In metro Atlanta, ‘blue wave’ Democrats face reelection in 2024

Democrats swept local seats in Gwinnett and Cobb counties in 2020, marking a notable shift after decades of Republican control.
Gwinnett Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson, left, and Cobb Chairwoman Lisa Cupid. (Contributed)

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Gwinnett Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson, left, and Cobb Chairwoman Lisa Cupid. (Contributed)

The blue wave that hit Gwinnett and Cobb counties four years ago, sweeping Democrats into power at all levels of local government for the first time in decades, will be tested in the November general election after most incumbents in both counties easily won their primary races last Tuesday.

The first sign of a political shift came unexpectedly when Hillary Clinton won 48% of the vote in Cobb and 51% in Gwinnett in the 2016 presidential race — the first Democratic candidate for president to win a plurality of the vote in either county since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Before that, Cobb County was well known as a GOP stronghold: home base for prominent Republicans such as former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens. At the time, Republicans also dominated both county commissions, and held the offices of district attorney and sheriff in Gwinnett and Cobb.

Gwinnett voters in 2018 elected two Democrats to the county commission for the first time since the 1980s, and a Democratic solicitor general. Two years later, Democrats fully took power in Gwinnett, flipping all the remaining county commission seats and the countywide offices of district attorney, sheriff and tax commissioner, as well as the school board majority.

In Gwinnett, all the newly elected Democrats were people of color. Almost all were Black. Both counties elected Black commission chairs, sheriffs and district attorneys for the first time.

The only incumbent in either county to lose on Tuesday was Cobb District Attorney Flynn Broady, who was defeated by Sonya Allen. There is no Republican opponent for Allen this fall.

Political shifts

Even when a majority of Cobb County residents voted Republican, the metro Atlanta suburb still had a significant Democratic population for decades, notably in south Cobb where former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes still resides today.

While the percentage of Black residents in Cobb County has remained the same since 2010, they have become more politically active. Turnout has increased by five percentage points in presidential elections since 2008, with over 60% of Black registered voters participating in the 2020 election.

The share of Black voters participating in elections has doubled since 2000, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of voter data.

Jason Shepherd, the former chair of the Cobb County GOP and a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, watched through the last two decades as the tide turned blue.

Jason Shepherd (right), the former Cobb GOP chairman, and Mableton Mayor Michael Owens (left), the former Cobb Democrats chairman, speak at the “Disagree Better” event in Marietta, a bipartisan group of current and former lawmakers addresses how to bring more civility to politics in Georgia and Washington. AJC/Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein/AJC

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Credit: Greg Bluestein/AJC

At the same time, he saw that the Republican party in Cobb was not “seriously engaged in voter outreach, voter contact and voter registration,” as opposed to Democrats, who ticked up their outreach with then-gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’ political organization Fair Fight Action.

“The Republican party was a victim of its own success,” he said. By the time the Cobb GOP began mobilizing, “we were sort of behind the eight ball.”

In Gwinnett, the number of Asian American and Pacific Islander voters more than doubled, from about 19,000 in 2016 to almost 40,000 in 2020. Experts said the increase played a role in Democratic victories for president and U.S. Senate four years ago.

“What we saw was more of a traditional urbanization of (Gwinnett) county that mirrors what happened to DeKalb County in the 1980s,” Shepherd said. “Diversity has been a big part of it: a growing Hispanic population and a growing Asian population, without the Republican Party really doing a good job of doing outreach to those communities.”

The share of Asian, Black and Hispanic voters in Gwinnett has increased in every presidential election since 2000, the AJC analysis found.

County Commissions

In the span of four years, the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners flipped from five white Republicans to five Democratic members of color. And when Lisa Cupid was elected Cobb chair in 2020 with two other Democratic commissioners, they formed the county’s first majority-Black, majority Democratic, all-female board of commissioners.

The Cobb County Board of Commissioners meets in Marietta on Tuesday, September 27, 2022.   (Arvin Temkar /


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Three wealthy conservative pockets of Cobb seeking more local control tried to form their own cities, all of which failed at the ballot box in 2022. These cityhood movements were stoked by fears of high-density development encroaching on their communities and were widely viewed as a backlash to Democrats winning a majority on the commission.

Voters in northern Gwinnett, where conservatism still reigns, voted Tuesday in favor of creating the new city of Mulberry — in direct response to a proposal for high density apartments in the area.

Criticism around development and urbanization of the suburban counties may stem from a reticence to change, Cobb Commissioner Monique Sheffield said, requiring her to “balance between preservation and development.”

“My job is to try and accommodate the different needs of not just the people that’ve been here for decades, but for those that are now moving into Cobb County,” she said.

