story of this election in Georgia, as throughout the country, was high voter turnout. After several cycles of lackluster participation, a very high number of voters who usually only participate in presidential years turned out to support both parties. Because voting tends to be habitual, it is unlikely that this trend will change, particularly as early voting makes it easier and easier to vote. Polls found almost no undecided voters, meaning both parties competed by turning out their political bases. Because most election strategies are a derivative of the previous election, we should expect the 2020 election to focus largely on base turnout.

House/Senate control 

Georgia’s midterm elections results for state legislature show the Democratic party gaining in both houses. In the state Senate, the Democrats captured two seats, bringing the upper chamber margin to 35-21 (one open seat Democratic gain and one Republican incumbent defeat). In the House, the Democrats gained net total of 11 seats, bringing the margin to 105-75.  They were able to defeat seven Republicans, while two Republicans candidates recaptured seats that were previously held by Democrats. The House Democrats also won six open seats that were previously held by Republicans.  

In every case, the changes occurred in the metro Atlanta suburbs, except for the two Republican seats gained near Athens. Attempts by Democrats to contest rural seats were unsuccessful, and Republican attempts to flip seats in metro areas also failed. In the Senate, Republican incumbent Fran Millar was defeated. In the House, Republicans Sam Teasley, Betty Price, Beth Beskin, Megan Hanson, Clay Cox, Scott Hilton and Geoff Cauble were defeated, as well as Democrats Jonathan Wallace and Deborah Gonzalez.

Looking ahead to 2020

The new southern elections map has clearly changed from totally red to a bifurcated structure where states with large metro areas are competitive, while more rural states remain strongly Republican.

In 2020, – a presidential year – Georgia will also have a U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican David Perdue on the ballot. This combination has all the makings of a hard-fought contest with high spending and high voter turnout. Georgia has suddenly emerged as a competitive state on the national map (similar to Florida and North Carolina), and 2020 will be very interesting in the state. In the midterms, two Senate seats and seven House seats were decided by close margins and will clearly be competitive in 2020. Of those nine seats, eight are held by Republican incumbents.

What does this mean for redistricting?

Redistricting will happen in 2022, after the 2020 census is conducted, unless Republicans move a stop-gap redistricting map earlier. With Governor-elect Kemp serving a four-year term, Republicans will have a strong hand in that process. This means Democrats will push very hard to get to a majority in one or both chambers of the legislature.  

As we look at the electoral map today, Democrats should have a good shot at growing their margins, as the rural-urban realignment discussed above continues.  However, three things will mute that trend. One, there are not enough competitive districts in this month’s results to get across the chamber control line. Two, Republicans have a well-organized and well-funded campaign (and experienced leaders in both chambers) and will clearly absorb this lesson and recruit candidates to target the small number of Democrats holding more rural seats. Three, the overall Republican margins in both chambers are strong enough to resist change. Hence, our expectation is that Republicans will get to draw one more set of maps for the next decade.  

The interesting thing will be to see what they are actually able to do with the chance, since blue areas are becoming bluer and red areas are becoming redder. From the standpoint of a mapmaker, this means that creating new competitive or pickup districts will require some very creative lines. And, that creativity can often backfire with voters and judges if pushed to an extreme.

What about the really long term?

The central point of early pundit analysis has been that, over the long term, Democrats will eventually be a majority in Georgia.  This, of course, ignores that fact that “if you’ve seen one election, you’ve seen one election.”  Because metro areas are growing faster than rural areas, the thinking is that Democrats will steadily erode Republican majorities until they control the state politically.  This could, of course, happen. However, it won’t happen in a vacuum. For one thing, Republicans are certain to launch a project to revamp their electoral strategy, focusing on issues and candidates that can appeal to suburban voters. Additionally, the metro Atlanta area is by no means a sea of blue. Exurban counties such as Cherokee, Hall, Coweta, Forsyth and Paulding continue to grow rapidly and turn out high levels of Republican votes. This is the place where controlling redistricting can make a big difference, because there are enough strongly Republican precincts to spread around to more competitive districts and shore them up. And, of course, trying to speculate on the state of the economy and perceptions of national politics in two, four or six years is largely a fool’s errand. In short, despite what you may read, it is far too early to start making presumptions about what may or may not happen in Georgia in future election cycles.