For decades, Banks County was blue, then came the shift to red

Once overwhelming Democrat support in northeast Georgia eroded, beginning in the 1970s
Bo Garrison, owner of David and Katie's Amish Store in Homer, Ga.,  stands near the cash register as customers shop on Friday, April 5, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

Bo Garrison, owner of David and Katie's Amish Store in Homer, Ga., stands near the cash register as customers shop on Friday, April 5, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

HOMER — Herbert “Bo” Garrison Jr. never stops moving.

During a recent lunchtime rush at his David & Katie’s Amish Store, he sliced New York strips — an inch-and-a-quarter thick, per a customer’s request — then hurried to pick up an insistent phone. While gliding between tasks, he shouted out answers to employees’ questions — just one Boston butt left, he’s sure, in the walk-in freezer. When a shopper inquired about a bulk order of seafood, he made his way to a counter to figure out how much it would cost.

Such is life as Homer’s only local grocer.

Garrison opened the store in 2005. His roots in the community run deep; for generations, the Garrison family has held local political positions and had the ears of prominent state officials.

“See ya later, Bo,” one woman called out after making her purchases.

Garrison believes in neighbors helping neighbors, which has earned him a loyal customer base in this small, rural town located 80 miles northeast of Atlanta. Since the hard days of the COVID pandemic, when the cost of almost everything surged, he’s intentionally kept his profit margins low, he says. Once the owner of a successful linen supply business, he provides products at cost to churches serving meals on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

What he doesn’t believe in, he says, are government handouts. And the way he sees it, too many Democrats do. That’s why he can’t support Joe Biden in the 2024 presidential election.

Though Garrison spent more than two decades on the school board as a Democrat, he says he’s always been conservative. He parted ways with Democrats because he thinks the party is sliding more and more to the left. Now, he serves on the county board of commissioners as a Republican.

Garrison’s move, from blue to red, mirrors the county’s.

For most of the 20th century, Banks County and the rest of northeast Georgia was predominantly Democrat — “Blue Dogs,” as Garrison put it, referring to members of the party who are center-right.

Banks County resident Don Daniels joked recently to a group of men gathered at Homer Hardware that, before the 1970s, the local Republican Party headquarters was in a phone booth on the town square.

In 1972, the county opted for a Republican — Richard Nixon — for the first time in a presidential election. Then, in 1976 and ‘80, voters here threw their support behind Georgian Jimmy Carter. No Democratic nominee has carried the county since.

Still, support for Democrats hadn’t evaporated.

The 1992 presidential election was a close race here — with 42.3% of the county voting for George H.W. Bush and 41.7% going for Bill Clinton. But the number of votes for Democrats has steadily fallen in each subsequent presidential election. And no Democrat sits on the county commission or school board.

“People here didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” according to resident Sam Moon, a 76-year-old Vietnam War veteran. “The Democratic Party left the people.” In 2020, Biden received just 10.6% of the vote.

Moon’s father was a Democrat. “There ain’t no way my daddy would have ever voted for a Republican,” he said. Both of his grandfathers were Democrats, too, locked in by admiration for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But Moon — a former schoolteacher, coach, county tax assessor and longtime farmer — has voted for Republicans for the past 50 years. Moon shifted because of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” policies of the 1960s, which included the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid, public health care programs for the elderly, poor and disabled. About 150 million Americans are enrolled in the two programs.

To blue-collar workers in Banks County, Johnson’s social reforms meant their hard-earned dollars could be taken away and given to those who weren’t pulling their own weight, Moon said.

Customers shop at David and Katie's Amish Store in Homer, Ga., on Friday, April 5, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

icon to expand image

Homer Hardware owner Daniel Wilson pointed to another president, Bill Clinton, as the one who really doomed Democrats’ chances in northeast Georgia.

Wilson said Clinton’s tax increases and stricter gun laws were not well received in Banks County. Then the president’s extramarital-affair scandals turned off even more folks. It remains to be seen how Trump’s criminal trial in New York — involving a hush money payout to an adult film star following an alleged sexual encounter — will sit with voters.

Rush Limbaugh’s rise on the airwaves hurt Democrats, too, Wilson said. “The party lost the ability to control the message.”

Besides that, Garrison, the store owner, said the kinds of Democrats who were admired by people in Banks County, the Zell Millers and the Sam Nunns, have disappeared. Those politicians would be far too conservative for today’s Democratic Party, he says.

He’s pessimistic about what will happen if the country reelects Biden.

“If we don’t make that turn,” Garrison said, “how much further left can we go before we fall off? We’re almost there now.”