From the 1960s to the millennium, Georgia gradually changed from a Democratic bastion to a solidly Republican state, a bedrock of conservatism that could only swing left under the most extreme circumstances. This November, however, a pair of gubernatorial and Senate elections featuring familiar names could be remembered as the tipping point when Georgia finally went blue.
One of the new faces of rising liberalism in Georgia is state Sen. Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter and currently Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s biggest threat in the 2014 gubernatorial race. Carter has already earned support from his grandfather and from civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and it seems to be paying off: in a poll announced last week, Carter pulled ahead of Deal by three points.
At the same time, another Democrat, Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., is making a serious run in the Senate race. The decision by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., not to seek re-election has led to seven Republicans scrambling for the position, and moderate Democrat Nunn is in a position to capitalize on their infighting.
At the moment, though, all of Georgia’s U.S. senators and statewide officials, and most of its House delegation, are Republicans, so can Carter and Nunn turn the tide? According to Emory University professor Dr. Alan Abramowitz, who specializes in party realignment in the U.S., Georgia’s demographics are changing enough that if Carter and Nunn can't do it this year, someone else might soon.
“By 2016 or 2020, I think Georgia could be swing state in a presidential election,” Abramowitz said in an interview.
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Since 1964, Georgia has gone for a non-Republican presidential candidate only four times. The state went blue twice for native son Jimmy Carter, when he won narrowly in 1976 and when he was swept out by Ronald Reagan in 1980. Georgia also went for fellow Southerner Bill Clinton in 1992, barely, but not in 1996, and cast its electoral votes for segregationist George Wallace’s third-party bid in 1968. Both of those times, the winner only gained a plurality of votes among three candidates. Clearly, it takes special circumstances to pull off a non-Republican victory for president on Georgia. Right now, those circumstances are the state’s changing demographics.
“Georgia is going to be the next purple state. It’s trending the same way Virginia was a few years ago, though it's not as far along,” Abramowitz said.
Over the past decade, minority populations have jumped significantly in Georgia, narrowing the GOP edge in the state. From 2000 to 2010, Georgia’s non-white population increased from 37 percent to 45 percent, putting it on track to becoming a majority-minority state in the coming years. Given the GOP’s continuing failures at reaching out to minority groups, and rising black voter turnout, the era of conservative domination in Georgia is likely on its way out.
Still, there are some challenges to overcome before Georgia becomes as close a battleground as Virginia. For instance, Georgia has a significantly stronger evangelical Protestant base, giving conservative white voters a stronger voice than in many other states. One of the leading Republicans in the Senate race, Rep. Paul Broun of Athens, is well known for his firm evangelical beliefs. But the increasingly powerful voices of young voters and minorities in Georgia have the power to turn the state into a battleground for coming elections.
This year, though, Democrats don’t exactly have a slam dunk lined up in the gubernatorial and Senate elections. Carter and Nunn have better chances than any Democrat in the 21st century, but it will still take work to pull off a win.
“For the Democrats to win either election, they need help from the Republicans," Abramowitz explained. "What I mean is, in the Senate race, Republicans would need to elect someone a little too extreme for most people. If you ask most Democrats who they’d like to run against, they’ll pick Paul Broun. Not just because he’s very conservative, but because he has a knack for saying unusual things.”
It’s true. Broun has appeared numerous times in the national media -- including on this site -- for making some rather offbeat claims. In 2011, for instance, Broun appeared at a church-sponsored event and claimed that the theories of evolution and the Big Bang were "lies straight from the pit of hell."
Rhetoric like that might sit well with Broun's largely rural district, but he'll have a harder time making a similar case to cosmopolitan Atlanta residents. Broun’s nomination wouldn’t exactly guarantee a win for Nunn, but it could give her a powerful advantage with voters who are disinclined to go for Broun’s tea party leanings.
Meanwhile, Carter’s greatest chance at a win doesn’t just come from his own experience and endorsements from other politicians, but from weaknesses on his opponent’s part. Since 2010, Deal has been the subject of federal probes looking into possibly criminal misuse of his campaign funds during the 2010 gubernatorial election. If anything comes of the probe in the coming months, it could spell disaster for Deal and good news for Carter.
Even if Carter tries and fails against Deal this year, he’ll have positioned himself into a good place for 2018. As a Democrat who gave a good fight to an incumbent Republican, he’ll be able to make a strong case for his nomination once again, and since Georgia only allows two terms per governor, he won’t have to face another incumbent. And by then, Carter will have benefited even more from Georgia’s shifting demographics.