November 30, 2017 10:00 AM
As GeorgiaPol’s sole Athens correspondent (and the owner of at least one bungled electoral prediction on Election Night 2017), I have decided to take it upon myself to discover what the heck happened in the Classic City this November. For a long while, the Democratic-leaning Athens-Clarke County had a 2-1 Republican advantage in its state House delegation. This was because Districts 117 and 119 picked up enough of the outlying counties (Barrow, Jackson, and Oconee) to offset liberal townies with rural and suburban Republicans. That all changed on November 7, when two state House special elections for Districts 117 and 119 flipped the seats into Democratic hands and made it so Spencer Frye (D-118) was no longer Athens’ only Democratic legislator.
The two Democrats who were elected were Deborah Gonzalez, who defeated a 22-year old former UGA student government president in a head-to-head matchup, and Jonathan Wallace, who defeated three Republican opponents with over 50 percent of the vote. Gonzalez’s Republican opponent, Houston Gaines, blamed his defeat on increased Democratic energy, which makes sense if you look at other results from election night. Republicans were almost completely ousted from the Virginia suburbs in the gubernatorial and state House races. They also lost Georgia’s State Senate District 6 in the north Atlanta suburbs, a Washington state Senate seat, and a New Hampshire state House seat.
So, what happened? Smart people will tell you that Democrats in blue-trending suburbs who do not particularly care for President Trump got excited about voting while Republicans took a day off. In cities like Athens, where a strong concentration of Democratic voters are divided into a sea of red, the margins were just enough to defeat the Republican-drawn district lines and boost candidates like Gonzalez and Wallace over the top. They needed every bit they could get. Districts 117 and 119 had not had Democratic challenges to their Republican incumbents in years and Donald Trump won both in the 2016 presidential election.
As it turns out, it was Athens itself that made the difference in both special elections. In the District 117 race, Athens-Clarke County gave a larger share of its vote to Deborah Gonzalez than Hillary Clinton (64.1 percent for Gonzalez vs. 54.95 for Clinton) and cast a larger share of votes in 2017 (64.5 percent of District 117 votes) than in 2016 (55.0 percent of District 117 votes). In the District 119 race, Athens’ share of the total votes cast actually declined from 51.4 percent in 2016 to 48.9 percent in 2017. However, this decline was offset by a Democratic surge in the district’s Athens portion (76.4 percent of the vote in 2017 vs. 66.8 percent in 2016) and in the Oconee County portion (37.9 percent in 2017 vs. 28.4 percent in 2016).
I ran some of the numbers to get a better idea of where the increased Democratic energy in Districts 117 and 119 was. Here is an overview of what I found. Voting precincts are ordered from most Democratic to least Democratic in descending order.
Note that in District 119, I excluded the 7A Timothy Road School and the 4B Memorial Park precincts (which cast a combined 332 votes in 2017) because they split between 117 and 119. This it impossible to compare the 2016 presidential election (where results are not divided into District 117 and District 119 voters) with the 2017 special election. I kept these precincts in District 117 analysis, but be aware that my chart is likely underestimating Democratic strength in both precincts.
These charts show that Houston was basically right about why he and the three Republicans in District 119 lost. In both districts, almost all precincts (especially those outside Athens-Clarke County) increased in their Democratic lean. Additionally, it was mostly the Democratic-leaning precincts that increased their share of the total votes cast (compared to the 2016 election), while the Republican-leaning precincts (especially those which accounted for a large share of GOP votes in 2016) saw their shares of the total votes cast decline.
So, in layman’s terms, it appears that almost all areas, regardless of county, saw a boost in Democratic voters and that the areas which were already heavily Democratic (AKA Athens precincts) cast a larger share of the votes on November 7 than they did in 2016. Perhaps this was more predictable than I let on in my original post predicting a Gaines victory (I did not offer a prediction, but I assumed a Republican would win in 119 as well). Trump only won District 117 by 3 points and District 119 by 6 points. While I would normally expect a Republican to fare better in a low turnout environment like a special election (especially where the candidate raised as much cash as Gaines), the increased Democratic energy was more than just a Virginia thing.
Republicans should take note of how quickly things can change. Both of these elections show that changes in margins can be just as effective as Democrats making inroads with rural voters. If we see a similar turnout discrepancy between Atlanta and rural Georgia in November 2018, the Republican hold on the governor’s mansion might slip earlier than we thought.