Georgia On My Mind

The Democratic wins in Georgia were remarkable, but they don't mean the South is getting bluer

Six days ago, the voters of Georgia produced a political earthquake by electing two Democratic Senators and, in the process, giving Democrats control of both houses of Congress. Because of the armed insurrection that took place the next day the events in Georgia have been overshadowed. But a quick look back is in order.

First, it’s important to note how shocking this win was for Democrats. Not only is it the first time in more than two decades that Democrats won a senate race in Georgia, but the wins fly in the face of years of assumptions about how Democrats can prevail in red and purple states.

The two Democratic candidates, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are not your ordinary purple state Democrats. Warnock is Black and is the first Black Democrat to win a senate race in the South since Reconstruction. Jon Ossoff is Jewish and is only the second Jew to win a senate seat in the South since Reconstruction (if you can guess the other one without looking it up I’ll give you a shout out on the newsletter). Ossoff is married but has no kids. Warnock has two kids, but is divorced. Both men do not fit the typical image of a successful Democratic candidate. Moreover, both are fairly liberal and it’s hard to argue that either of them ran your typical centrist Democratic campaign. I’m not necessarily surprised that Democrats were able to win senate seats in Georgia, particularly in light of how lousy their opponents were and the state’s clear blue shift. I’m more surprised that these two were the ones who did it.

Second, Democrats have a lousy track record when it comes to Senate runoffs in Georgia. They usually lose badly. The main reason is that African-American turnout, which is essential to Democratic political success in Georgia, usually declines between a general election and runoff. That didn’t happen this year. Republicans actually got strong turnout on Election Day, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the enormous Democratic advantage in early and mail-in voting. Much of the credit for that belongs to Stacey Abrams and other voting activists, who registered and mobilized tons of new voters. Without that effort I don’t think Democrats win.

As Nate Cohn made clear in his wrap-up of the race, Black Democratic turnout was a huge factor:

“Over all, turnout reached a remarkable 92 percent of 2020 general election levels in precincts carried by Mr. Biden in November, compared with 88 percent of general election levels in the precincts carried by Mr. Trump. These tallies include Upshot estimates of the remaining uncounted vote by precinct, and it suggests that nearly all of the Democratic gains since the November election can be attributed to the relatively stronger Democratic turnout.

A majority of Georgia’s Democratic voters are Black — they are roughly 30 percent of the overall electorate — and it was these voters who drove the stronger Democratic turnout. Over all, turnout reached 93 percent of 2020 levels in precincts where Black voters represented at least 80 percent of the electorate. In comparison, turnout fell to 87 percent of general election levels in white working-class precincts.”

Third, does this mean that Democrats can now be competitive throughout the South. I suggest reading the Q&A with Tom Schaller that I’ve posted on the newsletter for a longer answer to this question, but the short answer is no.

Three factors weighed heavily for Democrats: 1) Georgia has a very large black population; 2) the Atlanta suburban area is large, growing, and is shifting blue, as is the case in other suburban communities across the country; 3) the aforementioned mobilization and activism by Stacey Abrams and others. As I pointed out in my newsletter from the other day, that model is not easily replicated elsewhere in the South.

A major voter mobilization effort in North Carolina combined with the state's ongoing demographic shift could move the state to Democrats. But that's not going to happen in Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, South Carolina, etc, and mainly because the demographics in those states are not moving in the right direction for Democrats. Activism alone will not be enough. Democrats might have better luck in places like Texas or Florida and could benefit in the latter from Trump not being on the ticket in 2024.  It's worth keeping in mind that Florida is one of the few swing states where in 2016 Hillary Clinton got more votes than Barack Obama did in 2012 and she still lost because Trump brought out so many new or seldom voters. Can another Republican replicate that performance? We don't know yet. I have my doubts and I think there is a distinct possibility of a growing GOP divide between dead-end Trump supporters and the rest of the Republican Party. Still, the overall point is unchanged: the South ain’t going blue. As Tom Schaller points out in our Q&A there are 22 state legislatures in the South. In 2006, 11 of them were controlled by Democrats. Today, they control two - both in Virginia. The South has become more Republican and less favorable to Democrats. Georgia may be trending blue (though it's still too early to tell for sure) but that makes it the exception, not the rule, in the South.

Photo: Norman Seeff/Raycharles.com