By H. Harrison Coleman IV
Grab your fresh-grown peaches, down the last of that Coca-Cola and begin planning a pilgrimage to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, fellow Democrats: Georgia has gone blue. For the first time since 1992, Georgia has cast its 16 electoral votes for a Democrat, giving them to President-elect Joe Biden. Biden is the first Democrat to win a statewide election since 2006.
This accomplishment, however, was a combination of many factors, from the changing demographics I wrote about before the election to the work of voting rights activist Stacey Abrams. The victory called by the New York Times on November 12 was one born out of the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of Georgian activists––and the entire South is slowly but surely following the Peach State’s lead.
The demographics of Georgia have been shifting for years, becoming younger, more metropolitan and more diverse. This has largely been seen in my adopted hometown, an island of blue in a sea of red, the capital city of Atlanta, along with smaller cities, such as Savannah, Macon and Athens. All of these cities are also home to large universities, which help the Democratic Party.
Though the push to win Georgia was undoubtedly a team effort, there is one person I can credit with moving Georgia to the Democratic Party’s column: Stacey Abrams. Abrams was a Democratic gubernatorial candidate from Atlanta who gained international recognition for her work registering Georgia voters.
In 2013, when Abrams served as Minority Leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, she co-founded the New Georgia Project, a progressive political nonprofit dedicated to registering new voters in what was dubbed the “New American Majority”––People of Color, young voters under the age of 29 and unmarried women. This demographic makes up 63% of Georgia's population, but only 53% of its registered voters.
In 2018, Abrams ran against Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp. She ran an inspiring and progressive campaign and lost by only 55,000 votes––the closest Georgian gubernatorial election in over 50 years. Not only did she galvanize Black voters to the polls, but she also received the highest share of the white vote in a generation.
“I sat shiva for ten days. Then, I started plotting,” Abrams said in an interview with Vanity Fair. Many theorized that she might make a Senate run or try her hand at a House race. But Abrams found a different option: she founded Fair Fight, an organization dedicated to advancing voting rights in Georgia.
The Peach State has a long record of voter suppression, including the recent purging of many people from voter registration rolls. Fair Fight is engaged in a crusade against these practices and has successfully registered over 800,000 new voters, blotting out the earlier purges and helping swing the race in the Democrats’ favor.
Abrams, while undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with in Georgia, is not the biggest factor in its leftward swing. That honor goes to the behemoth that is the city of Atlanta, the capital of Georgia. Atlanta has long been a stronghold of progressivism and tolerance, being dubbed “The City too Busy to Hate” in the 1960s. But its population has exploded in the last few years, growing by over 700,000 people since 2010, making it the fastest growing city in an East Coast state and the fourth fastest growing city in the U.S.
Metro Atlanta now accounts for around 60% of Georgia's population and over 75% of its GDP. This has led many to come to the conclusion that Georgia and Atlanta are beginning to resemble Illinois and Chicago, a situation where one large city outweighs and outclasses the rest of the state so much that the rest become politically irrelevant.
In fact, much of Georgia’s recent political history can be boiled down to Atlanta vs. the rest of Georgia, and 2020 marks the first year that A-Town began to turn the tide. Atlanta’s growth far outpaces that of the rest of Georgia and throws the 2022 midterm elections into question for the once-dominant GOP.
The returns on the political investment into Georgia can be best seen in the suburbs of Atlanta. While the city itself voted only slightly to the left of its 2016 results, Atlanta’s influence is best seen in its suburbs, which have swung hard to the left. The counties of Henry, Forsyth and Gwinnett all voted between 16% and 12% more Democratic than in 2016, signaling a huge growth of Atlanta’s politics into its neighboring regions.
This is not to discount the efforts of non-Atlantan Democrats. The smaller cities of Savannah, Macon, Athens and Columbus all contributed significantly to Biden’s victory. There were also a huge amount of rural Democrats in Georgia that helped Biden over the top. There were 2.4 million votes cast for Biden in the state, and almost 800,000 of those came from counties that are extremely rural. Many of these rural Biden votes come from the large Georgian Black Belt.
The wave of progressivism that has engulfed Georgia is not necessarily a phenomenon unique to the Peach State. Some very real strides were made in the rest of the South. Every single Southern state voted to the left of its results in 2016.
Even small differences, like South Carolina’s 2.7% swing to the Democratic column in the presidential race, are not to be understated. Furthermore, some Southern states adopted many left-leaning policies at the ballot, such as Florida, which chose to raise its statewide minimum wage to $15, and Virginia, which voted to implement an independent redistricting commission.
Mississippi, which moved left by an admittedly small margin of .9% more Democratic than its 2016 results, still has a lot to be proud of. It voted to legalize medical marijuana and to replace its controversial flag with a new design. The new flag, which does not have any relation to the Confederacy, represents a major victory for progressive and liberal groups in Mississippi, who seek to de-Confederate Mississippi and the South at large.
In another kick to the grave of Jim Crow, Mississippi also also voted to abolish and replace the electoral system for its governors. The old system functioned much like an internal Electoral College for Mississippi’s governor, where a candidate had to win a majority of his or her state legislative districts. The new system is much like that in other states, where the governor is elected by a simple popular vote.
Despite the advancements of many states in the South, Georgia stands out most. The Empire State of the South’s leftward shift was so monumental and impressive that the Democratic Party of Mississippi, along with many other liberals in the South, have begun taking notes from Georgia and its Democratic leadership. In many cases, the Georgia state Democratic Party has been viewed as the gold standard by many.
Georgian Democrats did not only win the presidential race in Georgia but also flipped a suburban Atlanta U.S. House seat, gained ground in both the state House and Senate and forced both US Senate races into January 5 runoffs, which Abrams and the rest of the Georgia Democrats are preparing for.
Abrams said that she celebrated the Biden victory for only 17 minutes before she began working again. Abrams and the rest of the Democratic Party are preparing for the runoff elections that will determine control of the U.S. Senate––an endeavor likely to define the next few years in Washington.
Despite their gains, Democratic Georgians face a slight minority in the state’s House delegation and a GOP-held State Assembly, along with the governor’s seat, although Abrams might seek a rematch there. Even as Georgia inches away from its conservative past and marches into the 21st century, there is still much work to be done to move towards concrete progress in the state.