Blue surge in Georgia: What election shows about shifts in suburban values

The Atlanta suburbs these days are less about picket fences and more about bulgogi on Uber Eats. As demographics shift, so do suburban values – and votes, as Democrat Jon Ossoff's first-place finish Tuesday shows.

Marvin Gentry/Reuters
Georgia's Sixth District congressional candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to his supports at his Election Night party in Sandy Springs, Ga., April 18.

Her peach-emblazoned “I voted!” sticker peeling from her shirt, Jessie Bragg anxiously awaited the result of the Georgia Sixth District  congressional election, glancing at a map on her phone showing the depth of support for Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, in one of the country’s traditionally conservative districts.

“Georgia has never been so blue!” the Millennial barkeep exclaimed, holding her phone up.

Mr. Ossoff, a former congressional aide and documentary filmmaker, won 48.1 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s special election. While he did not breach the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff in June, he did surge to an easy plurality in the district – the place where Newt Gingrich catapulted into national politics with a 1979 win.

The Sixth has been no-man’s land for Democrats ever since. A decade ago, Tom Price, whose exit to become Health and Human Services secretary left a vacant seat sought by 18 candidates Tuesday night, won 91 percent of the vote. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney won by 22 percentage points over President Barack Obama.

Yet given Tuesday’s election result, a shift has clearly happened. Last November, President Trump won there by less than 2 percentage points. And last year, a mystery Democrat named Rodney Stooksbury managed to get almost 40 percent of the vote in the congressional race without spending a dollar – or releasing a campaign photo. And while Ossoff failed to garner the 50 percent necessary to win outright, he moves into the June run-off in the strongest position a Democrat has seen in the Sixth since Jimmy Carter was president.

In part seen as a referendum on President Trump, Ossoff’s out-of-the-blue campaign also offers a mirror on how changing suburban values are coming to a head in unexpected ways.

In the past decade especially, Atlanta suburbs like Cobb, Dekalb, and Fulton, parts of which make up the Sixth, have become younger, more diverse, more place-focused, and more urbane than their dad’s suburbs. A values shift toward walkability and sustainability is creating opportunities for moderates like Ossoff who respect suburban traditions while also seeking not to exclude people by race or wealth.

“The suburbs are transforming because they’re conforming to what people want, and what people really want is an interesting place to live,” says Lynn Richards, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, in Washington. “The suburbs are a location, like the mountains, which makes it hard to define the wide diversity of communities outside cities as a monoculture. But today, many are delving into urban villages and nodes, experimenting with a broader range of transportation, and demanding sustainability. And if that’s where people are moving, then, yes, political thought will also change.”

Make no mistake: The Georgia Sixth is still firmly conservative, and Ossoff now faces an uphill climb against former secretary of state Karen Handel, an establishment Republican whose more traditional suburban values – including her conservative stances on social issues – stand in sharp contrast to Ossoff.

As early as 2008, the Brookings Institution identified suburbs like Atlanta’s northern tier as fertile ground for finding new voters. And that transformation is now beginning to play out, experts say, fueled by a surge of activism both on the left and right.

Part of the equation is Millennials, who bought 32 percent of homes in 2014, up four percent over 2012. The listing firm Trulia, using US Census data, found that those Millennials were more likely to buy in close suburbs like Chamblee, Brookhaven, and Roswell, close to shopping, good schools and nature, than in Atlanta.

And the Sixth District, like many suburban areas, has become increasingly diverse, largely without ensuing white flight. The Atlanta suburbs have been gaining immigrants and African-Americans at some of the greatest rates in the country, according to Brookings. Nationwide, 72 percent of black and foreign-born residents now live in suburbs.

“How we shape our spaces really does matter,” says Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of urban design at Georgia Tech University. “If you build a suburb where public spaces are compelling, streets are vibrant, and there are places to go and hang out, you feel better about your neighbors.”

Brookhaven, which retains the ethos of an “old money” Atlanta getaway, now encompasses part of Buford Highway, where beef cheek tacos await. These days, forget the wood-paneled pizza shop. The Chamblee, Ga., suburbs now are about bulgogi to go.

The new suburban appeal resonates not just for younger Americans in search of authentic experiences, but older ones as well, ranging from empty nesters who want a more urban lifestyle without having to move to the city to Gen X divorcees who are trying to juggle jobs, social lives, and two households without being stuck in Atlanta traffic all day.

“The suburbs are not just composed of wealthy conservatives, even though such communities do exist,” says Brian Miller, a Wheaton College, Ill., sociologist who studies the suburbs. The difference is that “there are now a variety of populations with a variety of concerns.” That means “local and national elections may [now] depend on reaching voters in middle suburbs who might go either way depending on the candidates, economic conditions [and] quality of life concerns.”

Ossoff’s appeal, it seems, came largely from an “I’ll work with anyone to solve problems” plea that, as one ice-cream loving analyst pointed out, came off as more French vanilla than wild cherry.

He vowed to hold “Trump accountable” – but mostly about rooting out government waste – and ignored gun issues. Whether his message about putting shared values over political differences will resonate in the runoff is an open question. But Ossoff called his big night “a story about this community at this moment in history."

Indeed, “making a place more urban is not about making it turn more Democrat,” says Professor Dunham-Jones, author of “Retrofitting Suburbia.” “There are a lot of Republican new urbanists who feel very strongly about urbanism and totally defend it on conservative grounds.”

But such suburban shifts, it turns out, may have a moderating effect. After all, Republicans in the Sixth District voted for Sen. Marco Rubio in the presidential race, over Mr. Trump. And on Tuesday, far more Republicans voted for Ms. Handel, who ran a low-key campaign and distanced herself from Trump, rather than three runners-up, all Republican men, including state Sen. Judson Hill.

In that way, for a night at least, the Atlanta suburbs were a lesson in moderation in a politically fraught nation.

For her part, Ms. Bragg felt pretty good about Ossoff, who struck her as “a regular person, like me.”

She had no plans to vote originally, but a piece of campaign mail from Ossoff caught her attention just as she was about to throw it away. After reading about his plan to cut through partisanship to focus on infrastructure and trade problems, “I actually got excited to vote for him. And that’s coming from somebody who has lived in the ’burbs all her life.”

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