Georgia’s shifting politics force GOP to look beyond Atlanta

TOCCOA, Ga. – When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp made one of his first general election campaign swings in August, he went straight to the modern heart of the state’s Republican Party.

It wasn’t Buckhead, the glitzy Atlanta neighborhood where Kemp lives in a governor’s mansion, dwarfed by other nearby estates. And it wasn’t suburban Cobb County, once Newt Gingrich’s stronghold.

Instead, Kemp continued north, into the Georgia mountains that have become one of the most Republican areas of the country over the past three decades. He stopped at a gas station-turned-café in Toccoa to urge people to “make an even bigger vote here in this county and in Northeast Georgia than we’ve ever seen.”

“Ask your children, your grandchildren, your friend’s child, are they registered to vote?” Kemp told the audience. “If they’re eligible and they’re not, we have to register them and we have to go and tell them to do it for the home team.”

The emphasis on this rural region represents a notable shift in GOP strategy in Georgia. The party became a powerhouse in Georgia once it began combining strong performance in suburban Atlanta with growing dominance in rural areas. But that coalition has frayed in recent years as voters in the booming Atlanta region rejected the GOP under former President Donald Trump, turning this former Republican stronghold into the South’s premier swing state.

According to an analysis by The Associated Press, a 41-county region, which includes some far-flung Atlanta suburbs encroaching on north Georgia, now has as many Republican voters as metro Atlanta’s core. These changing dynamics have intensified pressure on Kemp to maintain, or strengthen, his support of rural mountain communities like Toccoa to offset losses closer to the capital.

“The party … in terms of understanding where they’re going to get votes, they understand that they need those votes now in north Georgia to make up for their losses in the suburbs,” said Bernard Fraga, a political scientist at Emory University.

Kemp won the governor’s office in 2018 by defeating Democrat Stacey Abrams by just 1.4 percentage points. With the two paying a rematch for the position this year, polls from early summer found a tight race, with some suggesting Kemp has a narrow lead.

But its reliance on voters like Toccoa’s is pushing the party further to the right.

In a diverse state, North Georgia is overwhelmingly white. While Democrats lash out and Republicans worry about abortion restrictions in the suburbs, there is little public hesitation in the mountains. Voters love guns so much that they cut out the middleman and elected gun dealer Andrew Clyde as one of two very Trumpy members of Congress from North Georgia. The other member? Marjorie Taylor Greene.

“It’s very reflective of the country right now, in the sense that it’s very populist, very close to the vest, very isolated in the sense of mistrust of government, very strong-willed, Appalachian mountain-type individuals who are very self-sufficient.” , said former Rep. Doug Collins, the Republican who preceded Clyde in representing Northeast Georgia’s 9th Congressional District.

Kathy Petrella, a Clarkesville retiree who was visiting the state Department of Driver Services in early September in Toccoa, said she is a “true blue conservative.”

“It means I don’t think the government is going to tell me anything to do except law and order,” said Petrella, who cites her Christian faith as an important anchor of her political affiliation and fears a decline towards “communism”.

Lee MacAulay of the north Georgia city of Cleveland, who also visited Toccoa, said he believes Trump won the 2020 election and calls President Joe Biden “a ridiculous joke” and “a idiot”.

“I was a Trumper,” MacAulay said. “I’m a Trumper.”

He dismisses the idea that lingering doubts about the 2020 election will suppress turnout as it appeared to do in the 2021 Senate election, when victories by Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff gave their party control of Congress. MacAulay said he thinks many residents are eager to vote Republican this year, “but we need everyone.”

Jay Doss, a Toccoa attorney, said he believes “working class people benefit the most from the conservative party” and that “I just feel that less government is better for everybody.”

There was another conservative tradition in North Georgia: in the Democratic Party. Although there were always some Republicans, a legacy of white mountaineers who supported the Union over the Confederacy during the Civil War, they won few elections.

