House Democratic leader’s loss in rural Georgia highlights political divide

Rep. Robert Trammell, D - Luthersville, minority leader, speaks on the House floor in 2019.   Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Rep. Robert Trammell, D - Luthersville, minority leader, speaks on the House floor in 2019. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

It took Bob Trammell a few minutes to get control of his emotions as he addressed the Georgia House Democratic Caucus earlier this month on what was likely the last time he’ll gather with the group.

“I’m so grateful,” he began, before having to pause to regain composure.

The Luthersville Democrat and House minority leader, who was also the last white male Democrat elected from rural Georgia, lost his reelection bid after national Republicans put a target on his back and poured $1 million into the race to defeat him. He was defeated by first-time candidate David Jenkins, a U.S. Army veteran who owns a goat farm with his wife.

“The reason it’s so hard to be here (in the House chamber) is we have celebrated some really special times together personally,” Trammell said after the day’s caucus elections. “We’ve cried in some times of very strong grief together. ... This is a family.”

His loss is another signal of the partisan divide between Georgians in urban centers and those living in rural areas. State Rep. Debbie Buckner of Junction City will soon be the lone remaining rural white Democrat in the House, while Democrats rule most of urban Georgia.

First elected in 2014, Trammell was selected by House Democrats to lead the caucus in 2017. His leadership role — and his close victories in each of his three previous elections — spurred the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee to list his defeat as its top priority in the country.

The political action committee, which works to elect Republican lawmakers, sent press releases and hosted a media call the day after the election to bask in Trammell’s defeat.

After his win, Jenkins said the district — which includes parts of Coweta, Meriwether and Troup counties — has changed due to the influx of conservative voters seeking a slower pace relocating to the area, so it was fitting that its representation changed.

“The population growth in my area is primarily those interested in a rural setting,” said Jenkins, a Grantville resident. “There are more property owners and things like that, so I think it’s definitely an environment that favors conservative growth.”

Jenkins' wife, Cat Jenkins, also won her election to be the Meriwether County tax commissioner.

Trammell was used to close calls, but this year he couldn’t pull off the win when he lost to Jenkins 52.5% to 48.5%.

Trammell won by about 750 votes in 2018, with 52% of the vote, beating a Republican who some locals said didn’t live in the district. It was his closest victory since first being elected in 2014, though he had never won by more than 8 percentage points.

Trammell led the caucus through the 2018 elections, when Democrats gained 11 seats in the chamber. Democrats had hoped to keep that momentum going this year with a goal of flipping an additional 16 districts to take control of the chamber for the first time since 2005, but they fell far short, picking up only two seats.

The Georgia Legislature was long ruled by rural white conservative Democrats from places like Luthersville. That has shifted in the past few decades as many traditionally white conservative Democratic voters began consistently casting ballots for Republicans, and some conservative rural white Democrats opted to switch parties when it became clear that the GOP would take control of the Statehouse.

Buckner said many of the switches were made by long-serving rural Democrats so they could hold on to their chairmanships. It worked, and rural Republicans now run the bulk of the most powerful committees and serve in chamber leadership, just as conservative rural Democrats did 20 years ago.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat who’s served in the Legislature off and on since the 1980s, said Georgians have become more polarized.

“Throughout my long career I have enjoyed working with talented people from all over the state, but the current political climate of divisiveness — in part based on race — and the haves and the have-nots seems to be creating a greater level of divide, period,” she said.

State Rep. Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican who switched parties in 2010, said white rural Democrats have become “a thing of the past.” He was first elected as a Democrat in 1990.

“That old philosophy that we have two Georgias — that’s exactly right. It’s metro versus rural,” Powell said. “Metro areas, they tend to be a conglomeration of people that are people of color or they’re younger or college students, those folks they have different issues. ... Rural folks tend to be more conservative, and they seem to be more independent.”

Buckner said that rural voters identify all Democrats with the party’s support of polarizing issues, such as gun control and access to abortion, which don’t align with their beliefs. But issues such as access to quality broadband service and clean water are topics most rural voters support, regardless of party affiliation, Buckner said.

Being in the minority party makes it more difficult for Trammell to point to bills he got passed that became law, but he cites his push for safe disposal of coal ash and an expansion of Medicaid — the public health program that provides care to the poor and disabled — as efforts he was proud of. Neither effort gained any traction.

“I’m proud to have championed and continued fight for health care access for Georgians,” he said. “That’s not going away. That conversation needs to continue to remain at the forefront of the General Assembly, particularly at the time of COVID.”

As for what’s next, Trammell said he is going to continue to practice law out of the house where his grandparents lived when he was a child and focus on raising his three young children. He and his family live about a mile from that house and also about a mile from his childhood home — where his mother still lives.

“I’ve got plenty of time to think about what’s next,” he said.

Trammell said he thinks both parties need to do more to appeal to voters outside of their bases — with Republicans focusing on urban and suburban areas and Democrats working for rural votes.

“It would be better for Georgia as a whole,” Trammell said, “if we had more balance throughout the state.”

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