Why candidates for governor are lavishing attention on rural Georgia

A worker collects peaches at Pearson Farm in Fort Valley, Ga., May 25, 2017. (Maura Friedman/The New York Times)

A worker collects peaches at Pearson Farm in Fort Valley, Ga., May 25, 2017. (Maura Friedman/The New York Times)

Rural Georgia is getting some major love in the Georgia governor’s race.

With the vote more than a year away, candidates have already crisscrossed the plains of South Georgia and the mountains of the north with a pledge to deliver the goods: more reliable Internet connectivity, new economic development initiatives, better infrastructure and improved access to health care.

In the opening months of the race, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp have made the bulk of their campaign stops far from metro Atlanta, from tours jotting through small towns near the Tennessee line to fish fries in farming communities.

Two other Republican candidates for governor, state Sens. Hunter Hill and Michael Williams, both have put reducing agricultural regulations at the center of their platforms as they visit farms and meet with agricultural leaders.

They are using President Donald Trump as something of a muse. The Republican won a comfortable 5-point victory in Georgia despite losing much of Atlanta’s suburbs, including the GOP strongholds of Cobb and Gwinnett counties, because he notched huge margins in smaller, rural counties.

“The precedent has been set and they’re all here,” said Clint Hood, an agricultural banker in Milledgeville. “I feel like our needs are really getting heard. Atlanta has always been the spoke of the wheel, but rural Georgia has put our state on the map. And the candidates are showing they realize that.”

Democrats are well aware of the gap — and a trove of votes up for grabs. About one-third of rural Georgians are minorities, and the two leading Democrats — state Reps. Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans — have honed their agricultural policy as they have traveled across the state. Abrams kicked her campaign off at an Albany barbecue, a not-so-subtle message that the Atlanta lawmaker's campaign will not be Atlanta-centric.

At Wednesday’s annual Ag Summit in Tifton, farmers and foresters mingled over Chick-fil-A sandwiches as local officials discussed the latest twists of the long-running water wars legal fight with Florida and Alabama and a feral hog epidemic that’s plaguing the region.

Both Cagle and Kemp were here, too, pledging to grow new jobs and expand broadband in areas that now receive spotty coverage. Cagle, the presumptive front-runner, said he will soon release a “border-to-border” broadband initiative and would expand his College and Career Academies to help students in struggling areas fill sought-after jobs.

“We want to make sure we’re recruiting new industry and helping existing industries. But we have to make sure we’re growing new industries,” he said. “And we can’t have all that growth in Atlanta.”

Said Kemp to the crowd: “I couldn’t be more happy that there’s more of an emphasis on agriculture issues.”

Seeking solutions for rural ills

Rural Georgia’s challenges are sure to vex whoever succeeds a term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal in January 2019.

High school students in rural Georgia flock to local fast-food chains after school ends in search of reliable Internet. The population is aging rapidly, and younger people are fleeing for higher-paying jobs in cities.

“We need to do something to educate the next generation,” said Wesley Langdale, a Valdosta forester. “We need to pass a love of farming to our young people. We have no choice.”

At least 10 rural hospitals have closed since 2001; others are facing mounting financial pressure. And studies show the vast majority of the state's new jobs — about 9 in 10 — end up in metro Atlanta or other Georgia cities rather than rural areas. Many hoped for decisive action in next year's legislative session, spurred by a House rural council formed by Speaker David Ralston this year.

"On the farm, we can't wait on the weather. Sometimes we have to make decisions and just go. Because if we don't, I don't know what our state will do," said state Rep. Sam Watson, a Moultrie Republican who works in the agricultural industry. "Without the farmer, the rest of the world's going to be in trouble."

With the collapse of the GOP health care overhaul, rural leaders are also pushing gubernatorial candidates to consider changes that could open the spigots for more federal dollars. Several officials talked about seeking waivers to implement what could be vast changes to the state’s Medicaid program but wouldn’t involve a formal expansion of the program.

All four GOP candidates signaled they were open to waivers, and at an event Tuesday with small businessmen on the outskirts of Tifton, Kemp spoke about finding new ways to prevent rural towns from "drying up" without sparking a city-vs.-farms divide.

“If we can help focus attention on rural areas, it’s going to be good for the whole state — the ports, the airport, Home Depot,” he said. “It’s not us against them.”

Local Republicans are welcoming the attention, even if they acknowledge the political reality behind it.

“As places like Cobb and Gwinnett turn purple, metro Atlanta becomes break-even or even a loss for GOP nominees,” said Bryce Johnson, a Tifton attorney and Republican organizer. “Rural Georgia is where the GOP has to win statewide elections now and these candidates realize they have to build the ground game here early.”


Want to know what’s really going on when it comes to Georgia politics, policy and state news? Visit politicallygeorgia.com to find in-depth reporting, thought-provoking opinion and exclusive tools to help you navigate the world of government — and make your voice heard. Already a subscriber? PoliticallyGeorgia is included with your subscription. Haven’t yet subscribed? Sign up for your free trial at PoliticallyGeorgia.com.