ATLANTA – Republicans have positioned themselves to keep control of the General Assembly and Georgia’s U.S. House delegation through the rest of this decade even though the state’s been increasingly friendly toward Democrats in recent years.
New legislative maps Georgia lawmakers adopted during this month’s special redistricting session are likely to let minority Democrats gain half a dozen seats in the GOP-controlled state House of Representatives and pick up at least one seat in the Georgia Senate.
By targeting the 6th Congressional District seat held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, final passage of the Republicans’ new congressional map expected Monday likely would build on the GOP’s current 8-6 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation, yielding a 9-5 split.
In both the General Assembly and congressional delegation, Republicans could have done better, argues Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia who has written extensively on redistricting.
However, GOP legislative leaders smartly opted instead for a conservative approach that still promises to produce comfortable majorities without jeopardizing their prospects later in the decade, he said.
“Democrats overreached 20 years ago.” Bullock said, referring to the last time Democrats controlled the legislature and, thus, were in charge of redistricting. “They ended up slicing up some of those districts so thin they couldn’t defend them.”
“The Republican Party learned from the mistakes of the Democratic Party,” state Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, added during one of the Senate redistricting committee’s map debates.
Bullock said a more aggressive strategy aimed at gaining Republican seats in the General Assembly and picking up more than a single seat in the congressional delegation could have backfired on the GOP.
He said spreading Republican voters too thin wouldn’t work in a state where Democrats prevailed in the last three high-profile election contests: President Joe Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia over Republican incumbent Donald Trump and the two runoff wins of Democratic U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
“The state’s changed a lot over the years,” Bullock said. “The seats [Republicans] could narrowly hold in 2022 or ’24 might not be winnable in subsequent elections. … They could see control slip away from them.”
Two of the six state House seats Democrats stand to gain are in otherwise solidly Republican North Georgia.
GOP mapmakers have drawn House District 4 in Whitfield County with a minority voting-age population (VAP) of nearly 50% thanks to a high concentration of Hispanic textile workers. Districts with minority VAPs above 40% are generally considered competitive for Democrats.
An even more pronounced minority VAP of more than 55% can be found in Gainesville’s District 29, home to a large community of Hispanics who work in the poultry processing industry.
Cobb County, which has experienced significant growth in its minority population in recent years, has another House seat that could flip to the Democrats. District 43 southeast of Marietta and north of Smyrna has a minority VAP of 45.8%.
The other three House districts now in Republican hands but likely to go Democratic were caught up in a battle within the GOP.
The new House map draws Republican Rep. Philip Singleton of Sharpsburg, who has been critical of House Speaker David Ralston, out of his district and extends three heavily Republican districts centered in Coweta and Fayette counties north into the Democratic stronghold of South Fulton County.
The white VAP in the three new districts ranges from 26% to 31%. Residents of the districts showed up to committee hearings en masse, making the move against Singleton the most controversial affecting the House map.
“The plan you have is going to be a loss of voice for so many people in Peachtree City,” Suzanne Brown of Peachtree City complained to the House redistricting committee.
The new state Senate map gives Democrats a shoe-in to gain at least one seat by moving the rural South Georgia district served by Sen. Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla, to a portion of Gwinnett County with a heavily minority population. Harper’s district became expendable for the Republicans when he decided to run for state agriculture commissioner.
However, that gain Democratic gain could be offset by the substantial redrawing of Senate District 48. Formerly centered in Gwinnett County, the new map extends the district north into Forsyth County, turning what had been a majority-minority district into one with a white VAP of more than 52%.
The move brought complaints that Republicans were targeting Sen. Michelle Au, D-Johns Creek, the first Asian woman ever elected to the Georgia Senate.
“It took our state 230 years to elect an Asian woman on the Senate side,” said state Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta.
But the loudest objections that Republicans are going after incumbent Democrats was over the substantial redrawing of the 6th Congressional District.
By law, redistricting must leave all congressional districts virtually even in population, and the current 6th District is fewer than 700 voters above the ideal population of about 765,000. As a result, Democrats argued little change was necessary to comply with the law.
But the Republican map removes heavily Democratic portions of DeKalb County from the 6th and runs the district north through Republican-friendly Forsyth and Dawson counties as well as eastern Cherokee County. As a result, what was a competitive, racially balanced district now has a white VAP of 63.7%.
“The new 6th District doesn’t make sense,” Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, said Friday. “Sandy Springs and Dawson County share less in common than Sandy Springs with East Cobb and North DeKalb.”
The other flareup in the debate over the new congressional map was over controversial Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s 14th District in predominantly white, mostly rural Northwest Georgia expanding south into mostly Black areas of Cobb County.
“This is not what the citizens of my district deserve,” state Rep. Erica Thomas, D-Austell, told members of the House redistricting committee Thursday. “They have been paired with a district that does not look like them or share values with them.”
If this month’s redistricting session has the expected impact on next year’s congressional and legislative elections, Republicans would emerge with majorities of 97 of the 180 seats in the Georgia House, 33 of the state Senate’s 56 seats, and nine of the 14 congressional seats.
But Bullock injected a note of caution. No matter how the districts are drawn, he said, Republicans and Democrats still must field strong candidates to win them.
“You can’t beat somebody with nobody,” he said.