It would be easy to suggest that Jones’s upset was the result of a perfect storm — a scandal-ridden and polarizing opponent, President Donald Trump’s depressing effect on Republican voter turnout, and unusually good Democratic running statewide — and is unlikely to be replicated in other GOP-dominated Southern states.
But the Jones victory comes on the heels of other surprising victories and near-victories by Democrats in southern states across America. Those victories may foreshadow a Democratic wave that could hit Georgia, Florida, and elsewhere during its 2018 statewide elections for governor and other state positions.
The Republican Party has effectively controlled Georgia since the 2002 elections, when the long Democratic streak born in the post-Reconstruction era ended. Republicans hold a near supermajority in the legislature and every single statewide seat. Georgia’s House had the highest number of uncontested seats of any state in the country in 2016.
But there are signs that that is changing.
Take, for instance, the case of Jon Ossoff’s run for Congress in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Although Ossoff was ultimately unsuccessful, he narrowly lost a district that had been in Republican hands since 1978 — when Newt Gingrich took office there.
Ossoff had a few things going for him, one being that Democrats performed unusually well in that district in 2016, the other being that he received copious amounts of financial support, with his race becoming the most expensive in House history.
But while Ossoff’s milquetoast campaign may have cost him the few points he needed, a trio of Democrats elsewhere in the state won races this year few expected them to — and longtime political watchers are seeing evidence of a Democratic wave throughout the South.
In an interview with The Intercept, Bryan Long, the executive director of Better Georgia, the state’s ProgressNow chapter, pointed to a pair of statehouse races that took place in November.
“The best tea leaves for me came out of Athens with Deborah Gonzalez and Jonathan Wallace winning unexpected victories in special elections,” he said. “Let me be clear: I didn’t talk to anyone prior to those special elections who thought Gonzalez and Wallace would win. Pure grassroots enthusiasm.”
Gonzalez raised $55,000 for her campaign for Georgia’s State House, District 117; her GOP opponent failed to best her even after raising around $200,000. In 2016, the district was considered so noncompetitive that a Democratic candidate didn’t even run.
Long told The Intercept that the Gonzalez campaign’s polling had her down by 6 heading into Election Day.
The other race he mentioned, where Wallace, a Democrat, succeeded, was in the state’s House District 119. In this district, too, the Democrats were so buried in the past that no one even challenged the Republican incumbent in 2016.
“I think we saw a plus-8 shift for Dems that led to those victories,” Long, who is familiar with the polling and demographics of both districts, told The Intercept.
There was also a state Senate seat Democrats in Georgia picked up in a special election this year: Senate District 6. District 6 had been held by the GOP for years. Incumbent Hunter Hill won the 2014 election by more than 20 points and then bested the Democrats by almost 4 points in 2016. In the special election, a phalanx of Democrats and Republicans competed for the spot, and two Democrats received the most votes — meaning the Republican was shut out of the runoff election altogether.
The win was such a shock to Republican lawmakers that one GOP senator even suggested changing how Georgia does special elections altogether to require parties to send one nominee to the ballot instead.
This comes on the heels of a GOP mid-cycle redistricting aimed at two districts held by GOP lawmakers where Democrats were becoming increasingly competitive. The National Redistricting Foundation has filed suit, claiming that race was the predominant factor in the decision to redraw the districts. Redistricting is usually done after a census, which is why the 2018 election is so coveted by Georgia’s Democrats. But the attempt to rush it for a few seats is a signal of how much ground Republicans feel themselves losing.
Referring to the statehouse victories, Long explained the odds that Democrats could win the governor’s mansion and other statewide spots next year and compared that to Democratic performance in other southern states like Virginia and Alabama. “Statewide, Dems need a plus-4 boost. We’ve seen that in Virginia, Georgia and now Alabama,” he explained
The case of Virginia is instructive. Although most national attention was paid to the governor’s race, it was no surprise to see Democrats hold that seat as the state has been electing Democrats statewide for some time now, largely on the strength of a growing population of liberals living outside Washington, D.C.
The legislature, however, was a different story. For instance, Democrat Danica Roem’s defeat of Republican Delegate Bob Marshall made headlines all over the world. Marshall was defeated by an almost 8-point margin this year, but easily bested his Democratic opponent in 2015, winning by around 12 points.
In the legislature, Virginia Democrats came close to taking control of the House of Delegates, a result the local media called “shocking.” “This is a tidal wave,” Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report tweeted about the results in the legislature.
In all three states, one of the items on the Democrats’ agenda is expanding Medicaid. The Affordable Care Act gave states extra money to expand the program, but a bloc of GOP-led states in the Deep South have never done so. In Georgia, 600,000 people are being denied access to the program because the GOP governor refused to expand it. In order to expand the program, it will take more than changing who resides in the governor’s mansion. Georgia’s legislature voted in 2014 to require the governor to get the approval of the legislature before expanding Medicaid.
That means that either the Republicans blocking the Medicaid expansion have to be kicked out of power, or enough of them have to feel threatened electorally to vote in favor of expansion. (Virginia, where the Republicans now barely hold onto control of the legislature and have refused to expand Medicaid, is a similar example.)
When Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards took power in Louisiana in 2016, he made expanding Medicaid his top priority. On his second day in office, he signed an executive order that opened the program to over 400,000 more people. “This will not only afford them peace of mind, but also help them from slipping further into poverty and give them a fighting chance for a better life,” he said, making Louisiana the first state in the Deep South to embrace the Medicaid expansion. A state report released the following year found that the uninsured rate is now at 12.5 percent, down from 21.7 percent in 2013; more than 100,000 patients received preventative care, and 154 patients were diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time because they could afford screenings.
Not all the energy has come only in the wake of Trump. In 2016, North Carolina voters cast their presidential votes for Trump but elected a Democratic governor. In a special election in South Carolina in June to replace Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who resigned to become Trump’s budget director, Democrat Archie Parnell was badly outspent, but still won 48 percent of the vote. Less than a year earlier, Mulvaney had won the seat by 21 points.
In Florida as well, a Democrat bested a Republican in a special election for a state Senate seat that took place earlier this year. Previously, the district was a plus-10 Republican seat. Florida’s voters, too, will face a gubernatorial election next year.
Even in Texas, Democrats are playing to win, with Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s long-shot bid to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz catching fire and raising millions in small dollars. Both Trump and Cruz are underwater in Texas. The clear advantage still belongs to Cruz, but O’Rourke, running not as a Blue Dog but as a strong progressive, is making it a real race.
It’s an open question whether 2018 will yield the electoral environment Democrats are hoping for, but if Alabama and the other recent Southern elections are any indication, the region’s Republican Party may be losing its previously invincible position.