Behind Joe Biden’s Georgia Surge, a State Ready to Boil Over

The results are bittersweet for Southern Democrats.

CAIRO, GA - NOVEMBER 03: Cairo Messenger newspaper publisher and editor Randy Fine, front left, calls out election results as Steve Reagan writes them on the board on the front wall of the newspaper for voters gathered in the street on November 3, 2020 in Cairo, Georgia. After a record-breaking early voting turnout, Americans headed to the polls on the last day to cast their vote for incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Cairo Messenger newspaper publisher and editor Randy Fine, front left, calls out election results as Steve Reagan writes them on a board outside the office for voters gathered in the street on Nov. 3, 2020 in Cairo, Ga.

Photo: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

Georgia might flip. It might not. It’s leaning that way, but it’s not going to matter. Joe Biden’s expected win in Pennsylvania seals the deal.

But the results are bittersweet for southern Democrats hoping to retake the state House in a redistricting year. Immense turnout didn’t bring enough liberal and progressive voters to the table. The many failures of the Trump administration did not alone change many minds. And racial polarization here continues to putrefy politics.

A political truism here has long held that a Democrat needs to poll above 30 percent of the white vote to compete in Georgia. Stacey Abrams’s campaign in 2018 fundamentally challenged that math by showing that increased nonwhite voter turnout could counterbalance white conservative antipathy to progressive politics. Abrams lost Georgia’s gubernatorial race by a whisker (amid accusations of voter suppression) while only winning about 25 percent of white voters. Turnout exploded in 2018; the 2020 election seemed like a continuation of the effort here.

Initial exit polls show that about 30 percent of white voters backed Biden in Georgia. Turnout was astronomical — about 5 million people voted in this election, which is about a million more than in any previous election. And yet … here we are. The election will be decided by the margin left after counters in a soggy office in a downtown Atlanta basketball arena and a former Home Depot-turned-elections office near Decatur finish counting the last ballots. If more than about 75 percent of the outstanding absentees from the bluest part of Georgia go to Biden, he wins the state.

It is also possible that those ballots contain the margin between Jon Ossoff advancing to a runoff against Sen. David Perdue, or not. Right now, Perdue has 50 percent of the vote with 60,000 ballots to count, most of which are in urban counties. Donald Trump has a 19,000-vote lead. It’s a game of less than 10,000 votes deciding the winner.

Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, will face Sen. Kelly Loeffler in January, regardless. Democrats so far have netted just a single Senate seat, bringing them to 48. To take control of the chamber, Georgia’s runoff in January will be pivotal.

Nonetheless, Democrats cut a few notches on their knives now.

Republican Rep. Rob Woodall’s  successor will be a Democrat: Carolyn Bourdeaux, a public policy professor who has worked closely with the Republican-controlled state legislature on budget issues. Bourdeaux lost to Rep. Rob Woodall by 423 votes on about 280,000 cast in 2018. Woodall did not run for reelection. Bourdeaux defeated Rich McCormick, an emergency room doctor, by about 8,600 votes this try.

McCormick drew fire for rejecting a mask mandate as a health care worker. In the later days of the race, McCormick accepted the endorsement of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican who’s expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory and who won the 9th Congressional District race last night after the last-minute withdrawal of her Democratic opponent. Greene’s politics mesh poorly with the low-drama business orientation of Gwinnett County’s suburban Republicans.

Republicans seemed to think that portraying Bourdeaux as some wine-drinking effete and a “multimillionaire bureaucrat” would be effective political strategy … in Gwinnett. Never mind the mixed messages of pushing that line with Trump, Loeffler, and Perdue at the top of the ticket; 40 percent of the county has a college degree and a disproportionate number of those who do not are immigrants.

But the writing seems to be on the wall for Republicans in Atlanta’s suburbs. Gwinnett County’s long-serving Republican Sheriff Butch Conway retired this year. In a county where 1 in 4 residents was born outside of the United States, Conway was an immigration enforcement hard-liner. He gives way to Keybo Taylor, a Democrat and the county’s first Black sheriff.

