View Mobile Site

Georgia’s change from a Democratic majority to Republican was quick, aided by redistricting

POSTED: November 3, 2012 11:59 p.m.

Politically drawn district maps may be helping the Republican Party maintain its grip on Georgia’s legislature heading into Tuesday’s general election.

At a time when the GOP now far outnumbers Democrats under the Gold Dome, only 21.6 percent of General Assembly seats are being contested, according to an Oct. 17 report from the College of William and Mary’s Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy.

“Redistricting appears to have played a role in the decreased competition, though its impact is not consistent from state to state,” states the report, which shows Georgia as being the “least competitive” in terms of state legislative races across the U.S.

“In some cases, news reports indicate that (it) may have discouraged competitive legislative races, as the party in control of drawing legislative maps used their power to create smaller numbers of swing districts and more safe party seats.”

Charles Bullock, political scientist at the University of Georgia, said that redistricting — the redrawing of constituent boundaries, driven by U.S. census numbers — is a major reason for the partisan shift as it applies to congressional and state legislative races.

“Once these districts flipped, Democrats were unprepared for it,” he said. “They still remain weak organizationally, weak in terms of having candidate development and recruitment, and Republicans have been building toward this for years.

“Going back into the late 1980s, Republicans have been targeting individual state legislative districts, where, even though they were electing Democrats, they were voting for Republicans (in presidential races). ... Those things helped position them once they began to get favorable maps.”

Mike Berlon, Georgia’s Democratic Party chairman, said Democrats are working more strategically in this legislative election cycle.

“Instead of trying to recruit someone to run in every single race statewide, which we’d love to do, we just didn’t see the wisdom of putting up candidates ... we just knew were absolutely going to lose, no matter what the circumstances are,” he said.

“So, with the limited resources that we have, because we’ve been out of power now for about 10 years, we decided with the House and Senate leaders that we were going to target specific races to try to maximum our resources.

“We felt like we need more resources in fewer races in order to do what we could to blunt the Republican constitutional majority at the state level.”

Still a one-party state
Douglas Young, a political science professor at Gainesville State College, said he believes several other factors may be affecting a “low rate of partisan competition in Georgia.”

“Historically, Georgia has been a one-party state,” he said. “With the exception of presidential races, until the 1980s, the only elections that mattered in most of Georgia were Democratic primaries.

“Now that most of our state lawmakers are Republicans, perhaps this tradition is continuing to a lesser extent, albeit with a different dominant party.”

Young also said he believes voter apathy is at play.

“Most Americans could not name their state representative or state senator,” he said. “So, they are even less likely to know of any challenger. In so many elections, incumbency may well be the most important voting cue, not a candidate’s partisan label.

“In recent years, perhaps influenced by the proliferation of cable news networks, talk radio and Internet websites which focus overwhelmingly on national politics, perhaps ever fewer Americans focus on state and local politics.

“This is sad since state and local governments arguably have a much more direct, immediate and major impact on our lives than the federal government.”

In Hall County, the most heated primary races — including those for sheriff, Board of Commissioners chairman and the 9th District U.S. House — were all Republican.

Tuesday’s ballot features only four contested partisan races: president, two Georgia Public Service Commission seats and the 9th District race between Republican Doug Collins and Democrat Jody Cooley, both Gainesville lawyers.

All the state legislative candidates are unopposed Republicans.

Georgia’s strong Republican grip is a modern political phenomenon.

“Almost 20 years ago, it was the exact opposite,” Bullock said. “Every one of our statewide partisan positions was filled by a Democrat.”

A quick turnaround
And the numbers bear that out.

In 1990, the House had 144 Democrats and 36 Republicans, and the Senate had 45 Democrats and 11 Republicans. In 2012, the House had 63 Democrats and 114 Republicans, and the Senate had 20 Democrats and 36 Republicans.

Today, both of Georgia’s U.S. senators — Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss — are Republican.

When elected in 2002, former Gov. Sonny Perdue became the first Republican governor since Civil War Reconstruction. He switched to the Republican Party from the Democratic Party while a state legislator in 1998.

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal of Hall County also switched parties, in 1995. He served in the U.S. House from 1993 to 2010.

Bullock pointed to the 1990s as the start of the pendulum swing. The U.S. Department of Justice demanded that Georgia draw up three majority-black districts.

“Those were very faithfully Democratic, but the (mandate) also bleached surrounding districts, which made them Republican,” Bullock said. “So, in the matter of four years, (Georgia) went from a congressional delegation with nine Democrats and one Republican to one with eight white Republicans and three black Democrats.

“And in the state legislature, similar things were happening.”

The Democrats’ “last hurrah” was in 1998, when Roy Barnes was elected governor and Mark Taylor lieutenant governor.

“Since then, they haven’t won a single statewide office in which they didn’t have an incumbent,” Bullock said.

Democrats, still in power at the time, “went too far” with redrawing maps after the 2000 census, he said.

“The courts drew unbiased maps and, at this point, Georgia was changing. Old Democrats were dying and their children were (identifying themselves as) Republicans,” Bullock said.

Demographics add to mix
Kris Yardley, chairman of the Hall County Republican Party, said Georgia’s demographics also were changing during those years.

“Georgia had a huge influx of people after the Olympics in 1996 and with the building and banking boom, there were a lot of people coming from other states,” he said. “These just happened to be conservative people from other areas who were moving for higher-paying jobs and a lower cost of living.”

Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell, who raised eyebrows statewide when he switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP in December 2010, said he believes that Georgia “has made a complete conversion to a red state and the people in those (political) districts are just conservative.

“And the reality is Georgia has never been a liberal state,” said Bell, who lost a re-election bid this year for a second four-year term. “The people who are conservative today in the Republican Party for the most part were just as conservative in the Democratic Party 20 years ago.

“It’s just that the national parties have aligned themselves more ideologically than they were a couple of decades ago.”

Jim Taflinger, chairman of Hall County Democrats, said he believes the GOP has done well in getting out its message “and the Democrats just need to do it better.”

“The Democratic Party today is, for the most part, about economic issues and health care — and that’s where the Republicans were in 1994,” he added. “I don’t think we’re getting both sides of the solutions out there for the people to understand.”

Berlon believes the party will make a comeback, predicting Georgia will be a “battleground state or blue state” by 2016.

The party’s website says “Winning the Future” under the organization’s name.

“We’re in serious rebuilding mode. That’s the bad news. The good news is it shouldn’t take us that long with the level of Democratic performance we know is there,” he said.


Contents of this site are © Copyright 2010 The Times, Gainesville, GA. All rights reserved. Privacy policy and Terms of service

Powered by
Morris Technology
Please wait ...