Opinion: Ticket-splitting becomes a key to GOP survival in Georgia

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., asks questions during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Department of Defense Spectrum Policy and the Impact of the Federal Communications Commission’s Ligado Decision on National Security during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

Here’s a counter-intuitive thought with statistical underpinnings: it is possible that the worse that Georgia voters think President Donald Trump will do this November, the more likely it is that Republicans will avoid an Election Day calamity.

Call it a potential brake on straight-ticket voting, which now threatens GOP control of the state House, not to mention U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s re-election bid.

That our political climate has become more polarized isn’t a matter up for debate. What’s unusual is the degree to which local and state contests are becoming mirror images of the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns.

On Monday, at a former steel mill plant in Pittsburgh, Joe Biden condemned the violence arising out of protests over police shootings. “I want to be clear about this. Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting,” the former vice president said.

In Georgia, Jon Ossoff, the Democrat trying to oust Perdue, quickly followed suit with a statement of his own. As did the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Matt Lieberman, two Democrats in the special election for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat.

Last month’s Republican National Convention was filled with warnings that America’s suburbs were about to be swallowed by violent mobs. Images of burning buildings now fill the Twitter feeds of Georgia Republicans.

Even spoken words originate from a single GOP playbook. Whether you’re running for Congress or the state Senate, if you haven’t denounced encroaching socialism at least 12 times before breakfast, it is possible that you aren’t a Republican at all.

This is a problem for the GOP. In Georgia and elsewhere, success — particularly this November — could depend on attracting those who want to cast an angry vote against Trump, but are willing to drift back to the Republican side as they proceed down the ballot.

Ticket-splitting is now a key to GOP survival in Georgia — despite the fact that 2016 saw the lowest rate of mixed balloting in more than a century, according to political scientist Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia

You see the result in David Perdue’s bid for re-election. The GOP incumbent is in no way shunning Trump, but a 10-day scan of his Twitter account shows only a handful of direct references to the president. Rather, Perdue has put his emphasis on issues related to the coronavirus — PPE and the reopening of schools, and on accusations that Democrats want to “defund” the police.

The senator has yet to make any public mention of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican congressional candidate for the 14th District — whose espousal of QAnon conspiracy theories didn’t disqualify her from being invited to witness President Trump’s nomination acceptance speech at the White House.

At the state Capitol, Democrats need to pick up 16 House seats to gain control of that chamber. Metro Atlanta will likely decide the matter. Two of the most vulnerable Republicans are state Reps. Sharon Cooper of Marietta and Deborah Silcox of Sandy Springs.

Cooper emphasizes health care. Silcox lists transportation as a top worry. As far as their websites are concerned, Donald Trump doesn’t exist. Their future, too, likely rests with voters willing to split their votes between Democrats and Republicans.

It is still possible, in five states, to vote for every single Democrat on the ballot, or every single Republican, with a single checkmark or push of a button. Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and South Carolina all have some form of ballot-based, straight-ticket voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Six states have abolished it since 2016: Utah, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa and Texas. All five have Republican-controlled state legislatures.

Texas, which like Georgia is shifting blue, passed legislation to do away with straight-ticket voting in 2017, but the abolition doesn’t go into effect until November.

According to an analysis by Austin Community College’s Center for Public Policy and Political Studies, in the 37 Texas counties that accounted for 80 percent of all votes cast for president in 2016, straight-ticket voting made up nearly two-thirds of all ballots cast.

Straight-ticket voting had been the dominant factor behind GOP control of the state. But in 2016, for the first time since they came to power, Texas Republicans received less than half of the straight-ticket vote.

The situation in Georgia is more subtle. In 1968, fearful of the impact of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy and a white backlash against the civil rights movement, a Democratically controlled Legislature separated out the presidential vote.

All other down-ballot races were still subject to a straight-ticket vote, which allowed Democrats to hang onto control of the state Capitol decades longer than in other Southern states.

But in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Republicans began to make inroads in counties like Cobb and Gwinnett — by emphasizing straight-ticket voting. In 1994, two Democrat suburbanites, state Reps. Bill Lee of Forest Park and Roy Barnes of Mableton, pushed through a measure to do away with straight-ticket voting entirely. Yes, that Roy Barnes.

That November, voters re-elected Zell Miller as governor. But they also, for the first time, elected two Republicans to state constitutional offices: Linda Schrenko as state school superintendent, and John Oxendine as state insurance commissioner.

At the time, the thinking was that Democratic voters gave up soon after voting in the governor’s race, never making it down to the bottom of the ballot, while a more disciplined GOP electorate persevered.

But something else may have been at work as well.

I mentioned above the possibility that, if voters become pessimistic about Trump’s re-election chances and presume a Biden victory, Republicans in Georgia could benefit.

In 2016, Robert Erikson of Columbia University discovered an interesting wrinkle in a study of presidential coattails. (Many thanks to the people at Sabato’s Crystal Ball for jogging my memory on this.)

Looking at congressional elections in the post-World War II era, Erickson found that, if a presidential candidate of one party was thought to have a distinct advantage going into Election Day, then “politically informed voters” — independents in particular — were more likely to cast a vote for the other party in congressional races.

Ticket-splitting becomes a form of check-and-balance.

In 1994, voters may have thought a little power-sharing would do Zell Miller good.

In November, the prospect of a President Biden could generate a desire to make sure the Senate stays Republican — to keep an eye on him. And once a Biden voter goes to Perdue, who’s to say what happens further down the ballot?

It’s a scenario that, going into the final days and weeks of the campaign, presumes a comfortable Biden lead. The question is whether, after 2016, anti-Trump voters believe that there’s any such thing.

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