Georgia has a peculiar electoral history. At one point the bluest state in the country, the Peach State didn’t vote for a Republican presidential candidate until Barry Goldwater in 1964. It didn’t elect a Republican senator post-Reconstruction until Mack Mattingly defeated longtime Democratic Senator Herman Talmadge in 1980. And Democrats dominated state politics until 2002, when Sonny Perdue defeated incumbent Roy Barnes in that year’s gubernatorial election.
Now, Georgia is a reliable red state. Like in much of the rest of the South, Georgia’s flip was the result of the national Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights and Republicans’ “Southern strategy” that catered to disaffected white conservatives. Republicans now control the governorship, both chambers of the state’s General Assembly, every other statewide office, both Senate seats, and nine of the state’s 14 House districts. Georgia has also voted for the Republican candidate in each of the last six presidential elections and in eight of the last nine.
Despite this, Georgia Democrats are bullish on their electoral prospects in the state moving forward. As more people born in blue states migrate to red states like Georgia, and demographics in the state slowly shift in Democrats’ favor due to a decline in white evangelicals and an increased share of minority voters, the party could conceivably take back control in the relatively near future. Anti-Trump sentiment has also motivated progressive and minority voters to turn out in greater numbers, making Democrats more competitive as of late.
Recent elections have proven that Democrats could be close to shifting Georgia toward battleground status. In 2016, there was some speculation that Hillary Clinton could put Georgia in play. She only lost the state by six points, an improvement on Barack Obama’s 2012 margin. In 2018, Lucy McBath unseated Republican incumbent Karen Handel in the 6th congressional district—the same district that once elected Newt Gingrich, Johnny Isakson, and Tom Price by large margins—after Jon Ossoff put up a strong fight a year earlier. Most notably, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams nearly forced a runoff election in 2018, only losing by 55,000 votes.
Now in 2020, Georgia is one of several traditionally Republican states that Democrats have their eyes on flipping. In addition to the presidential election, Georgia’s entire congressional delegation will be on the ballot in November. That includes both Senate seats and the now competitive 7th district, which retiring Republican incumbent Rob Woodall only won by 419 votes in 2018. Numerous polls indicate that Joe Biden has a fighting chance to beat Donald Trump in the state in what currently projects to be another Democratic wave election. Jon Ossoff is close behind David Perdue in one Senate race, while pastor Raphael Warnock could end up going to a runoff in the special election for the other Senate seat.
Not to quash any optimism about the trajectory of Georgia politics, but I’m unconvinced that Democrats will win any of these tight races in November. Georgia, though increasingly competitive, is still a red state at its core. White voters make up almost 60 percent of the state’s population, turn out in higher numbers, and preferred Trump by 54 points in 2016. They’re also the reason why Michelle Nunn, Jason Carter, and Stacey Abrams—who many thought had a decent chance to win their respective elections—ultimately lost in previous contests.
Georgia is also one of the most inelastic states in the country, which means that its voters are much less responsive to national political trends than those in other states. Indeed, most Georgia voters are strong partisans; white voters overwhelmingly prefer Republicans while minority voters—who make up over 30 percent of the electorate—overwhelmingly prefer Democrats. There aren’t many swing voters, so winning elections becomes a turnout game.
Unfortunately, voter suppression dampens minority turnout and remains a huge concern in the state. As the botched June primary demonstrated, many voters face significant obstacles to voting. These include closures of polling places, stringent voter ID laws, discarded absentee ballots, and the purging of voter rolls, to name a few. In June, voters suffered from long lines, malfunctioning machines, and insufficient resources that made the experience a complete disaster. These obstacles to voting disproportionately impact minority voters, benefiting Republicans in the process.
All of that being said, I do believe Georgia will be competitive in the next 10 to 15 years. Georgia has a similar political and demographic profile to North Carolina, a state that voted for Obama in 2008, currently has a Democratic governor, and is oft considered a true battleground state. As suburban voters move away from Trump’s Republican Party and minority voters continue to make up a larger share of the electorate, Georgia and several other Sun Belt states could become perennially competitive in future presidential elections as part of a broader realignment of the electoral map.
However, I’m skeptical that will be the case in 2020. If Democrats do manage to pull off some key upsets, it’ll likely be the result of high turnout by minorities and young people as well as a strong national performance by Democrats that carries Georgia over the finish line. It probably won’t be indicative of a fundamental shift. At least not yet. That being said, Democrats would be smart to continue investing in Georgia to accelerate the state’s transformation.