Georgia legislators face a crucial election year with long-term impact

Georgia’s Capitol.

Georgia’s Capitol.

With every seat in the Georgia General Assembly in play next year, the outcome of the 2020 elections could shape the next decade of Statehouse politics.

Democrats are battling to flip at least 16 of the House's 180 seats to gain control of the chamber in hopes of having a say as lawmakers draw the voting districts after the 2020 census.

If Republicans succeed in maintaining control of both chambers and the Governor’s Mansion, Democrats could face another decade struggling to gain power in the Legislature.

House Democratic Leader Bob Trammell of Luthersville said gaining control of the chamber is of "tremendous importance" for his party.

“A Democratic House gives us a check on the redistricting process,” Trammell said. “It gives some additional balance and leverage just to make sure the maps aren’t so terribly gerrymandered where we wind up in a situation where the state is losing effective representation because we have these incredibly skewed maps.”

The General Assembly will draw new political boundaries for the state Legislature and Congress in 2021 to comply with population changes.

Republicans have said they are confident they’ll hold on to majorities in the House and Senate — and say they will point to their records since taking control of both chambers in the 2000s as evidence their policies are best for Georgia.

"The Republican majority will continue building on our strong record of success of creating jobs, expanding opportunity and keeping Georgia the best place to live, work and raise a family," House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, said in a statement. "We've cut taxes, fully funded public education and given teachers a well-deserved pay raise all while adopting conservative, balanced state budgets year after year."

While it’s a tougher fight for Democrats in the Senate — they would need to pick up eight of the chamber’s 56 seats to gain control of the chamber — Republicans there aren’t taking their majority for granted.

Democrats say what they call a rejection of President Donald Trump by suburbanites — especially suburban women — will lead what once were dependable Republican areas to consider voting for Democratic candidates.

A large focus is being placed on the northern Atlanta suburbs, where Democrats say demographic shifts and disillusionment with national politics have loosened the grip of Republican control.

For example, in 2017, the U.S. census estimated that 50.7% of Gwinnett County’s residents were white. That was down from 53.3% in 2010 and 67% in 2000. A heavy majority of white voters backed Republicans in statewide races last year, while a majority of minority voters supported Democrats.

"We intend to compete all over the state with a more granular focus on suburban and exurban seats of Atlanta," said Atlanta Democratic state Sen. Elena Parent, vice chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. "The 2018 results demonstrated that Georgians have grave concerns about the Republican Party's leaders and they're hungry for leaders with ideas who will work hard to improve their everyday lives."

Republicans plan to launch their own defense aimed at protecting seats in both chambers while also trying to take a few back that went to Democratic lawmakers in recent elections.

The next 10 years

Democrats say a Republican trifecta in 2010 — when Republicans controlled the House, Senate and Governor’s Mansion — led to district lines drawn to protect the majority. The same thing happened when Democrats controlled the process in the early 2000s.

That’s why Bob Holmes, a former Democratic state representative and political scientist, said flipping an additional 16 seats is a tall order.

“They will see some gains in the Senate and the House, but you have to remember who drew the lines for this,” Holmes said. “So, clearly, it’s a ridiculous situation.”

The General Assembly gets to pick its own districts, so the process could cement GOP control throughout the 2020s or give Democrats hope of eventually regaining the House and Senate. Republicans have run the state Senate since 2002 and House since after the 2004 elections.

Redistricting can be considered mundane to most of the public, but state legislators are essentially allowed to choose whom they, and their congressmen and congresswomen, represent — and, in turn, who will vote for them. There are some parameters: Districts have about the same population and are typically contiguous, meaning lawmakers can’t pick a subdivision in Kennesaw and put it in a state Senate district on St. Simons Island because they like the makeup of voters.

But computer software and voting data take much of the guesswork out of the job, and if one party runs the Georgia House and Senate, it can decide the balance between GOP-leaning seats and Democrat-leaning seats, as long as the governor goes along with the plan.

Republican districts can be drawn so that Democrats have virtually no chance of winning, and Democratic districts so Republicans face similarly difficult odds.

That’s why Trammell said the pressure is so high heading into 2020.

“A Democratic House has more weight behind it than it would if you have one party in control of all aspects of the line-drawing process,” he said.

North Atlanta ‘battleground’

Statehouse seats held by Republicans in rural parts of Georgia are most likely safe from the population surge and changing demographics of the Atlanta area.

Valdosta Mayor John Gayle said he would be surprised if Democrats are able to pick off any seats in his part of the state. In fact, Gayle said he thinks some rural Democrats might lose to Republican challengers next year.

“We’re not only in the Bible Belt, we are the Bible Belt,” Gayle said.

As Democrats embrace more liberal stances on social issues, such as embracing LGBT causes, Gayle said, it’s more difficult for voters in Lowndes County to support Democratic candidates.

Longtime statehouse lobbyist Rusty Paul, a former Republican lawmaker and now the mayor of Sandy Springs, said the GOP was “caught by surprise” when seats began flipping as quickly as they have in the past few election cycles.

Democrats picked up 11 seats in the House and two in the Senate last year — the biggest gains by the party in about 20 years — mostly in the north Atlanta suburbs. And in 2016, Republicans narrowly lost both Cobb and Gwinnett counties in the presidential election for the first time since Jimmy Carter was on the ballot.

“Cobb, north Fulton, north DeKalb and Gwinnett (counties) are going to be battlegrounds,” Paul said. “Republicans (in leadership) have to acknowledge that the politics in suburban Atlanta right now is much different than the seats they hold in rural Georgia.”

To stave off any Democratic gains in the House, state Republicans earlier this year announced a GOP Majority Outreach plan — known as GOPMojo — to spend $10 million on 30 of the state's most competitive seats in the chamber. Ralston spokesman Kaleb McMichen declined to comment on a 2020 financial strategy.

Republicans in the Senate are also zeroing in on defending seats in the north Atlanta suburbs.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who serves as president of the Senate, earlier this year established an independent fund to funnel money to protect the chamber's Republicans and target seats that recently were won by Democrats.

In a letter to prospective donors, Duncan Deputy Chief of Staff John Porter said the main purpose of Advance Georgia is to “preserve and protect a Republican majority in the Georgia state Senate.” It’s the first effort of its kind.

Porter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the fund is unique.

“It’s an independent committee — so all of our funds can be spent on electioneering efforts,” he said.

But it’s going to take more than money to safeguard GOP seats in the suburbs, especially with so much of attention being paid to Republican politics in Washington.

majority of Georgians disapprove of Trump's performance in the White House, and he appears to be facing a hard fight against each of the five top Democratic candidates seeking to replace him, according to a recent AJC poll.

Porter said lawmakers have to be visible in their communities.

“All politics is local,” Porter said. “It’s important that these candidates take care of their districts and their local matters — make sure citizens have good roads, that teachers are paid well, and they can get access to social services.”

Paul said if Republicans want to maintain their seats in the northern Atlanta suburbs, they have to recognize that the needs of voters in suburban areas are different than those who live in rural Georgia.

And many conservative suburban voters are frustrated by the perception that Republicans aren't addressing their needs — such as ensuring children are safe at school — and are chipping away at the control local governments have over themselves. For example, the Legislature this year considered a bill that would have stripped municipalities of the power to control the look and design of homes.

“There’s a lot of frustration that Republicans in the Legislature seems to want to take control and override a lot of things we need to do in suburban areas.

“Otherwise,” Paul said, “Democrats will continue to eat their lunch in these elections.”