Opinion: The overlooked fight for control of the Georgia House

On Election Night and the many days that follow, you can be forgiven for keeping your eyes glued to the electoral college and Joe Biden’s attempt to push Donald Trump out of the White House.

The same thing goes for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate races and a pair of hot congressional confrontations on metro Atlanta’s north side. Lord knows, enough money has been spent trying to persuade you that they’re the only things that matter.

But if you want to focus on the electoral decision that will have the most impact, closest to your doorstep, there are two dozen or so state House races that are screaming for attention. Most of them are smaller-dollar affairs, but not all.

The lower chamber in the state Capitol has 180 members. In 2018, Democrats picked up 11 seats and now hold 75. They need to win 16 more to win control of the chamber — and thus partial control of state government — for the first time since 2004.

David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, has been on a tear across Georgia, trying to make sure this doesn’t happen — and is seeking a fifth term as House speaker. He doesn’t consider House Republicans to be hostages to an overwhelming presidential contest.

“There are some districts where the president is less popular than he is in others. In those districts, he’s actually running behind our people. But I tell our people that we can’t control what we can’t control,” Ralston told me in a phone interview from Savannah. He’s attended 45 events in the last 30 days.

On the other side is a small-town lawyer in west Georgia. House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, has been targeted by Republicans to the tune of about $1 million, apparently in an effort to keep him physically pinned down in his House district.

“If that was the rationale, I think it was very misguided,” Trammell said. “The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way campaigns are being done this year We’re living in a Zoom world, where most of the organizing events and things that happen are virtual.”

But he admits that accessing the internet in rural Georgia can be a chore. “If I’m going to do anything on video, I have to go to my law office. It’s only a mile away,” Trammell said.

Trammell isn’t the only vulnerable legislative leader. House Speaker pro tem Jan Jones, a Republican and the highest-ranking woman in the Legislature, lives in Milton. And north Fulton County has become central to the Democratic revolution in suburban Atlanta.

By mid-week, votes cast in Jones' district, in person and by mail, had surpassed all those counted in 2016 — a sign of voter intensity if nothing else. Eleven of 21 Republican-held House districts eyed by Democrats were displaying similar levels of voting.

Yet for Trammell and his fellow House Democrats, outright victory on Tuesday is a tall order. In the last few decades of GOP ascendance, Democrats have been able to reclaim only one Southern state legislature. Last year, Democrats flipped both chambers of the Virginia legislature — a feat widely interpreted as a rebuke of Trump.

Much is at stake for the blue cause in Georgia on Tuesday. The 2020 U.S. Census appears to be all over but the shouting. The numbers it generates will be used to redraw the political boundaries for congressional districts, state legislative districts, county commission districts, school board districts and more across the state.

The General Assembly will have oversight of all — beginning with a special session next year.

On paper, reapportionment is the process of making sure citizens have equal representation at all levels of government. In practice, it has become an opportunity for the elected to choose those who elect them — and to cement their influence for much of the next decade.

Without a seat at the table next year, the Democratic path to power in Georgia grows much steeper.

Among Republicans in the state Capitol, House Speaker Ralston has been the most upfront about the threat that Georgia’s changing demographics and attitudes pose for the GOP — and for suburban members of his caucus in particular.

“We set out to do three pretty simple things,” Ralston said. First, his team has paid close attention to candidate recruitment this year.

“The second plan was to give them legislative accomplishments that would appeal to Georgians who really want to look to the future with a positive vision,” Ralston said. And so the speaker pushed — hard — for passage of a hate crime bill authored by state Rep. Chuck Efstration, a threatened Republican from Dacula.

And for a bill to address Georgia’s terrible maternal mortality statistics — the work of state Rep. Sharon Cooper, whose Marietta seat is under siege. A parental paid leave bill passed the House, but died in a Republican-controlled Senate.

And lastly, Ralston said Republicans have concentrated on adequate funding — which appears plentiful on both sides, though we may not have a clear idea of how much cash has been in play until after Tuesday.

“I’m guardedly optimistic that we’re going to maintain a majority and pick up some seats that are held by Democrats,” Ralston said.

From the point of view of House Democrats, it’s worthwhile to examine how they picked up 11 seats in 2018. They had coattails to hang onto. Stacey Abrams, who very nearly upset Republican Brian Kemp in the race for governor, won majority votes in 78 House districts. Democrats won 74 of those House seats.

There was one outlier. House District 132 was won by Kemp two years ago. And by Trammell, the Luthersville lawyer.

Trammell is betting that the coattails of this year’s Democratic presidential nominee are longer. “Biden is going to carry at least 90 House districts,” he ventured. Whether he carries more, and by what margin, will determine how many House Republican incumbents are able to weather a blue wave.

Straight-ticket voting is the best hope of House Democrats, and the bane of House Republicans.

But this is not an all-or-nothing game. You have heard it said that “close” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. You can add legislative power to that list.

In 2002, when Sonny Perdue won the race for governor, Democrats retained control of the state Senate — until three senators were persuaded to switch parties. Given that a Republican will still be occupying the Governor’s Mansion, a replay of that scenario is unlikely.

But there are signs of unrest in Ralston’s GOP caucus that could conceivably come into play. State Rep. David Clark, R-Buford, has announced that he intends to challenge Ralston for leadership of the chamber — if Clark himself survives a re-election challenge on Tuesday.

Also, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, since 2000, Election Day has produced 15 state legislative bodies that were tied for control between Democrats and Republicans. In most cases, power-sharing agreements were reached.

In the South, the Virginia Senate was divided 20-20 in 2011, and the North Carolina House was split 60-60 in 2002.

Democrats, though not Republicans, acknowledge the possibility of something other than a binary, win-or-lose outcome in the days ahead. “We’re in the middle of trying to win every seat that we can, obviously,” Trammell said. “The closer we get to a majority — it obviously puts us in a position where a lot of things can happen.”