The northern suburbs of Atlanta just put Georgia in the 2020 presidential sweepstakes.
On Tuesday, for the second time in four years, Cobb and Gwinnett counties — which for decades have served as springboards for Republican heavyweights such as Newt Gingrich, Johnny Isakson and Ralph Reed — went for the Democrat at the top of the general election ballot.
This time, it wasn’t even close.
In the race for governor, Stacey Abrams won Cobb with 54 percent of the vote. Gwinnett went Democratic with 56.5 percent. Sandwiched in between, GOP state legislative seats anchored in north Fulton County flipped like cards in a game of Texas hold ’em.
And north DeKalb County was swept clean of Republican state lawmakers by an army of women propelled by their antipathy toward President Donald Trump.
“I could have spent another $100,000 and it wouldn’t have mattered,” said state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, who was defeated by Democrat Sally Harrell. He has been in the Legislature for two decades, and had developed a quiet bipartisan alliance with DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond.
“It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what you’ve done. And I’m a good example of that,” Millar said. “I predicted five years ago that, if we don’t change our ways and reach out to more people, we’re going to be just like Illinois and New York. The metro area will be blue, and the rest of the state will be red. That’s exactly the pattern we’re following.”
U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, R-Roswell, was the biggest name to fall, defeated by Democrat Lucy McBath, an African-American mom and first-time candidate who lost a son in a flash of racially tinged gun violence. “It is clear that I came up a bit short on Tuesday,” Handel conceded in a note to supporters two days later.
In the neighboring Gwinnett-based Seventh District, U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, appears to have survived a challenge from Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux by fewer than 900 votes. But Woodall will start his new term as man marked for defeat two years hence.
Yes, Republicans may have held onto the Governor’s Mansion, but the collapse of the GOP in metro Atlanta’s suburbs whittled Brian Kemp’s margin to a thin 50.3 percent of the vote, smaller even than the 51.4 percent that put Sonny Perdue and the GOP in charge of the state 16 years ago.
That slim margin of victory isn’t just a billboard-sized invitation in the 2020 race for president. It has implications in the state Legislature and elsewhere, too.
For instance, McBath’s victory in the Sixth District congressional race serves notice that, at least in the suburbs of Atlanta, an NRA endorsement is no longer the golden bragging point it once was.
Tuesday’s returns also auger well for a March sales tax referendum that will ask Gwinnett voters for permission to extend heavy rail out of DeKalb and into their county.
In Marietta, Republican state Rep. Sam Teasley lost his House District 37 seat on Tuesday to Democrat Mary Frances Williams, daughter of a former mayor, by a mere 145 votes. Teasley is one of the original supporters of “religious liberty” legislation that the General Assembly has debated over the last several years.
Opponents, who include the state’s LGBT community and some of Georgia’s largest employers, contend the effort is intended to offer legal protection to those who refuse to engage in commerce with gay couples.
Another frontline advocate of “religious liberty” measures, state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, lost a May primary bid in the race for secretary of state. A third supporter of this social conservative cause has been state Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, the chamber’s former president pro tem.
Shafer lost his bid for lieutenant governor to Geoff Duncan in a July primary runoff. (Duncan won the general election, and is now lieutenant governor-elect.)
On Tuesday, Shafer’s District 48 seat fell into Democratic hands, won by Zahra Karinshak, the 50-year-old daughter of an Iranian immigrant — who is also an attorney and a U.S. Air Force veteran. More on her in a bit.
In his campaign for governor, Kemp promised to support a “religious liberty” measure modeled after a federal version approved by Congress in the mid-1990s.
Even so, a return to the issue would spark sharp debate. Republicans lost 11 seats in the state House and two in the Senate on Tuesday. The Legislature’s GOP leadership now must consider whether another attempt would put more suburban GOP seats in 2020 jeopardy.
What happened on Election Day was another shift in the structure of Georgia politics. For decades after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Democrats retained control of the state Capitol through an alliance of urban African-American and rural white voters.
In 2002, following Gov. Roy Barnes’ successful effort to bring down the 1956 state flag and its Confederate battle emblem, rural whites joined the Republican camp and Sonny Perdue, killing Barnes’ bid for re-election.
Perdue built a ruling Republican coalition of white suburban and rural voters — and that’s what was shaken to its historic core on Tuesday.
His gubernatorial campaign schedule showed that Kemp was one of those who saw this coming. A map of Nov. 6 election results in that contest show that GOP strength is now based on an alliance of communities in exurban, rural and the smaller-town communities of Georgia.
By laying claim to suburban Atlanta, Democrats have gained a population base that could make Georgia a tempting bet for their party’s presidential ambitions in 2020. And Trump’s continued grip on Ohio’s electoral votes could make that gamble necessary.
“If you’re a Democrat in 2020, to get to 270, you now have to win North Carolina, and you have to take a shot at Georgia,” said Jeff DiSantis, a veteran Democratic consultant. One of his campaigns on Tuesday was that of Zahra Karinshak, who flipped that state Senate seat in Gwinnett County.
Karinshak is another first-time female candidate. Her name speaks of Gwinnett’s extraordinary ethnic diversity, but it’s also misleading. Her drawl is pure north Georgia. She’s a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and served as an intelligence officer in the first Gulf War.
“I’m exhilarated. I’m going through all kinds of emotions out here,” Karinshak said. “I’m a veteran. I take this country very seriously.”
Karinshak will make a trip to the state Capitol next week, when a lame-duck session of the Legislature will consider emergency funding intended to deal with damage done by Hurricane Michael in south Georgia.
She isn’t a stranger to the place. Back in 2001, when Roy Barnes hauled down the ’56 state flag, Karinshak served as the governor’s legal counsel.
Georgia politics may not repeat itself, but like history, it sometimes rhymes.