Republican America: How Georgia went 'red'

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

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.

Yet increasingly, it's not an urban core that defines Atlanta, but sprawl. And the explosion of growth in the city's suburbs and, particularly, its outer-ring exurbs, is tilting the state to the GOP.

The tipping point, to the extent there was one, may have come in 2002. Nationwide, the 2002 midterm elections were a setback for the Democrats, as the GOP solidified its control of both houses of Congress. But for Georgia Democrats, the year was nothing short of disastrous.

The Democratic governor, Roy Barnes, lost his reelection bid in a surprise upset to former state Sen. Sonny Perdue, a onetime Democrat who has now become the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. In the state legislature, the longtime Democratic Speaker of the House and the majority leader were both defeated.

Most prominently, Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee, lost his seat to GOP Rep. Saxby Chambliss, in a contentious race that focused on matters of national security and patriotism. To many, it has become a symbol of the nation's bitter divide.

Significantly, turnout in 2002 was up in both metro Atlanta and in predominantly African-American counties, both of which tend to vote Democratic. But it was up even higher in Atlanta's fast-growing suburbs and exurbs - in places like Crabapple.

From farms to a surge of new wealth

One of Georgia's oldest towns, Crabapple was founded in 1833, along a small footpath first used as a trading route. Settlers began farming the land after a lottery carved up the area, exiling the Cherokee Indians to Oklahoma on what became known as the "trail of tears."

Today Crabapple has one foot in the old South and one in the new. A community of 4,000 people 25 miles north of downtown Atlanta, it still has its share of farms, mostly small family plots of corn and soybeans. But they are increasingly being surrounded and squeezed out by the inexorable arrival of young professionals and a wealthy landowning class, who are changing the area economically and socially. Since 1990, the number of homes in the area has increased by 1,000 percent. The average cost of a home is $300,000 - more than twice what it was 20 years ago. The average income is $93,000 - three times the state average.

The contrast between the land-user and the Land-Rover classes is evident in other ways as well. One of the few buildings in town, which housed the old cotton gin, is being refurbished and turned into upscale restaurants and boutiques. Down the road, Mexican restaurants and mini-malls are opening. Horse farms and estate developments spread across knolls once dimpled with cotton. Mr. Pilcher, a man who still tends his own tomatoes, likes to tell the story of his neighbor who spent $200,000 on a polo field that has rarely been used.

Ozzie, Harriet, and a white picket fence

Yet these two worlds, as much as they contrast and increasingly collide, are both finding a home under the Republican banner, even if for different reasons. The old timers reflect a conservatism rooted in race, religion, and an enduring ethic of self reliance. The denizens of the new middle class are more socially moderate, upwardly mobile, and increasingly focused on preserving their lifestyles. Both find some solace in Republican tenets, though there is a tension between the two groups that portends both risks and rewards for the party.

Mark and Sandy, a young married couple who don't want to give their last name, moved into the White Columns subdivision of Crabapple two years ago. As college students, both saw themselves as Clintonian Democrats. Indeed, on social issues, they're well to the left of mainstream views here: Both support abortion rights and are unfazed by the notion of gay marriage. They oppose the Iraq war.

But now they're registered Republicans. Economically, Mark explains, they see the GOP as friendlier to corporations like the one they work for, which, they reason, is paying for their lifestyle and new home. Come November, they plan to vote for Bush.

Likewise, the bottom line seems to transcend social issues and other matters for Michael Reed, a phone-company executive who recently moved to the Crabapple area from California. An African-American in a town that is 84 percent white, Mr. Reed says he has questions about the Iraq war, and harbors doubts about Bush. But in the end, he says he is "basically a conservative," and plans to vote Republican in the fall.

For many who migrate here, Crabapple seems the closest thing to picket-fence perfection, a real-life American dream. And political leanings are a key part of that picture, marking a set of values and priorities for their families and their town. For many of the new professionals, the chase is not just to make money, but to keep it.

"Right now, what you find in Southern suburbs is a focus on religious values, family, a strong sense of the individual, and economics," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta and coauthor of the "The Rise of the Southern Republicans." "It's part of an important change in the region that still hasn't been fully appreciated."

In a region with a strong identity, even newcomers who arrive with different political views often find their beliefs conforming to their neighbors', rather than the other way around. "People come for the good life, the promised land," says John Reddick, a medical-equipment salesman. "They come looking for Ozzie and Harriet."

Tall and clean cut, dressed in the local uniform of tan slacks and a golf shirt, Mr. Reddick is one of the few remaining "unashamed" Democrats in the area - though he says his vote for Kerry is hardly assured. One of the first of a wave of newcomers who moved to the "fun and happening" city of Atlanta back in the 1970s, he's now settled in Crabapple for what he describes as a more domestic Phase 2.

The change, he admits, is starting to impact his politics: "Guys like us eventually get married, have kids, and start looking around for a spread of our own. And what happens? We get more and more conservative in our views."

