‘Flipped’ chronicles Georgia’s wild political ride

Greg Bluestein deploys insider knowledge to explain how the state turned purple.
Greg Bluestein is author of "Flipped: How Georgia Turned Purple and Broke the Monopoly on Republican Power."
Viking Press/Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Greg Bluestein is author of "Flipped: How Georgia Turned Purple and Broke the Monopoly on Republican Power." Viking Press/Ben Gray

After failing to win a stateside seat in Georgia since 2006, the Democratic Party made history in 2020 by electing Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to the U.S. Senate, thereby turning the Senate majority blue by a thin margin. And Greg Bluestein, long-time political reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, host of the Politically Georgia podcast and a guest on numerous local and national TV and radio programs, had a front row seat.

Not only is Bluestein intimately familiar with the politics of Georgia, but he has a gift for breaking down the debates and conflicts behind the quest for power and explaining it to readers in a way that is not only easy to comprehend but exceedingly enjoyable to read.

In his new book “Flipped: How Georgia Turned Purple and Broke the Monopoly on Republican Power” (Viking, $29), he explains how the state’s political makeup has changed and what it means for the region and the nation in a way that even non-political junkies can appreciate.

Last week I chatted with Bluestein about the book and about the upcoming elections for governor, U.S. Senate and Secretary of State, which promise to be the center of national attention.

Q: In “Flipped,” you attribute the Democrats’ recent gains to a big shift in the party’s strategy. What changed?

Democrats … abandoned being Republican lite. They abandoned being the party of the NRA Democrat and trying to please both the moderate voters and the liberal base, and appealed to the liberal base in a more effective way. They talked about issues like gun control, decriminalizing marijuana, expanding Medicaid — issues that really appeal to liberal voters, and they ended up winning more moderate voters, too.

The big question, of course, is that part of the Trump effect, right? Is that something that’s fleeting because a lot of moderates were just disgusted with Trump-era politics, or is this more of a permanent realignment? My hunch is that Georgia is going to continue to be a very closely divided state. It’s not going to be either solidly blue or solidly red anytime soon. It’s going to continue to have very, very narrow margins. I think we’re the premier battleground state not just for the next cycle but for the next decade.

Q. People sometimes forget that Georgia was a majority Democrat state in the 20th century. When Republican Mack Mattingly made history by defeating incumbent Democrat Herman Talmadge for his Senate seat in 1980, you say in “Flipped” that moment marked the beginning of the shift in political power from rural Georgia to metro Atlanta. Can you talk about how that ‘two-Georgia’ divide shapes Georgia politics?

You could even make the case there’s almost a three-Georgia divide, right? There are the urban population centers that are still solidly blue; there’s rural Georgia, which is very red but not uniformly red because there’s some majority Black rural counties that lean blue; and then there are the suburbs and exurbs, those outer rings, where I think the battle for 2022 will really be played out.

Democrats managed to flip all these suburbs in 2016 and make them even more solidly Democratic in 2018-2020 — Gwinnett, Cobb, Henry. All these long-time Republican bastions are now cornerstones of Democratic success. But the Republicans are the exurbs; the Republicans are Cherokee and Bartow and Forsyth County where there’s just a ton of conservative voters, where, if Republicans have any shot of keeping these statewide seats and ousting Sen. Warnock, they’re going to have to do very well in those areas.

Q: How has Georgia turning purple affected the region and the nation?

First and foremost, it meant that Democrats got control of the Senate, and President Biden could pursue a far more expansive agenda than he would have otherwise. (Had Biden lost), you would be hearing about all sorts of cabinet battles to appoint his preferred cabinet. American Rescue Plan would have never happened, his coronavirus relief package. There would be no discussion of Build Back Better moving forward, of federal voting rights legislation, and the bipartisan infrastructure bill probably would have been much more limited. That’s not even talking about the Supreme Court nominee.

But in terms of national Democratic strategy, if Georgia can become a mainstay in the blue column, it means that Democrats can shift their focus away from the upper Midwest … and focus more time on Georgia and the South. It could give Democrats a lot more breathing room. But also, statewide, Democrats now have a case point. They have evidence that they can win.

Q: You must be pretty excited about the governor’s race this year.

We are right in the center of a white, hot spotlight. We really have the premier top-ticket races: race for governor, this three-way match between David Perdue, Brian Kemp, and then whoever wins that faces Stacey Abrams. Of course, the Senate race, which again, just like last cycle, could decide control of the U.S. Senate. And we have the premier down-ticket — I spent a lot of time in my book writing about (Georgia Secretary of State) Brad Raffensperger, the race for his seat is one of the most important races in the nation. It’s gotten attention locally and nationally as well.

The battle for Raffensperger’s seat was once viewed as a sleepy afterthought. But Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election turned Raffensperger into a household name — and now his fight to stay in office against a Trump-backed challenger will help define the GOP’s direction in Georgia and nationally.

Q: What do you think we can expect from their campaigns this year?

I predict a very close race. Georgia has shown it is the most politically divided state in the nation. Just 11,000 votes divided Trump and Biden. Percentage-wise, that’s nothing. And a few weeks later, Ossoff and Warnock — it’s not like they had easy victories. Those were very narrow victories for them as well, too. Stacey Abrams came within a point and a half of Brian Kemp three and a half years ago. The dynamics of the state have only improved for her. There’s been 1.2 or so million voters that have been added to the rolls since then, and they tend demographically to lean Democratic, so Georgia is going to be very, very close, or it should be.

But it’s hard to make any predictions right now because Democrats are facing headwinds of inflation and Joe Biden’s flagging popularity ratings and other setbacks. But Republicans have had their own internal infighting that has held them back, too. Both candidates may be fighting with an arm tied behind their back, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be very close.

Q: With the new voting laws in place and more working their way through the General Assembly, and all the attention on voter fraud, and voter suppression – not to mention close races — what are you expecting of the election process this year?

One of the biggest concerns officials from both parties have is voter confusion. There’s redistricting, so a lot of voters are in new congressional districts, new legislative districts. The elections won’t play out the same way they did last cycle. There are tighter deadlines for folks who want to vote by mail. There are new voting hours in some areas of the state. There are some new rules limiting ballot drop boxes in parts of the state. So, there’s an entirely new regimen. And, of course, there’s voter ID for folks who want to vote by mail. All those put together mean that it’s even more important for voters to research beforehand a plan to vote.

Whether voting by mail, voting early or voting in person, it’s hard to rely on just one of those means. Folks should have a backup plan because they might try to vote in person and find that the lines are long, and not everybody can stand in line for four hours.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at svanatten@ajc and follow her on Twitter at @svanatten.


Greg Bluestein. In conversation with Bill Nigut. 7:30 p.m. March 24. $10. Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, Zaban Park, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody. 678-812-4010, www.atlantajcc.org.