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Opinion: A Changing South

By: Aidan Osowiecki (Boston Latin School Chapter)

Stacey Abrams registered 800,000 voters and is often credited with turning Georgia blue (Getty Images)

In the year 1979, Newt Gingrich was elected as the Republican representative for the Sixth Congressional District of Georgia outside of Atlanta. The district, which included many affluent, and overwhelmingly white suburbs outside of the city proper, was then seen as a Republican stronghold; a place where Democrats went to die. Once in Congress, Gingrich, though his years as a freshman congressman and all the way to his position as Speaker of the House, largely began the GOP’s arch away from the moderate views of earlier decades.

In 1988, in order to prepare the Republican Party to eventually take the House of Representatives, he filed a complaint against then Democratic Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, alleging that he converted campaign funds from the sale of his book into personal gain. Gingrich once said, "Having Jim Wright third in line to be president, and having the power of the speakership in Jim Wright's hands, is very, very dangerous to the processes we're used to in this country,” making his political disdain for the Democratic Party’s strength in government straightforward and vividly clear. Although his political career ended when his presidential bid failed in 2012, many elements of his political style are still evident in his party to this day. The face of the modern day GOP, President Donald Trump, is still spewing baseless claims against his political opponents even after his time in the White House is almost over, proclaiming that the Democrats stole it from him with fraudulent votes. Republican lawmakers as a whole have largely condoned this rhetoric, moving away from a platform of ideas and rather to just a doctrine of dissent against perceived enemies; a rather hyperbolic version of what Gingrich brought to the table more than four decades ago.

Today, the Sixth Congressional District of Georgia is represented by Democrat Lucy McBath, a black woman whose son died at the hands of gun violence. In 2018, she beat the Republican incumbent Karen Handle by one percentage point, a decision which came down to just over 3,000 votes. However, in the 2020 election, Handle ran again, attempting to take back her seat. And McBath won once again, this time by nine percentage points, an eight point swing to the left. A lot of factors are at play in this drastic change from a bedrock of conservative thought to a more liberal-leaning metropolitanism.

Demographic changes may be playing a critical role here. The Atlanta area has grown greatly since the days of Newt Gingrich’s leadership, attracting transplants that tend towards the left. It could also be because of the dissatisfaction of suburban voters, specifically suburban women, with Donald Trump’s Republican Party. However, one factor is seemingly the most prominent factor in explaining the shift to the left: voter mobilization. Democrats have long failed to increase voter turnout among their base of largely young, disenfranchised people of color. In a state where 34% of the electorate are voters of color, voter suppression tactics and lack of government representation have discouraged this bloc from trusting that their voices would be heard. However, 2020 seems to have broken from that mold.

In another contentious battle in Georgia during the 2018 election, Stacey Abrams ran with the intent to become the first black woman to hold governorship in any of the fifty states in the Union. Her campaign registered 200,000 new, mostly black voters in the Atlanta area. Despite these efforts, Brian Kemp, her opponent (who just so happened to be running the state elections as Secretary of State), removed 100,000 voters from the voter rolls. Even so, Abrams’s narrow loss of about 55,000 votes in this preconceived deep red state shocked the political world. In the time between her 2018 loss and the 2020 election, Abrams was determined, and launched the organization Fair Fight Project, which registered another 800,000 low propensity voters to decide the presidential election. Youth voters of color grew to about 21% of the electorate, and Georgia flipped blue.

But this wasn’t expected to happen in 2020. Democrats have long believed that flipping the Sun Belt states into their column was inevitable with the heavy demographic change occurring in the region, but weren’t expecting for it to be as swift of a process. By expanding the electorate to include voters who had long been excluded from the American political conversation, organizers like Stacey Abrams were able to pull off a feat that blew expectations out of the water. The national Democratic Party, however, disregarded this strategy in favor of appealing to white moderates who are much more engaged in our systems, but the result in Georgia changed the calculus. In states like Texas and North Carolina, where Democrats have made attempts to attract white voters with little availability, would a strategy similar to that of Stacey Abrams set off a more expeditious shift?

In North Carolina, Donald Trump beat Joe Biden at the presidential level by 1.3 percentage points, or 74,473 votes, in this year’s election and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham lost to Republican Incumbent Senator Tom Tillis by eight-tenths of a percentage point in a pivotal race to decide control of the United States Senate. In Texas, a state that many thought was ripe for flipping, Donald Trump still won by 5.5 percentage points, harboring massive gains in the predominantly Latinx communities along the southern border. In both of these Sun Belt states, Democrats spread messages of moderatism in order to galvanize highly sought after white swing voters in the suburbs. The senatorial candidates in Texas and North Carolina were white and both defeated a more diverse and progressive set of candidates in their primaries. In doing so, the Democratic Party failed to formulate what could’ve been one of the most diverse political coalitions in generations and took for granted the votes of many communities they have long ignored. Georgia is a strong signal of the power of voter engagement strategies based in base mobilization rather than persuasion. Will other rapidly changing states take note?

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