Conservative backlash also played out two years ago during redistricting when state lawmakers targeted both Gwinnett and Cobb local maps to preserve Republican seats.

Republican state lawmakers drew a map that removed Commissioner Jerica Richardson from her Cobb district halfway through her term. The county then passed its own map, prompting a lawsuit that worked its way up to the Georgia Supreme Court in April. But the high court did not rule on the merits of the case and dismissed it this month on procedural issues, leaving the county-drawn map in place through the primary election.

Legislators also redrew Gwinnett’s commission map to create one conservative-leaning district, ousting Marlene Fosque, the first Black person ever elected to the commission. Fosque lost re-election to a white Republican, Matthew Holtkamp.

Cupid attributes some of the backlash she has received to the national state of political discourse that has “become more inflamed over the years,” amplified in Cobb by the shift from Republican to Democratic leadership.

“There’s a narrative that’s perceived about who we are and what we do,” she said. “I think that colors a lot of the discourse.”

Cupid has also faced criticism around property taxes: the county millage hasn’t been rolled back since 2016, marking increases in property taxes for several years as home values skyrocketed during the pandemic.

Prior administrations for far too long had kept the budget too lean to be sustainable, leaving this board to play catch-up, she said.

“It only allowed us to meet the needs of the squeaky wheel of today; maybe we were never resourced to address the underserved areas,” Cupid said. “We can’t even sustain a workforce that way.”

Cupid will face Republican Kay Morgan, a realtor, in November.

Cobb Chairwoman Lisa Cupid (left) talks with residents about the proposed county budget at a town hall meeting Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in East Cobb. (Taylor Croft/

Credit: Taylor Croft

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Credit: Taylor Croft

Under Cupid, the county raised the minimum wage for county employees up to $17 an hour to address the staffing shortage. Gwinnett under Democratic leadership also increased the minimum wage for county workers and gave repeated raises across the board to stay competitive in a tight labor market.

Both counties are poised to place 30-year penny sales taxes on the ballot in November to fund ambitious transit expansion plans. But Shepherd said it will be difficult to get voters on board with increasing the sales tax, especially at a time when people are struggling against persistently high inflation.

“If you keep raising property taxes, sales tax, water fees, everything else, then you’re going to start pricing a lot of people out of the county,” he said.

Despite the backlash from north Gwinnett, Hendrickson said her biggest priority is addressing the affordable housing crisis by increasing the number of available housing units.

“We want to permit similar uses in areas that already support the infrastructure, so I’m not proposing that we just put density up there,” Hendrickson said.

Justice reform

Political shifts in the suburbs coincided with calls across the U.S. for criminal justice reform.

Newly-elected sheriffs in Gwinnett and Cobb quickly stopped participating in the controversial 287(g) program, which allows jailers to check inmates’ immigration status, share it with the federal government and transport people facing deportation. Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this month signed a bill that requires all sheriffs in the state to apply for the program.

Prior to Sheriff Craig Owens’ term, the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office faced scrutiny after several inmate deaths prompted an outside review of jail conditions. Owens campaigned on promises to improve the jail and conducted a massive overhaul of the sheriff’s office. This year, the jail received a rare “triple-crown” accreditation rating by three regulatory agencies in the U.S., Owens said.

January 7, 20201 Marietta - Craig Owens, new Cobb County Sheriff, speaks during the Swearing-In Ceremony of Chairwoman of Cobb County Board of Commissioners, at Cobb County Civic Center in Marietta on Thursday, January 7, 2021. (Hyosub Shin /


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“In 2020 and 2022, voters were told that Cobb would fall into lawlessness and disarray if Democrats were elected. That has not and has never happened,” Owens said.

Owens will face Republican David Cavender in November.

Gwinnett Sheriff Keybo Taylor and District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson both weathered controversies throughout their first term but also enacted reforms and notched decisive victories in Tuesday’s primaries.

Taylor faced allegations that he extorted bail bond company owners and shut down companies that did not support his campaign. The state attorney general’s office investigated but declined to prosecute Taylor. In addition to ending the 287(g) program, Taylor immediately disbanded the county jail’s Rapid Response Team, which was under federal investigation amid allegations of excessive force.

Austin-Gatson faced blowback over a homicide conviction rate that dipped to 57% in 2022, but her new initiatives included a conviction integrity unit, a junior mentorship program, a juvenile court diversion program and a citizens’ academy. Four years ago, she defeated Republican Danny Porter, a highly regarded prosecutor who had served in the role for 28 years. On Tuesday, she avoided a runoff in the three-way Democratic primary.

No Republicans are running for district attorney in Gwinnett or Cobb this year.