GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp gives a thumb up Tuesday as he takes the stage with his family during his election watch party in Athens. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A blue ‘tsunami’ in Atlanta’s suburbs reshapes Georgia politics

The Georgia election may still have an uncertain end for its marquee matchup, but the results cemented the state’s status as a battleground for the 2020 race for president. And the metro Atlanta suburbs are poised to be the main battlefield.

Democrats painted the dense suburbs ringing Atlanta a bright shade of blue, capturing a swath of territory that just four years ago overwhelmingly tilted to the GOP. Republicans lost about a dozen state legislative seats and one of the shiniest jewels of the ‘burbs — the U.S. House seat held by Karen Handel.

Led by Stacey Abrams, Democrats carried a sweep of precincts that had transformed from unassailable to vulnerable since Donald Trump’s election as president. They helped boost her to nearly 49 percent of the electorate — and give her a slim chance at forcing a runoff with more votes still to be counted.

The party’s blue streak carved through parts of Acworth and Kennesaw, dominated sections of Sandy Springs and Dunwoody and moved up the spine of Ga. 400 to Roswell and Alpharetta, then tore across most of Gwinnett County. And it extended west and south, putting Douglas and Henry counties firmly in the Democratic column.

The GOP’s Brian Kemp may still be poised to win the race for governor despite the suburban struggles, thanks to a rural-focused strategy that netted him overwhelming margins in the state’s agricultural heartland.

But nervous Republicans acknowledge they can’t win future statewide contests by tanking in the fast-growing suburbs, where Trump’s middling approval ratings and a more diverse electorate is reshaping political debate.

“We have to figure it out. The divide between metro Atlanta and the rest of the state got a lot wider this election,” said Republican state Rep. Buzz Brockway, whose Lawrenceville-based House seat flipped.

“Metro Atlanta is booming. Parts of South Georgia are not,” Brockway said. “It’s not sustainable for the Republican Party to rely mostly on rural voters.”

A suburban revolt

The results solidified a stunning transformation that began in 2016, when Republicans narrowly lost both Cobb and Gwinnett counties for the first time since Jimmy Carter was on the ballot. There was nothing narrow about Kemp’s defeat in those two counties this time.

Cobb, a Republican stronghold that propelled the careers of Johnny Isakson and Newt Gingrich, now seems to be solid Democratic country. In 2014, Gov. Nathan Deal won the county by 14 percentage points. Four years later, the script was nearly flipped: Abrams carried it with 54 percent of the vote.

In Gwinnett, the contrast was even starker. Deal carried the county with 55 percent, while Abrams reached nearly 57 percent there this year.

The biggest name to fall in the region was Handel, who went from winning the nation’s most expensive U.S. House contest in history under an intense media glare in 2017 to being sidelined a year later by a first-time candidate in a race that drew much less attention.

And in a neighboring Gwinnett-based district, U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall would have fallen to Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux if not for heavy turnout in the conservative Forsyth County part of the district. As it stands, Woodall’s lead is so slim that national media outlets have yet to call the race.

Further down the ballot the damage to Republicans was even more sweeping.

In Gwinnett, Republicans lost five state House seats and a state Senate seat — and two Democrats won seats on the County Commission for the first time in more than 30 years. In DeKalb County, all three Republican-held legislative seats flipped.

In Fulton County, districts so conservative that they rarely fielded a challenger went decisively to Democrats. In Henry, El-Mahdi Holly won a state House seat that he lost by a wide margin just a year ago. And in Cobb, Democrats appeared to pick up enough legislative seats to win control of the county’s delegation.

Democrats won with a slate of first-time candidates, many of them women, who often echoed Abrams’ proudly liberal approach. They trumpeted an urgent call for Medicaid expansion, promised to enact gun restrictions and vowed to update the antiquated school funding formula.

“We won because our message resonated with what people cared about,” said Angelika Kausche, a retired professor who won a Johns Creek district that no Democrat bothered to even contest in 2016.

“Over and over, I heard from voters who wanted to hear about health care and education. And they were tired of the divisiveness and the aggressive rhetoric. They really believe we are focused on the issues that everyone cared about.”