“It used to be a Democrat slap in the face. If you were a Republican, you couldn’t get elected. Now, if you run as a Democrat, you don’t have much of a chance of getting elected,” said Stephens County Commissioner Dennis Bell, a Republican who owns Currahee Station, the coffee shop where Kemp campaigned in Toccoa.

That Democratic lineage, nurtured by the New Deal of the 1930s, produced former Gov. Zell Miller, a proud son of the mountains and a titan of Georgia Democratic politics a generation ago.

Miller rose in the 1990s as a Democrat who fought crime and overhauled welfare, while creating lottery-funded college scholarships. Miller even achieved a re-election victory in the 1994 “Republican Revolution” that gave Gingrich the Speaker of the United States House.

That year, Miller lost his home state to Republican Guy Millner, a self-funded millionaire businessman. But Miller lost by less than 4,000 votes in north Georgia, and Millner’s strength in suburban Atlanta wasn’t enough, leaving Republicans 32,000 votes short statewide.

In 2004, as a US senator, Miller delivered the keynote address at the Republican National Convention that renominated George W. Bush. By then, Miller had written “A National Party No More,” a book that blamed his own party for abandoning conservative southern Democrats.

“Obviously, southerners believe that the national Democratic Party does not share their values,” Miller wrote in the 2003 book. “They do not trust the national party or their money or the safety of the country.”

North Georgia was 19% of Millner’s vote in 1994. It was 26% of Kemp’s vote in 2018. Some of that is due to population growth, but it reflects a partisan shift toward Republicans. Millner got less than 51% of the vote in the region. Kemp won almost 72%.

The Democrats, enduring a sharp decline, became demoralized. June Krise, who chaired the Democratic Party in northern Georgia’s White County at the time, remembers crying when the county’s probate judge, court clerk and sheriff switched to running as Republicans.

“‘If we don’t change, we’re going to lose because the Republicans are going to run somebody against us,'” Krise recalls the men telling her. “And guess why they were going to lose. Barack Obama was the Democratic nominee for president.”

Republicans say former Democratic voters gravitated to their party because of cultural issues, but those who study the electorate note that white voters are much more likely to be Republican, and Appalachia turned hard against Obama, the first black president of the country.

“The Republican Party has begun to organize itself, I think, to be more in tune with the white people out there, more rural, less interested in the city, even less interested in the suburbs, as far as the party is concerned. state,” said Fraga. . “And that’s more like north Georgia in a lot of ways.”

Fraga sees the split in the Georgia Republican Party over Trump’s attempt to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential victory in Georgia in part as a suburban-rural conflict. Politicians identified in the suburbs, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, were ready to oppose Trump, Fraga said, while Republicans representing more rural areas, like Greene, were “on the Trump train.”

Democrats have been trying to rebuild. Mike Maley, a Toccoa pediatrician who chairs the Stephens County Democratic Party, says just getting people to the polls helps get the message out.

“I have hope for our community,” Maley said. “I feel like we can make a difference and it’s worth fighting for.”

Democrats point out that even if they don’t win in places like Stephens County, where more than 80 percent of voters chose Kemp in 2018 and Trump in 2020, every extra vote counts in Georgia’s very close state election. That’s what brought Abrams to the mountain town of Clayton on July 28.

“Why would you go there?” Abrams told the Rabun County Democrats that he was asked about his trip. “Because the counties don’t vote, the people do.”

Abrams’ strategy is simple. Get more Democrats out to vote across the state, with the support of a campaign that sometimes seems more focused on rural areas than its Atlanta home turf.

“We need to increase participation dramatically across the board,” Abrams said that day. “But we have already seen that it is possible.”

But many voters, like Bell, will look to Kemp and other Republicans. Stephens County Commissioner Says Democrats Are ‘Going Too Left’ Says Debt, Spending And Restrictions On Oil And Gas Drilling Make The GOP Vote In North Georgia ‘A obvious”.

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