Plenty of newspaper space has been dedicated to what the future holds for the Republican Party—especially here in Georgia.
While long considered an impenetrable GOP bastion, the Peach State’s outlook has recently appeared much less certain. In 2020, Georgia’s electoral votes went to President Joe Biden, and the state elected two Democrats to the U.S. Senate. The Republican Party took its lumps at the county level too—losing district attorney, sheriff and county commission races.
To be fair, 2020 was a bizarre year—featuring a highly polarizing presidential candidate, an economic crisis, a worldwide pandemic and record voter turnout. But given that 2020 wasn’t incredibly kind to many Republicans, some have wondered if Georgia is in the midst of transitioning into a Democrat state—spurring pundits to search for further clues of Georgia’s evolution. While politicos, like yours truly, love to read the tea leaves, political winds are fickle and tough to predict, but one recent special election in Cobb County may provide some insight into Georgia’s political future.
While once heralded as the largest GOP county in Georgia and fifth largest in the country, Cobb County has been trending blue—very blue. In 2020, Cobb Countians elected Democrats to various county-wide positions, and only 42 percent voted for former President Donald J. Trump. If there were continued evidence of a crumbling Georgia Republican Party, one would expect it to be front and center in Cobb County, which recently hosted a hotly contested special election.
In April of this year, long-time state representative Bert Reeves stepped down in favor of taking a role at his alma mater Georgia Tech—leaving his seat vacant, which covers portions of Kennesaw and Marietta. In 2018, he won his election with 57.67 percent support, and in 2020, he defeated Democrat challenger Priscilla Smith—garnering 56.13 percent of the vote. Given the apparent shift in Georgia’s voting patterns, it seemed that his seat could be in play, and the results could be a preview of the coming 2022 elections.
The special election to replace Reeves pitted Republican Devan Seabaugh against Priscilla Smith, and Seabaugh dashed Democrats’ hopes. He won handily—roughly 63 percent to 37 percent. Had the Democrats flipped Reeves’ Republican-leaning seat, that certainly would have spelled trouble for the Georgia GOP’s outlook, but Seabuagh’s victory even outpaced Reeves’ recent electoral margins. This should help buoy Republican confidence to a degree—though optimism should be guarded. You can only glean so much from a single race. After all, it is a very small sample size, far fewer people voted in this special election than in the general, and there are always a host of other contributing factors and variables.
At the very least, however, this seems to demonstrate that Georgia Republicans were more energized than Democrats. If this enthusiasm gap extends to 2022, it would be a boon to Republicans. As it stands, Republicans occupy the Governor’s mansion and the Lieutenant Governor’s office, and enjoy majorities in both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly. Yet their margins have diminished from their height in 2014 when the Georgia House boasted 120 Republicans to 59 Democrats, and 38 Republicans to 18 Democrats in the Senate. Democrats have since flipped 17 House and 4 Senate seats.
Despite some setbacks, Republicans still maintain control of the state government trifecta, and as a result, have nearly unchallenged power over the critically important role of redistricting, in which electoral maps are redrawn to reflect population changes. Because of this, Republicans have the chance to buttress their legislative majorities during the upcoming redistricting—though the political landscape can often shift with little warning and continued success is never a given in politics.
While Georgia’s long-term political future is unclear, if Devan Seabaugh’s race is a bellwether for 2022, then Republicans may be in for some pleasant surprises, and redistricting may also aid the GOP. However, it is impossible to ignore the Democrats’ victories over the past few years. Until Republicans can prove otherwise, Georgia will be considered a swing state—meaning Republican candidates will have to contend with outside spending and increased electoral competition. Regardless of the meaning of Seabaugh’s race, 2022 will be the real test for Georgia’s GOP and will determine if the 2020 results were an anomaly, or a harbinger of things to come.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.