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Republican America: How Georgia went 'red'

By Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 15, 2004


Relaxing in front of his small ranch house, watching the birds flit around his feeder, Ronnie Pilcher looks out over the changing face of the place he calls home.

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In the four decades he and his wife have lived here on 10 verdant acres, Mr. Pilcher has seen an explosion in population and wealth that's transformed this old orchard crossroads into a booming Atlanta exurb. Where once he knew almost everyone driving by on the old Birmingham Highway - and many of them stopped to chat - now an unfamiliar flow of Beemers and Hummers weave among the dented Fords and Chevys on the traffic-choked road. Nondenominational megachurches are replacing small country chapels, gated communities are spreading rapidly, and big chain restaurants compete with old-time establishments like Shelia's BBQ, where the sign says proudly: "Parking for Rednecks Only."

Even more dramatic, however, has been the political transformation: Once part of the solid Demo-cratic South - giving John F. Kennedy the second-highest percentage of any state in 1960, and as recently as 1992 backing Bill Clinton - Georgia now sits securely on the "red" side of the political divide. A confluence of forces, from the rise of a fortune-seeking middle class to the growing role of religion in politics, has given the GOP a foothold among the state's young professionals and older farmers, among its recent transplants and longtime residents. Although some Democrats here speak wistfully of a comeback, most admit the trend lines are running in the opposite direction.

Pilcher, a Baptist deacon and retired data cruncher for SunTrust Bank, says he's an independent. But as a self-described conservative, he identifies with the GOP far more than with the Democrats. Like many in Crabapple, he admits his vote for President Bush this fall is pretty much assured.

It's not just because he sees Bush as standing up for "traditional" morals - though he is firmly against gay marriage, and on abortion says: "Only the good Lord has the right to choose life and death."

The main thing driving his vote is a fervent belief in "self-reliance," the responsibility of all men, as he puts it, to make their own way in the world. He took this lesson, he says, from his father. But while Pilcher's father was a Democrat, he now finds these values and beliefs in the platform of the GOP.

"A number of Southern voters now see it as more in their self-interest to vote Republican," says Hastings Wyman, editor of the Southern Political Report in Washington. "The sort of issues that Bush pursues are a rather hawkish foreign policy, low taxes, identification with religion, and all these things appeal to Southern voters."

Georgia's swift transformation

Just a little over a decade ago, Georgia had a Democratic governor, two Democratic senators, and one Republican House member out of 10. Today, those numbers are almost reversed: There are eight Republican representatives to five Democrats - a ratio that would be even higher were it not for Democratic gerrymandering. The state has a Republican governor, one Republican senator, and a retiring Democratic senator, Zell Miller, who has endorsed President Bush.

The shift is emblematic of a decades-long realignment across the South, as rural and evangelical whites have abandoned the Democratic Party in favor of the Republicans. This realignment had its roots in part in the civil rights era, as former segregationists like South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond changed parties, and the GOP under Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" began targeting rural Southern whites.

Even more of a factor, however, has been the growing ideological purity of both parties: Conservative Democrats - a label that once characterized many Southern voters - have become all but extinct, as have liberal Republicans.

For years, however, Georgia's political shift seemed slower than that of other Southern states. This stemmed in part from the lingering influence of the state's most famous Democrat, Jimmy Carter, as well as from the strength of Atlanta's urban minority population.