A cursory glance at the results of the November election would indicate that nothing has changed. Republicans won all of the statewide contests decided thus far and lead in two other races scheduled for a December runoff. But a closer look reveals that the trend toward a more competitive state accelerated. The evidence is available on multiple fronts.
First, the margin at the top of the ticket continues to narrow. Sonny Perdue won reelection with 418,000 more votes than Mark Taylor. Republicans’ high water mark had come two years earlier, when George Bush secured Georgia’s Electoral College votes burying John Kerry by 548,000 votes. Nathan Deal beat Jason Carter in 2010 by 200,000 votes and Donald Trump had only a slightly larger advantage over Hillary Clinton in Georgia. With the last of the votes tallied, Brian Kemp out-polled Stacey Abrams by 54,723. Only two gubernatorial contests have had narrower margins. Zell Miller won reelection by 32,000 votes in 1994 and in 1966, when the GOP mounted its first gubernatorial challenge in the 20th Century, Bo Callaway had a 3,039- vote plurality before losing in the General Assembly.
Second, in the closest contest on the 2018 ballot Democrat John Barrow came within 16,278 votes of Brad Raffensperger in the Secretary of State contest that awaits the December 4 runoff. This is the first time in a decade that a Democrat has managed to come close enough to force a runoff.
Third, Democrats took a congressional seat designed by Republicans to be safe for this decade and came within 419 votes of flipping another one. Jon Ossoff had shown that the Sixth District could be made competitive if Democrats spent more than $30 million. Lucy McBath succeeded where Ossoff came up short and did so with substantially less funding. McBath’s victory surprised those who make careers anticipating election outcomes all of whom agreed that the Seventh offered better prospects than the Sixth since the former contains a large slice of Gwinnett, the state’s most diverse. Rob Woodall barely survived and can count on another full court press in 2020.
Fourth, Democrats continue to chip away at the GOP margin in the General Assembly. When redistricting in 2011, Republicans set out to secure a two-thirds majority in each chamber. They achieved the goal in the Senate and came within one vote of that in the House. Although Republicans are not in danger of losing majorities, erosion began in the special elections held in 2017. In 2018 Democrats picked up two Senate districts on the northeast side of Atlanta including the Gwinnett-Fulton seat vacated by former president pro temp David Shafer who lost the nomination for lieutenant governor in a photo-finish runoff. Democrats also added 14 Atlanta-area House seats and in doing so made DeKalb an all-Democratic delegation. The other gains came in Gwinnett, Fulton and Henry. The Fulton and Gwinnett House delegations now have sizable Democratic majorities while Henry is evenly split between the parties. Among the Democratic gains was the district Raffensperger vacated. Other Republicans who narrowly survived have targets on their backs for 2020.
Democrats did not net 14 House seats since Republicans clawed back the two Athens-area seats lost in 2017 special elections when Clarke County Democrats, motivated by a SPLOST vote, turned out at higher rates than in the neighboring GOP counties. The third Republican pickup came in Americus where Mike Cheokas returns to the chamber after a two year hiatus.
Fifth, Democrats made gains in local offices in suburban counties long considered Republican heartland. Gwinnett, on the way to becoming the states’ most populous county, or so demographers tell us, exemplifies the change. A decade ago Gwinnett gave John McCain a 29,000-vote advantage. Even though she never visited the county, Hillary Clinton carried Gwinnett by 19,000 votes. Abrams beat Kemp by 45,000 votes and her coattails helped Democrats get two seats on the county commission and gain a slot on the school board.
Since 2018 saw almost three-fourths of the GOP advantage in 2016 erased, Republicans have been given fair warning that their control of all statewide, partisan constitutional offices is in jeopardy. The fuse on the demographic time bomb that Democrats have anticipated has gotten shorter. If Republicans do not aggressively campaign for support among groups other than whites, during the 2020s they will begin losing contests including the governorship.
The narrowing of the Republican advantage in popular votes, seats in Congress and under the Gold Dome position Georgia as a tossup state in the 2020 presidential sweepstakes. Like in 2018, Republicans will enter the next presidential election as favorites in Georgia but if Democrats nominate a moderate who campaigns in the state then it is possible that the Peach State could end up in the Democratic column for the first time since Bill Clinton upset Bush 41.
Charles S. Bullock, III, is the Richard Russell Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia. The third edition of his co-authored Georgia Politics in a State of Change will be published in early 2019.