ATLANTA — The last time a non-incumbent Democrat won a statewide race in Georgia was 1998 when Roy Barnes was elected governor.
President-elect Joe Biden ended that 22-year record of futility. Hours after Biden clinched the presidency by carrying his birth state of Pennsylvania, the Democratic challenger was leading President Trump in the Peach State by a margin of 7,248 votes.
But even if Biden ends up carrying Georgia, the 2020 election results leave Republicans poised to remain a strong force in a state that was reliably red for a generation.
Biden’s successful bid for the White House helped Georgia Democrats force runoffs against incumbent Republicans in two U.S. Senate races and a third runoff for a seat on the state Public Service Commission. Democrats also retained a congressional seat in Atlanta’s northern suburbs held by Republicans for decades until 2018 and flipped another suburban seat vacated by a GOP incumbent.
But Biden’s coattails in Georgia weren’t long enough for Democrats to make much headway in the General Assembly. While many state House and Senate races were close, Democrats scored a net gain of only two House seats and one seat in the Senate, far short of what they needed to take control of either chamber.
“Republicans actually had a very good day on Tuesday,” Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, said. “Republicans have to look at the overall picture and feel fairly good.”
Swint said down-ballot Republican candidates in Georgia generally proved more popular than Trump because of the president’s character shortcomings.
“The Republican Party’s messaging policywise and platform was widely embraced by voters,” Swint said. “It just didn’t translate to the top of the ticket, most likely because of [Trump’s] personal appeal, or lack thereof.”
“Some share of Republican voters just couldn’t vote for Donald Trump,” added Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “Once they voted for Joe Biden, they voted for Republicans for Congress and the state legislature.”
While the Biden-Trump contest lifted the Democrats’ statewide ticket, 2020 was only the next step in a trend that has been building in Georgia. Democrats were outvoted in Georgia by 200,000 votes in 2016. Two years later, Democrat Stacey Abrams lost the governor’s race to Republican Brian Kemp by 55,000 votes.
“Over two election cycles, the 200,000-vote margin Republicans have enjoyed has evaporated,” Bullock said. “It’s another step in what may be another realignment in Georgia to the Democratic Party.”
That realignment has been coming during the last decade with demographic changes in the makeup of Georgia’s electorate.
“This is a different state,” Democrat Jon Ossoff told supporters Friday during his first post-election news conference after forcing Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue into a Jan. 5 runoff. “Georgia has become younger and more diverse every day in the last decade.
“[With] the work that’s been done over the last 10 years, work done by people like Stacey Abrams … we’re now seeing change has come to Georgia.”
A dramatic example of the demographic changes occurred in Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, covering portions of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, where Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux narrowly won an open seat long in Republican hands. Based on the findings of one poll, Asian Americans voted 62% to 36% for Bourdeaux.
“The story of [the district] is a story about first-time Asian American and Pacific Islander voters and who is mobilizing them,” Stephanie Cho, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, said. “Grassroots community-based organizing matters and it works. More and more AAPIs are excited to be part of the process. This is the future of Georgia.”
The good news for Republicans is they continue to hold a narrow 8-6 advantage in Georgia’s congressional delegation. Also, the underperformance of Democrats in legislative races leaves the GOP in charge of reapportionment and redistricting, the redrawing of congressional and legislative districts that takes place every 10 years following the U.S. Census to adjust for population shifts.
The General Assembly will hold a special session next summer to make those changes.
“They’ll be in the driver’s seat,” Swint said. “They’ll have an opportunity to draw things the way they would like to see them.”
But Bullock said the demographic changes in Georgia that favor Democrats, particularly in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, will limit what Republicans can do with new district maps. GOP leaders may decide to sacrifice some of their incumbents in Atlanta’s inner suburbs in order to draw stronger Republican districts in the outer suburbs and exurban areas, he said.
“My assumption is they’ll look around the north side of metro Atlanta and say, ‘We can’t save these folks,’ ” Bullock said. “Democrats may come out with some gains, even though they don’t control redistricting.”