2021 redistricting intensifies battle for Georgia House

The Georgia Capitol. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
The Georgia Capitol. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

The next decade of Georgia politics is on the ballot next week.

State Democrats are fighting to gain control of the Georgia House for the first time in 15 years so they can have a stronger say in how district lines are drawn next year.

Republicans currently control both chambers of the General Assembly — which is in charge of how state and congressional district lines are drawn — and Democrats fear the new maps will be configured in a way that costs them all the ground they gained in recent years.

Democrats are hoping to ride the wave of success they had in 2018, when they flipped 11 seats in the chamber, by taking at least 16 seats from House Republicans this year.

House Democratic Leader Bob Trammell of Luthersville said it was “extremely important” for Democrats to win the majority in the chamber if they want to have leverage in the line-drawing process.

“The election that we’re in the middle of has consequences, not only for the next two years but for the next decade,” Trammell said.

But Republicans aren’t taking their margin of majority lightly. House Speaker David Ralston of Blue Ridge has been on the campaign trail this week drumming up support for Republicans across the state who have drawn Democratic challengers.

Earlier this week, Ralston visited places such as Warner Robins, Milledgeville and St. Simons Island — all in districts that had more Democrats than Republicans cast ballots in the June primary — to urge conservatives to send GOP incumbents back to the House next year.

“These are the places where we have candidates who have opponents and, in some cases, they are a little bit more competitive races than others," Ralston said.

But much of the focus is on metro Atlanta, especially in increasingly diverse Gwinnett County. According to the 2000 U.S. census, Gwinnett’s population was two-thirds white. As the number of Black, Asian American and Hispanic residents has grown, the white population dropped to nearly 54% in 2019 census estimates.

Democrats picked up 11 seats in the House and two in the Senate in 2018 — the biggest gains by the party in about 20 years — mostly in Atlanta’s northern suburbs. In 2016, Democrats won both Cobb and Gwinnett counties in the presidential election for the first time since Jimmy Carter was on the ballot.

Republicans have held onto majorities in the House and Senate throughout the 2010s in part because of the district maps they drew early in the decade. State legislative leaders essentially decide which Georgians will vote in which districts, and by divvying up the population in a partisan manner, they can draw district lines that make it highly likely they will win a certain number of seats.

That process will begin anew in 2021, with district lines drawn for the next 10 years, based on the 2020 census.

Officials with the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a national group that works to elect Democrats, said while it expects party candidates to win some races in Georgia, it doesn’t foresee the House flipping.

The group announced this week that there are eight states — including Arizona, Iowa and Michigan — that are considered “top targets.” Georgia is not on that list.

But the organization’s president, Jessica Post, said that should not be interpreted as the organization abandoning the state.

“We still are involved in Georgia with a quest to pick up legislative seats in the state,” Post said. “It’s incredibly important for Democrats to build power, and we’ve been investing in Georgia since 2012.”

Austin Chambers, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee — the GOP counterpart to the Democratic group — said while Georgia has become a swing state in the presidential race, he expects Republicans to not only stave off any losses but pick up Democratic seats.

“I think, ultimately, what’s going to happen in Georgia is that the president’s going to win. Republicans will win both of the U.S. Senate races,” Chambers said. “Then what you’ll see is the state House Republicans will hold the majority in the state House.”

Both Ralston and Trammell exuded confidence heading into next week’s elections.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to retain the majority, and I’m also excited over the very real possibility that we’re going to pick up some seats that are held by Democrats right now,” Ralston said.

One of those seats is that of Trammell, the last rural white male Democrat in the state. Chambers' group has invested close to $1 million to defeat Trammell, who said he is confident he will be heading back to the state House next year.

“We’re well positioned to have a majority of the seats in the House come election night,” Trammell said, adding that there were 21 seats the party is targeting. “Georgia is a battleground state, and the Georgia House of Representatives is truly a battleground. It’s going to come down to some close, competitive contests on election night.”

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