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Crawford: Georgia voters buck national trend

POSTED: November 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.

You can say this about Georgia voters: they aren’t about to be swayed by any of those newfangled ideas and trends you might see having an influence on other states.

Back in 2006, while a Democratic wave was sweeping dozens of Republicans out of Congress and state legislatures across the country, our state swam strongly against that tide. Georgia returned a Republican to the governor’s office and was the only state where every GOP incumbent running for another term in Congress and the General Assembly was reelected.

We saw a similar result last week. Where states that had been solidly Republican in past presidential elections — Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, and Nevada — delivered their electoral votes to Democrat Barack Obama, Georgia remained loyal to Republican nominee John McCain and maintained GOP majorities in the legislature.

For the moment anyway, Georgia is still a very conservative state that will generally vote Republican in the biggest elections.

But there are signs that even here, long-term electoral changes are under way. That largely is a product of the demographic forces reshaping the state: the percentage of white voters continues to decline slowly, while the proportion of black and Hispanic voters continues to go up.

Look at the contrast in vote totals for the past two presidential elections. George W. Bush carried Georgia by a margin of 17 percentage points and 548,101 votes in 2004. The lead for McCain was nearly two-thirds smaller: only five percentage points and 206,022 votes separated him from Obama.

Obama pulled a higher percentage of the Georgia vote, 47 percent, than did white candidates Bill Clinton, Albert Gore and John Kerry.

The U.S. Senate race is another indicator of fading Republican strength. Incumbent Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who had a huge lead in the polls until the financial markets collapsed in September, could not reach the 50 percent vote level and, as a result, has been forced into a Dec. 2 runoff election with Democrat Jim Martin. It seemed inconceivable six months ago that a Republican incumbent would lose a Senate race, but it’s not such a far-fetched possibility now.

Democrats are showing more strength in suburban areas around Atlanta that, until this year, could be counted upon to deliver their votes to GOP candidates. That’s a trend that can be attributed to the movement of blacks, Latinos, and other ethnic groups into these counties.

Cobb and Gwinnett counties have been fundamental pillars of strength for Georgia Republicans over the past 20 years, but those pillars are crumbling. Nearly 45 percent of the Cobb County vote went to Obama while 44 percent of Gwinnett’s vote came in for the Democratic nominee.

In Douglas County, which was previously a strong Republican county, 50.5 percent of the voters preferred Obama. Rockdale County, another reliably Republican county for the last 15 years, gave 54.4 percent of its vote to Obama, and GOP-leaning Newton County delivered 50.3 percent of its vote to Obama. Obama got 46 percent of the vote in Henry County, which also had been strongly GOP in its voting patterns.

Democratic challengers toppled Republican incumbents to win state House seats in Cobb and Gwinnett counties; the Democrats captured another GOP House seat in Rockdale County after Rep. Bob Mumford, R-Conyers, decided against running for another term.

These trends suggest that two years from now, suburban Republican lawmakers like Bill Hembree of Douglas County, Steve Davis of McDonough, Dan Weber of Dunwoody and John Douglas of Social Circle could find themselves in very competitive races if they decide to run for another term.

The next big race in Georgia, of course, will be the 2010 election for governor, where incumbent Sonny Perdue is prevented by law from running for another term.

The rumored candidates on the Republican side are well known in the political community: Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, Secretary of State Karen Handel, House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, and maybe a congressman or two.

But what about the Democrats? The big name floating out there is former governor Roy Barnes, who so far has dismissed all talk of running for public office again, at least in his public statements.

Could the stronger showing of Democrats in this year’s election cause him to change his mind? Stay tuned for further developments.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. E-mail tcrawford@capitolimpact.net. His column appears Thursdays.



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