A strange thing happened in Georgia last week. In the kind of low-turnout election that Democrats are generally expected to lose, a Democratic candidate won a runoff election for a seat in the General Assembly in a traditionally Republican District. Democrat, Taylor Bennett, is a former Georgia Tech quarterback who ran on his opposition to Georgia’s proposed new anti-gay rights law. His opponent comes from a prominent local political family with deep Republican roots.
This outcome cuts against normal expectations in a lot of ways, but how meaningful is it? Here are a few details of Georgia’s State House District 80.
The district is anchored by the newly incorporated town of Brookhaven. It’s an affluent, close-in suburb of Atlanta, better regarded as inter-urban rather than classically suburban. The core of the district is roughly ten minutes from Emory University and twenty minutes from downtown Atlanta. Brookhaven is white, but not overwhelmingly so. The district, which includes a stretch of neighboring Sandy Springs, is a little less thirty percent Hispanic or black. Importantly, Asians now make up 7% of the district’s voters and rising.
Brookhaven was organized about a century ago as a wealthy retreat with a fine country club. It gradually became urbanized, though until a few years ago it resisted incorporation. Now it has ready access to Atlanta’s new rail system with a prominent new station.
From a quick look back at historical election results, Brookhaven is an old-school Republican enclave, a rare haven for Republicans during the years of smothering Democratic dominance in the South. In other words, unlike the rest of the South, it has a local Republican tradition older than the Dixiecrats.
Parts of it have often been represented by Democrats during the Dixiecrat era. This State House seat was previously represented by a Dixiecrat who had changed parties. But it also has a rare tradition of electing Republicans, including the father of Mr. Bennett’s opponent in this election.
An examination of the election results at the precinct level shows the same kind of eroding support for Republicans at the top of the ticket that we see in urban and suburban areas all over the country. Republican vote share in the most heavily Republican precincts in District 80 dropped by roughly 10% just between the ’12 and ’14 elections, down from a historic peak a decade ago.
With his deep local ties and relatively moderate politics, Bennett’s opponent, J Max Davis outperformed both Romney and Perdue in the district’s Republican anchor precincts and he still lost. The growing hostility to the Republican brand outside the party’s core demographic was just too much to overcome.
A few months ago I described Georgia as a state in the GOP’s critical deep-red category that might become competitive soon at the national level. Here’s the factor I identified as critical to the state’s partisan political future:
Georgia’s future political direction will most likely be determined by the outcome of races in Atlanta and its near suburbs that are too local and obscure to draw the attention of outsiders. To an ever increasing extent, Georgia = Atlanta. Metro Atlanta already accounts for half of the state’s electorate. That figure is guaranteed to climb for the foreseeable future.
Georgia’s future hinges on a factor separate from race and ethnicity – urbanization. Of the four questions that hang over Georgia’s political future, Republican’s ability to hold Atlanta’s suburbs is the most decisive.
How significant is the outcome in this year’s race for Georgia’s 80th House District? It depends on whether that assessment of Georgia’s future is accurate. If inner-suburban or inter-urban areas like Brookhaven hold the key to the GOP’s future, then this outcome is about as dire a warning as you can get.