Georgia’s Sixth: Democrats First Test for Sunbelt Strategy

by Jackie_South on April 2, 2017

GA-06 iconOn 18 April, the southern US state of Georgia sees a ‘special election’ to find a new congressman. The election could be a key indicator for the way forward for the Democrats.

One of the key questions for the Democrats to face in the aftermath of its electoral defeats last November is its election strategy for the future. Should it redouble its efforts in traditional battleground states, or should it revisit the success of Howard Dean’s Fifty State Strategy? Should it focus on regaining the Rustbelt states that delivered victory for Bill Clinton and Obama, or should it look instead to a future of expanding urban votes and a swelling Latino base in those states in the southern half of the USA where demographic growth is strongest?

On 10 February Donald Trump appointed congressman Tom Price, a fervently opponent of Obamacare, to become his Secretary of Health. Price’s district has been in Republican hands since 1979, and yet the contest to replace him in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District has Democrats excited.

The Sixth District

GA-06 location

The sixth district covers a vaguely Texas-shaped chunk of the northern suburbs of Atlanta. Compared to other US districts it looks fairly compact (it is one of fourteen is Georgia, and covers only about 1% of the state’s area), but Atlanta’s metropolitan area is by European standards not very dense: it is characterised by detached houses and lots of green open space. The district is less densely populated than Berkshire: with less people (a little under 700,000 to Berkshire’s 900,000) in a similar geographical area.

The district is whiter than the state as a whole (71% to 60%) and about half as African American. But it is better educated – a demographic that has become more favourable for the Democrats – and suburban areas have often been a place where the Democrats’ fortunes have improved this century.

The congressional districts in Georgia have been drawn up significantly to the Republicans’ advantage: they secured 51% of the vote in last year’s presidential contest but 10 of the 14 seats in Congress’ House of Representatives. In Greater Atlanta, Hillary Clinton won 52% of the votes to Trump’s 45%, but the congressional map shows three blue Democrats in the area surrounded by a sea of red Republicans.

Atlanta CDs

The packing of the Democratic vote into those three districts becomes clearer when we look at the lead of each presidential candidate in these districts. Clinton led by 73% in the central Atlanta Fifth district, 53% in the east Atlanta Fourth district and 44% in the southwestern Thirteenth district. In contrast, Trump’s leads in the northern Atlanta suburban districts were tighter: a 25% lead in the northwestern Eleventh district, only 6% in the northeastern Seventh district … and a measily 1.5% in the Sixth district where this month’s election is being held.

Atlanta pres votes

That close race in the Sixth district ran against expectations. Only four years before, when Obama faced Romney, Romney had a 23% lead here, as the graph below of presidential votes in the district shows.

GA-06 results

Electoral History

That narrow margin in the Sixth district is remarkable given the district’s history. It is in fact the congressional district in the state held by the Republicans for the longest: an uninterrupted tenure since the 1978 midterm elections. In that election, a young draft-dodging history professor called Newt Gingrich capitalised on the unpopularity of another Georgian: democratic President Carter.

It was Gingrich’s third run at the seat: an early disciple of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, he had two previous tight races with the district’s old-school Democratic congressman Jack Flynt. Flynt’s decision not to stand in 1978 opened the door to Gingrich, and his future “Revolution” and Speakership.

At that time, the district was based in the city’s southern suburbs. A redrawing of the boundaries in 1990 refocused it around the northern suburbs, and Gingrich came close to losing the new district in that year. But since then, the district has been a reliable base for Gingrich and his successors Johnny Isakson in 1999 (who went on to become senator for the state) and Price in 2004. So safe, in fact, that the Democrats did not even bother to contest the district in 2004 or 2010.

GA-06 results since 70s

But, as the graph above illustrates, the results have begun to tighten a little. Whilst Price’s winning margin of 23% last year is clearly nowhere near as slender as Trump’s was in the district, it does show progress for the Democrats.

Anatomy of the District

The Sixth District takes in parts of three counties: the northern parts of Fulton County (the state’s most populous, where most of the City of Atlanta itself is located) and DeKalb County (the state’s most densely populated county) and the east of Cobb County.

GA-06 map

This area takes in a section of northern Greater Atlanta, straddling the area’s main waterway, the gloriously named Chattahoochee River.

48% of the district lies in Fulton County, which forms the heart of the district. Greater Atlanta is officially known as the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell Metropolitan Statistical Area, and most of Sandy Springs and all of Roswell fall within this section of the district. As the metropolis’s second city, Sandy Springs is remarkably new: a cluster of suburbia around the Perimeter Center, Atlanta’s version of Canary Wharf, it was only incorporated as a city in 2005. Just across the Chattahoochee, Roswell is much older, dating from the Antebellum era that has long since been swallowed up by the expansion of Atlanta. North Fulton County also takes in the Alpharetta – a city of similar size and vintage as Roswell –  and the newer city of John’s Creek, as well as deeply conservative Milton to the north.

Fulton County heavily voted for Clinton in 2016: 69% to 27% for Trump. But this is due to Atlanta, and north Fulton county roughly reflected the vote in the district as a whole: 49% for Trump compared to 46% for Clinton. In fact, most of this area lies north of the Chattahoochee River and once formed a county of its own, Milton County, until it went bust in the Great Depression. The resultant forced marriage with Fulton County has been a long-standing grievance in the area.

