Monday, May 4, 2009

From Tom Crawford of Capitol Impact: The political landscape in Georgia is changing

Out of the many emails that were zinging around Georgia’s political community last week, one in particular caught my eye.

Clint Austin, a lobbyist and consultant who’s worked in a lot of Republican campaigns at a relatively young age, sent an email to his friends urging them to "resist the urge to fracture and unite behind a tested leader who can win the battle that is to come to hold the Governor’s Mansion in Georgia."

Austin noted: "The political challenges that have plagued Republicans around the country are only one election away from plaguing Georgia Republicans. Assuming that ‘any Republican who wins the primary will win the general election’ is assuming too much, even in Georgia."

Austin may or may not be right about the identity of the Republican nominee for governor next year. Time will tell us whether that candidate is Secretary of State Karen Handel or Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine or someone else.

What intrigued me was his assertion that GOP voters should not automatically assume that "any Republican who wins the primary will win the general election." That’s a recognition I’ve seen not only in Austin but other political experts as well: Georgia has been a strong Republican state for the past few election cycles, but that dominance won’t last forever.

You can see it in the numbers.

In the fall of 2002, when Republican Sonny Perdue was campaigning against Democrat Roy Barnes in the governor’s race, about 71 percent of Georgia’s registered voters were white and less than 27 percent were black. Hispanic voters barely totaled 14,000 in the whole state.

Perdue upset Barnes in that race as conservative white voters in rural counties, angered by Barnes’ attempts to reform public education and change the state flag, surged to the polls to vote for the Republican challenger. Over the next two years, Republicans swept the Democrats out of majority control of the General Assembly as well.

Those couple of elections may represent Georgia Republicans’ high-water mark in political dominance, however.

The latest voter registration totals show that whites now make up less than 63 percent of the state’s electorate while blacks are right at 30 percent. There are now more than 84,000 voters who self-identify as Hispanic and if you include those who classify themselves in other ethnic categories, the number of Hispanic voters very likely exceeds 100,000.

As Georgia’s population gets more diverse, there are fewer whites who tend to vote for Republicans and more blacks, Latinos, and Asians who tend to vote for Democrats. This was dramatically illustrated in the last two presidential elections: John Kerry lost to George W. Bush by nearly 550,000 votes in 2004, but Barack Obama cut that margin to about 200,000 votes last year.

Those rural counties that were so important to electing Perdue are becoming less politically powerful as the population shifts to urban areas.

Consider the 15 counties that are centered around Fulton County and the city of Atlanta. This is the population center of Georgia and makes up a larger share of the vote in every election. In 2002, those 15 counties combined cast just over 50 percent of the state’s total votes. That share has been growing by about 1 percent in each succeeding election cycle as the metro Atlanta population grows and the population of rural counties shrinks.

The population center around metro Atlanta is also becoming more diverse and Democratic-leaning.

Douglas and Rockdale counties went for Perdue in the 2002 and 2006 races for governor, but voted for Obama by narrow margins in 2008. The populous counties Cobb, Gwinnett, and Henry also went Republican in the last two races for governor, but in 2008 Obama carried more than 44 percent of the vote in each of those counties.

The state’s political landscape is slowly but inevitably changing because of the demographic shifts that are transforming the electorate. You would still be safe betting on voters to lean Republican, but that is not such a sure thing anymore.

Georgia hasn’t switched from red to blue just yet, but it appears to be changing enough to ensure that we have a very competitive race between the two major parties for governor in 2010. It doesn’t look like a slam dunk for the Republicans anymore.

• Tom Crawford is editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report. Email: tcrawford@capitolimpact.net.

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