And Democrats benefited from a sprawling field operation helmed by Abrams that aimed to identify and energize left-leaning voters who often ignored midterm elections. Even bitter rivals spoke admiringly about the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote effort that helped change the electorate.

“Let’s be frank: They outworked us. They took their message door to door and engaged voters one on one,” Cobb GOP Chairman Jason Shepherd said. “If we are going to get back on top in the suburbs, we need to get just as determined and be willing to invest just as many resources — if not more.”

‘Icing on the cake’

Suburban Republicans got little help from Kemp, who focused the bulk of his campaign machinery elsewhere.

His bus tours often skipped metro Atlanta altogether in favor of small-town stops where he drew enormous crowds. His provocative TV ads with shotguns, pickups and explosions weren’t geared toward more moderate voters who dominate the suburbs.

“Kemp just had to confirm he was a Trumpster and have his surrogates throw out the occasional word ‘socialist’ as another scare tactic to get out his voters,” said Cheryl Sopko, a 72-year-old Gwinnett retiree who called those ads the “icing on the cake” to appeal to rural voters but turn off suburban ones.

Still, Kemp’s plan to wring as many votes as possible from rural Georgia reaped him electoral rewards — including the highest vote total for a gubernatorial candidate in state history. With Trump’s enthusiastic support, Kemp actually outdid the president’s percentages in 132 counties, particularly in rural bastions. He outperformed Trump by 2.1 pecent in the 75 counties with the lowest population density, and he bested Deal’s tallies in those same counties in 2014 by more than 7 percent.

Central to his plan was a stealthy effort to mobilize Trump voters in deep-red rural counties who also typically skip midterms. That team, dubbed by one operative Operation Red Wall, knocked on more than 120,000 doors and helped Republicans counter Abrams’ drive for new left-leaning voters.

Here comes 2020

That may have worked in the short run, but Tuesday’s results leave little doubt that Georgia and its 16 electoral votes will be a fiercely fought front in 2020 when Trump stands for another term.

A look at shrinking Republican margins essentially guarantees that: Deal won the state by 8 points in 2014, Trump by 5 in 2016 — and Kemp this year carved out an edge of 1.5 percentage points.

And continued GOP struggles in the suburbs could trigger a lasting political realignment.

Metro Atlanta has added more than a half-million residents since 2010, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates the region’s population is expected to top 8.6 million by 2046. Rural Georgia has grown at a far slower pace, and some stretches of the state have suffered from decades of declining populations.

That’s one reason why just about every Democratic presidential hopeful visited Georgia to stump with Abrams — and plant seeds for their own potential campaigns. And it explains why the other bold-faced name on the Georgia ballot in two years — U.S. Sen. David Perdue — is girding for a tough re-election campaign.

In an interview last week, Perdue said while his party may struggle in the suburbs, the broader state electorate still skews to the ideological right.

“A lot of people can read anything they want to in these elections. But what I keep saying is that the turnout keeps getting larger and larger, and that means more Georgians are involved in the democratic process,” he said. “We all have to be happy about that.”

Other Republicans acknowledged a fit of soul-searching that’s to come. State House Speaker David Ralston conceded his party must do a better job of communicating its accomplishments — and focus on issues that don’t revolve around Trump.

“Our party was here before him and it will be here after him,” Ralston said. “We need to learn to message our pro-jobs, pro-education reform, pro-public safety message in a more effective way.”

State Sen. Fran Millar puts it in starker terms after falling to Democrat Sally Harrell in a Dunwoody-based district.

He warned his Republican colleagues to take more caution about seizing on social issues, such as “religious liberty” legislation and strict new abortion regulations, that energize voters in conservative strongholds but alienate many suburbanites.

“We all know what saved Republicans this year is rural Georgia. That’s not going to be the same a few years from now,” Millar said.

“And I’ll tell you this: 2020 could be worse for Republicans here if Donald Trump is the nominee. It could be worse,” he said. “It was a blue tsunami from Buckhead to Roswell to Gwinnett — and there’s a message there. If Republicans don’t get it, they’re not listening.”

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Staff writer James Salzer contributed to this article from Blue Ridge.

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