The next largest element is Cobb County, comprising 30% of the district. This is the most Republican section of the district: whilst the Democrats narrowly won Cobb County as a whole in the presidential election (for the first time since Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976), Trump still took 55% of the vote in this part of the county. East Cobb, as the area is known, is a sprawl of affluent unincorporated suburbia to the east of the county’s main cities of Marietta and Smyrna. East Cobb is a the home of Gingrich and gave the world Johnny Isakson, as well as perhaps less typically Missy Elliott. In the 1990s, this area gained a reputation as being a right-wing heartland and so its journey is a good illustration of the changing fortunes of the Democrats in Georgia.

The remaining 22%, in DeKalb County, is more fertile territory for the Democrats. They took 57% of the vote in this part of the district in November’s presidential election. Brookhaven, Chamblee , Doraville and Tucker are like parts of the city of Atlanta itself, with the first three forming the end of the city’s metro line. Chamblee’s east Asian population has led to it being nicknamed ‘Chambodia’ by the locals. Only Dunwoody to the north fits the affluent white suburban pattern of the rest of the congressional district.

In voting, the Democrats are strongest along the interstate highways of the district: the I-19, I-75 and I-85, together with a broader section of DeKalb County, as the map below of voting by electoral precinct in last year’s congressional election (taken from Decision Desk HQ) illustrates. The further you travel from those arteries into Milton and East Cobb, the stronger the Republican showing.

GA-06 16 precincts

The Contest

The Special Election is run as a “Jungle Primary”: there is no primary election and every candidate appears on a single ballot paper on 18 April. If no candidate secures 50% of the vote, there will then be a run-off election between the two candidates with the highest vote two months later on 20 June.

On the Democratic side, the field has narrowed very quickly. 30 year-0ld documentary-maker Jon Ossoff has become an early favourite, securing the backing of both the local establishment and grassroots funding organisations. He has worked for both the 13th district’s congressman Hank Johnson and the doyen of Georgia’s Democrats, civil rights legend Congressman John Lewis (who represents the neighbouring Fifth district). The Democratic statehouse leader, Stacey Abrams has also endorsed him. That is three very powerful African Americans backing this youthful Jewish man from north DeKalb County.

There are other Democrats in the race, including former state senator and a former congressional candidate, Ron Slotin. But Ossoff has hit the ground running, working the district before Price resigned the seat. Anti-Trump sentiment has already given Ossoff $3 million in the fundraising kitty. Polls currently suggest that Ossoff has 40% of the first-round votes in the district.

The Republican field is far more divided. The leading contender is a chip off the Tom Price block, Karen Handel – an anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, anti-stem-cell research, anti-Obamacare politician from Fulton county who served as Georgia’s Secretary of State for three years (until 2010). She stood down in an attempt to get elected Governor of the state and when she failed at that became vice-president of the US’s leading breast cancer charity, Komen. The controversy that arose when she used that position to break the charity’s link with Planned Parenthood saw her leave Komen after a year, an experience she narkily wrote about in a book called Planned Bullyhood. So, all in all, a very pleasant woman.

More recently, she came third in the 2014 Republican primary for the state’s Senatorship. Former senator Saxby Chambliss has endorsed her, but so far he is her only big name. But she has made some powerful enemies among the Republicans: the Tea Party-ish Club For Growth have denounced her as a tax-and-spender. Instead, they are backing John’s Creek tech businessman Bob Gray. Gray is putting himself forward as the Trump candidate, which might not be that smart in a district that appears not to love the President that much.

Handel clearly did not mend whatever scars were left with the victor of that gubernatorial primary either: the state’s Republican governor Nathan Deal has not yet endorsed a candidate but many of his staff are lining up behind Judson Hill, a former state senator from East Cobb. Newt Gingrich and Marco Rubio are also backing Hill as a mainstream right-wing candidate.

Handel’s former boss when she was Secretary of State - former Governor and Trump’s appointment as Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue – is not in her fan club either. He and his cousin, Senator David Perdue, have endorsed a fourth Republican, former state senator Dan Moody. Moody is running as “the strong, silent type”, which you might think rather misunderstands what a politician is sent to Congress for.

The graph shows the polling for the leading candidates (there are 18 announced in total). Ossoff’s support is currently running at double that of Handel, the leading Republican, who in turn appears to have double the support of both Gray and Hill, and a bit more than that for Moody.

GA-06 polls

 

The most recent poll, by Opinion Savvy for Fox, suggests that Ossoff would narrowly beat Handel, Gray and Moody in the runoff election (by 1.4%, 1% and 2.3% respectively). Judson Hill would be very narrowly ahead – by 0.4%.

Conclusion

It all looks like a tight race, with Ossoff almost guaranteed to top the poll on 18 April but probably by not enough to avoid a runoff in June. But with the Republican field fighting like rats in a sack, an unpopular Trump and an even more unpopular Republican-dominated congress, there is a good chance that whatever Republican ends up on the June ballot may find it hard to motivate support. Republicans are already framing this election as a referendum on Paul Ryan’s speakership.

For the Republicans, losing in such a totemic seat that they have held longer than any other in Georgia, would be extremely embarrassing.

But more importantly for the Democrats it would mean that Georgia, a state that Clinton lost by only 5% last year (compared to 8% in Ohio and over 10% in Iowa), truly is in play for them in the future.

The Democrats would be wise to throw all they have at this race.

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