By Howard Franklin
By every objective measure, voters appear poised to return two-party rule to the Peach State in November. In the June 9 primary election, 52% of them pulled a Democratic ballot vs. 45% opting to vote Republican (the remaining 3% cast non-partisan ballots). The twice-rescheduled election achieved record-breaking turnout and historic vote-by-mail balloting. That contest and its contours offer valuable insights for November. The only thing numbers don’t tell us is whether the most drastic shifts will occur at the federal, state or local level.
More Left-Leaning Suburbs
In recent years, Georgia Democrats have continuously made gains, particularly in metro Atlanta suburbs, narrowing the path to statewide dominance for Republicans. Democrats have quietly chipped away at conservative strongholds like Cherokee, Douglass, Fayette and Forsyth counties, which were all solidly Republican in 2018. Yet each county featured more democratic votes than republican in the recent primary.
Gwinnett and Cobb have sounded the alarm a little louder. A decade ago, they were two of the most reliable conservative vote centers in the state. In 2016, when both parties chose a presidential nominee, 112,257 Cobb Republicans pulled a ballot vs. 62,305 Democrats. Those numbers flipped in June as Cobb Democrats outpaced Republicans, 100,896 to 63,696. In 2016, 98,949 Gwinnett Republicans pulled a presidential ballot to 57,186 Democrats. This year, 101,903 Democrats outnumbered 57,897 Gwinnett Republicans. Those trend lines signal very competitive races at every level of government.
Parity Looming in the Legislature
This long-anticipated development is easy to spot at the local level. The big tent party didn’t bother to nominate candidates for Cobb or Gwinnett’s top political jobs in 2016, leaving Republicans to elect Commission Chairs via primaries. This year, I predict incoming Democratic majorities for both counties, completing a sweep of Cobb, Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett, and notably, installing Black officials atop each county. That will have profound implications for regional policymaking and Georgia’s national standing, should Joe Biden win the White House.
We should also expect a major shift in statehouse contests. Georgia House and Senate Democrats nominated more challengers than ever before, and it’s a forgone conclusion that they will loosen the majority party’s grip on both chambers (particularly in the House, which already netted eleven new Democrats in 2018). The shift gap in primary turnout is even more remarkable when considering challenges that Democratic-leaning communities overcame for ballot access, especially in metro Atlanta.
Understaffed and hastily consolidated polling locations struggled to properly operate new voting machines, culminating in long lines, frustrated voters and untold voters simply giving up. While we can’t predict how impactful COVID-19 or US Postal Service delays will be in November, Democrats are working hard to mitigate both challenges.
Shrinking Presidential Coattails?
President Trump may even be in for a fight for Georgia’s sixteen electoral votes. Although neither man faced primary opposition, Senator Perdue (992,555 votes) significantly outpolled President Trump (947,352 votes), uncovering real reluctance from Republican primary voters to support the sitting President.
Gwinnett and Cobb are at the heart of national Democrats’ hopes for Biden and local control of the delegation. In Congressional District 6 (Cobb), where former Rep. Karen Handel easily won a 4-way primary to set up a rematch with Rep. Lucy McBath, Republicans trailed Democrats by nearly 25,000 votes. In Congressional District 7 (Gwinnett), both parties nominated a standard bearer for the open seat, but Democrats cast 20,000 more votes than Republicans. Just six years ago, neither seat was a serious target, with Republican incumbents winning both with 65%. Come November, oddsmakers agree that both are likely to send Democrats to Congress, albeit by narrow margins.
Georgia also boasts the distinction of holding two U.S. Senate races, which may have helped inform Secretary of State Raffensperger’s prediction of 5 million voters in November. In 2016, Georgia Republicans were +26 in primary turnout, helping Donald Trump win the state by five points later that year. This year, Democrats were +8 in the primary. Simple math says there’s a good chance they will be celebrating historic wins up and down the ticket, come November 3.
Howard Franklin is a lifelong Democrat and Managing Partner of Ohio River South, an Atlanta-based, southern-focused government affairs firm. Splitting time between state capitals and the campaign trail, he has served in government, led nonprofits, elected and lobbied officials across a dozen southern states.