September 7, 2017 10:00 AM
As of today, there have been five special elections scheduled by Gov. Nathan Deal (R) to fill vacancies in the Georgia General Assembly. At least two more are on the way once state Rep. Geoff Duncan (R) and state Sen. Hunter Hill (R) make their resignations official. The Duncan and Hill seats will probably be on the ballot on November 7, 2017, the same day as the other five seats.
The seven special elections will most likely be run-of-the-mill as far as the Legislature’s partisan breakdown goes. The districts being vacated by state Reps. Duncan, Stacey Abrams (D), Stacey Evans (D), Chuck Williams (R) and state Sen. Vincent Fort (D) won’t change hands. Regina Quick’s (R) seat in Athens is probably safe too, although a Democrat has filed to run there. That leaves state Senate District 6, the one that Hunter Hill is leaving.
Hill won the Buckhead district by less than four points last November. Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump there by almost 16 points. According to Mike, there are four Republicans and three Democrats, including Hill’s 2016 opponent Jaha Howard, running so far. In other words, this sucker is going to be very competitive. Even in a special election where lower turnout should probably favor Republicans, this district has a more than decent chance of going blue on November 7.
So, what do Republicans have to lose? Two things. First, Republicans control 38 seats in the state Senate with Hill, which is a two-thirds majority that can override gubernatorial vetoes and certify constitutional amendments for the ballot. It won’t be devestating if they lose it. Republicans can usually win over moderate Democrats like Freddie Powell Sims of Albany and just having a two-thirds majority does not guarantee they’ll keep all Republicans together on votes (the Josh McKoon, Bill Heath, Mike Crane crowd had seen to that in years past). Moreover, they have not held a two-thirds majority in the state House the last couple of years, so there always had to be some Democratic assent to whatever Republicans were cooking up. Still, the symbolic blow of dropping below supermajority status in the chamber would be keenly felt.
Second, and more importantly, losing District 6 would be a further sign of the GOP’s impending suburban doom, which, like it or not, is probably coming to northern Atlanta soon. What I mean by this is the long-forming decline of the Republican Party in suburban America. This trend will probably be accelerated by Trump, who won the traditionally Republican suburbs by just four points while racking up 61 percent of the vote in rural areas. In the long-term, that is simply not a sustainable formula for Republican success.
The suburbs have always played a special role for Georgia Republicans and other southern members of the GOP. Back in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, suburban growth fueled the rise of southern Republicans, eventually helping them oust the long-standing Democratic majorities across the region. However, the tide is reversing now as suburban areas are starting to go blue. This has already happened in areas outside the South. How long before Atlanta’s suburbs go the way of the areas surrounding D.C., Baltimore, Denver, Philadelphia, and many others that have been trending Democratic since the early 1990s? Probably not long. And once it happens, the balance of power in Georgia will be shifted for years to come.
Part of the movement is due to the increasing diversity of the suburbs. Across the country, suburbs are looking more and more like the cities they surround, and Atlanta is no different. State Senate District 6 is a good example. It is just two points whiter than the state as a whole, and it has Hispanic and Asian populations that are above the state average. If you didn’t know, whites are the only racial group that consistently votes Republican.
Another part of the equation is education. As you might expect in Buckhead, 63.6 percent of District 6 voters have a college degree, which is almost 30 points above the state as a whole. The only college-educated group likely to vote Republican are whites, and whites with college degrees went for Trump by just three points in 2016. According to recent polling, they now disapprove of him by a 61 to 37 percent margin, with 51 percent strongly disapproving.
Both of these trends suggest trouble for the GOP in District 6 and beyond. These diverse and well-educated districts will just keep growing, and in-migration will throw a few more seats to metro-Atlanta following the 2020 Census. Unlike the rural Democrats from the 1980s and 90s, there will be no city vote to maintain a statewide partisan parity, a result which could bifurcate the state into rural Republican areas and Democratic metro areas. Population is expected to keep pouring into cities, which will isolate the increasingly rural Republicans unless a drastic change is made to their electoral strategy.
Now I’m not saying that this will all come to bear in the November 7 race for District 6. In fact, I think it’s pretty likely that Republicans maintain that seat during a special election, especially when business-friendly groups start pouring in loads of cash to reinforce whomever emerges from the Republican field. But this isn’t just about District 6. It’s about a metro area that will hold more seats in the future than it does now and will probably be much more Democratic than it is now. Once that has happened, the Republicans might have much more to worry about than their two-thirds majority.