The equally long-serving (and highly regarded) district attorney, Danny Porter, also lost his reelection bid in an acrimonious race against Democrat Patsy Austin-Gatson, the chief investigator in the Gwinnett County Solicitor’s Office. Porter has worked in the county’s prosecutors office since 1981 and has been district attorney since 1992. He considered switching parties earlier this year.

“There’s a one-word answer: demographics,” Porter said. It would be easy to reduce that to a simple racial equation, but Porter resists. Development density — again, not a reference to “apartments” as a euphemism for race, but to simple urbanization — changed Gwinnett from cow country to suburban sprawl over 20 years. Population growth exploded, he said. And high-population areas favor Democrats. The county’s politics are shaped by the demands of a larger community.

“People moved here for good schools and a high quality of life,” he said. “I think Democrats did a much better job on the long game in building a base of support than the Republicans did. And you have to acknowledge the Trump effect. The only product the Republican Party has to sell right now is Donald Trump. And the visceral hatred for him drives people to partisan voting.”

Democrats also took the Gwinnett County commission chair, and a majority of the commission and other down-ballot races there as well.

“We want to see representation in our leadership and policies that are reflective of the issues we care about,” said Nicole Love Hendrickson, the incoming commission chair, and the first Black person to serve in the role. “I want to be the model of a democratically run county that is safe and prosperous and that our residents feel heard.”

Even as she talks about the coming deep dive into the zoning practices of Gwinnett, which leave what affordable housing that can be found in the middle of food deserts, she’s also waiting for the last 4,400 votes to come in to see if the county managed to pass a light rail transportation referendum … on its fourth try. It’s failing. Again. And the referendum is failing in part because Black voters in southeast Gwinnett County have tepid support for it. Again. She’s utterly exasperated.

Georgia’s local politics resist facile assumptions about what white working-class voters or suburban Black voters “must” want. But national politics infect everything.

Georgia’s local politics resist facile assumptions about what white working-class voters or suburban Black voters “must” want. But national politics infect everything.

All of the legislative races in which Democrats flipped seats came in Atlanta’s middle class and affluent northern suburbs: Alpharetta, Lawrenceville, Marietta, Sandy Springs, and Snellville. Republicans lost the chairs of the ways and means committee, state House higher education committee, a major transportation committee, and the health care committee on Tuesday night. Two Senate seats also flipped.

But none of the losses threaten a Republican majority in either chamber. And Republicans exacted a toll: Democratic state Rep. Bob Trammell, the leader of Democrats in the House, had a target on his back. Republicans carpet-bombed it with money. David Jenkins, a retired Army helicopter pilot and farmer, beat him by about 1,000 votes.

“[The Republican State Leadership Committee] said it was spending $1 million,” said Trammell. “And they pretty much did. Attack television, digital, and mail started here the day after the primary and was sustained all the way through. They like to be able to say Democrats aren’t for rural Georgia. It’s inconvenient for them for me to be here.”

In a race with about 20,000 votes cast, that works out to about $50 a vote. And it’s one of a half-dozen local races with similar spending, in a state where House seats are usually contests of under $100,000 spent by both candidates combined. Republican state Rep. Chuck Efstration had to spend $1 million to beat Nakita Hemingway in exurban Gwinnett by 1,200 votes on 25,000 cast. A half-dozen other races ended with a margin of 5 percent of less.

One might expect elections to resolve things. But today it feels like this state — and the country, perhaps — has more questions than answers.

Polling in Georgia has been remarkably consistent, in that it always projected a razor-thin margin. But how were the polls so wrong again in the Rust Belt? For Republicans here, looking at eroding support in suburban Atlanta, what appeals can be made to the emerging nonwhite majority that won’t cost them more voters among their white voting base? Democrats have the opposite problem: finding a message that can resonate enough with Black voters to draw them to the polls without equally energizing reactionary white voters.

And, more to the political health of society: Where do we find a unifying message that can cut across racial boundaries and lower the heat a bit, so that everyone isn’t openly wondering when the American equivalent of the IRA and the Red Brigades will arise, with disaffected lower-class white people drawing lines in the suburbs, I-285 becoming the River Bann in Belfast, troops checking backpacks for bombs at Wild Bill’s in Duluth and Black Panthers patrolling South DeKalb.

A polarized America frays at the edges. And the purple places like Atlanta are those edges.

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