From the wallet to the pews

Freedom from too much government meddling is a canon for many old timers and newcomers alike. Robert Anthony is a high school teacher with a salt-and-pepper goatee who chats with the gruff intensity of the wrestling coach he is. He assails the Democrats for suppressing workers' dreams through too much taxation and government interference. The Republicans, he says, want to provide opportunity "for everyone." "The free market can provide way more than government ever could," he says.

That laissez faire ethos takes root early here. Mr. Black says his research shows that graduates from Southern colleges are far more fiscally conservative than their Northern counterparts, attitudes that the young Dixie capitalists take straight to their first jobs. "White Southerners don't attack corporate values, they admire them," he says. "They see Bush as a businessman and Kerry and Edwards as lawyers who come in like thieves to take their money."

If the Republican brand of economics strikes a chord with many here, so does the party's more overt embrace of values and religion. This is, after all, the Bible Belt, where the church remains the center of social life and people often wear their religion on their cotton sleeves. Jan Cunningham, the proprietor of a gift shop on the outskirts of town, draws a common values-based line on the candidates when she labels John Kerry as "wishy-washy" and Bush as a "moral, Christian man."

But the rise of the megachurch movement is reinforcing some of the region's turn to the right - and playing into Republican hands. These nondenominational churches are popular in part because they reflect the attitudes and even political ideals of their parishioners.

"Megachurches have found themselves adapting to the social and economic climate," says Ferrell Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. "They have become real social centers that are reflective of the culture ... they are part of. And you see some evidence that Republicans see in these churches an entree into a Republican-leaning voting group."

And most of these churches have no lack of adherents. On a recent weekday, a line of crisply dressed visitors was waiting to join the North Point Church, a 7,500-member megachurch in nearby Alpharetta. Newcomers were greeted by a small cadre of women in skirts and heels welcoming them to "our family."

One who is already a committed member of the pews is Dan Sylvester. When the rock-ribbed Republican moved to the Atlanta exurbs three months ago, he conducted a thorough "church hunt." The high-tech worker from Virginia grew up in an Episcopalian household, but found himself drawn to the large crowds and "entertaining" services of North Point. At first, his wife, a Baptist from Texas, thought the nondenominational format was too "nontraditional." But Mr. Sylvester was smitten.

"It's the first time in my 47 years that I've gone to church not because it's the right thing to do for the kids, or because the wife insists, but because I'm really looking forward to Sunday," he says.

An awkward balance in a new South

Yet the tilt toward the Republicans in these expanding exurbs and beyond does not represent just a blind fealty to the GOP. In some cases, it represents a repudiation of the Democrats. For decades, one reason the Democratic Party maintained a grip on the South was its opposition to federal intervention on race issues.

After World War II and the end of the Jim Crow era, the disappearance of the "race card" weakened the Democrats' hold, which was accelerated by the national party's embrace of the civil rights movement - and government intervention - in the 1960s.

Today race is more of a side issue for many Southerners. Many of the new middle-class whites here are more concerned about taxes, big government, and, as Mr. Black puts it, "making and keeping money." They see themselves as a conservative counterweight to the cultural liberalism of some Northern states.

"The modern South and rural America are as foreign to our Democratic leaders as some place in Asia or Africa," writes Zell Miller, the Democratic senator from Georgia, in his book "A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat."

Mr. Wyman puts it more bluntly: "The Democratic Party is seen as the party advancing the interests of African-Americans and the GOP is seen as, well, I wouldn't say 'looking out for white people,' but looking out for the country as a whole. Southerners feel left out of the Democratic Party, and nobody likes to feel left out."

A look down the road

Still, the Republican lock on the South at the moment is hardly unbreakable. A possible opening for Democrats is even evident in the tensions rising here in Crabapple. There's a discernable divide between the wealthier newcomers, who are focused on managing the town's growth and protecting their investments, and the older residents, who see their way of life being eroded.

Many of the new arrivals want good schools, parks, and other quality-of-life accouterments - and are willing to pay for them. "The people in these new suburbs ... want their kids to have a good education," says Mr. Guillory of UNC. "They want a good hospital nearby, and they want recreation. So they're putting pressure on even Republican legislators not to move too far to the right."

From his cluttered antique shop on Crabapple Corner, Emory Reeves has watched his town change for 35 years. These days, the talkative D-Day veteran shares a ZIP code with singer Kenny Rogers, media mogul Ted Turner, and several of the Atlanta Braves. With wealth, he notes, has come a rise in Republicanism.

But while he's a member of the GOP, too, he doesn't feel much kinship with his new neighbors - or see all the changes for the best. "The economy is down, traffic is bad, and people are buying from the Internet. It's an area of change, I can tell you that."

For now, he "wants no part of" Kerry or the Democrats - they "give away too much money." But, after a pause, he adds one other point: He's not getting much help from Republican officials, either.

Next in the Continental Divide series: how Illinois became a 'blue' state.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...