OPINION: GOP can slow change with redistricting, but they can’t make it stop

March 18, 2021 Atlanta - Asian American lawmakers including Sen. Michelle Au speaks to members of the press during a news conference on the shooting deaths of eight people, six who were Asian women, at spas, at the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday, March 18, 2021.(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
March 18, 2021 Atlanta - Asian American lawmakers including Sen. Michelle Au speaks to members of the press during a news conference on the shooting deaths of eight people, six who were Asian women, at spas, at the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday, March 18, 2021.(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The results of redistricting in Georgia this week have mostly turned out to be the calm after the storm, with the GOP majority giving up a handful of seats to the ascending Democrats, but stopping short of giving away their grip on the reins of either chamber in the General Assembly.

The future House map gives Democrats a new advantage in six seats of the 180-member House, while the Senate map draws at least one new Democratic seat in the 56-seat chamber. But Republicans keep a comfortable amount of breathing room in both. An AJC analysis predicts a 13-seat GOP advantage in the House and an 11-seat margin in the Senate.

“Although Republicans control everything, they have nonetheless given ground, which I think is a realization that the state is indeed changing,” Dr. Charles Bullock said. “Of course the maps haven’t changed as much as Democrats would like to see. But it is a recognition that Republicans probably can’t protect everything that they protect currently.”

Bullock is the UGA political science professor who is the state’s leading expert on redistricting. He’s called past maps examples of parties in power shooting themselves in at least one foot, and sometimes two. But Republicans in 2021 have at least recognized reality, he said.

The reality at hand is the 2020 Census, which showed 1 million new Georgia residents in the last 10 years, and a population that is significantly more diverse, better educated and older than it had been.

The Black population has grown by 13%, the state’s Asian population jumped by 53% and its Hispanic population increased by 32%. The state barely remained majority white, at just over 50%.

Six suburban Atlanta counties, including Cobb, Fulton, Gwinnett, and Henry, grew by more than 10%, while 67 counties — most of them smaller, rural, and heavily Republican — lost population.

With minority populations trending Democratic and soaring in Georgia, Democrats called the GOP-approved plan “smoke and mirrors” and not reflective of what Georgia looks like now, or where it’s headed.

The most eyebrow-raising change was that of state Sen. Michelle Au’s Gwinnett-based district, which flipped from a strong Democratic advantage to a slight GOP lean. It also transformed the district from 37% white to 51% white.

Au is both the only Asian American in the state Senate and a rising star. If you wanted to eliminate a Democrat with major potential and an annoying habit of pressing you on details and policy arguments, she would be the one you’d go for.

But individual Republicans didn’t emerge unscathed, either. The GOP targeted one of their own rabble rousers, state Rep. Philip Singleton of Sharpsburg, by making his district significantly more Democratic and also drew GOP state Rep. Emory Dunahoo out of his Gainesville-area district and into one that will be 92% new territory if he runs again.

But one of the main lessons of past redistricting sessions, including many spearheaded by Democratic majorities, is that the fact that taking somebody out of a district won’t necessarily take them out of politics in Georgia in the process.

If a lawmaker wants to be in the arena, they’ll be back again sooner or later. Democratic State Sen. Elena Parent and Mary Margaret Oliver can testify to that, as can Republicans Newt Gingrich, Sonny Perdue, and Saxby Chambliss, who were all drawn into tougher territories, or no territory at all, only to see their stars eventually rise higher than before.

In 1991, Democrats drew Gingrich out of his seat under a plan from Democratic House Speaker Tom Murphy, whose hometown of Breman fell inside Gingrich’s district.

Gingrich called Murphy’s new map “an attempt to destroy me,” but he also picked up and moved from Jonesboro into the new territory in Cobb. He went on to engineer the 1994 Republican Revolution and GOP House takeover two years after that.

Ten years later, Democrats decimated Perdue’s district as a punishment for switching parties from Democrat to the Republican, which spurred Perdue to run statewide for governor instead of facing an unpleasant group of voters at home over and over.

And after being drawn into a contest against another GOP House member, Chambliss decided to run for U.S. Senate against Max Cleland instead, and the rest is history.

The last big-ticket item for Republicans in 2021 is the final version of Congressional maps, which are also expected to give the GOP a continued advantage, even as the state trends more Democratic.

One scenario would make the 6th District more favorable for Republicans by sending Rep. Lucy McBath to compete against U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, her Democratic neighbor next door, in the 7th District.

But it wouldn’t be the first time two high-profile House members found themselves flipped from allies to rivals. In 2002, Democrats drew Republican U.S. Reps. Bob Barr and John Linder into the same district to force a primary between the two of them, which Linder won.

But even that race proved that while power changes can be delayed by redistricting, they can’t be denied. Linder and Barr were duking it out over the seat to represent the 7th Congressional District, which has since turned solidly Democratic and Bourdeaux, of course, now occupies.

Redistricting can hold the pendulum of power to one side for only so long before it swings back in full force, sometimes sooner rather than later.

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