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Al Hagan knows that despite “a real shift in who lives here,” coastal Georgia remains fundamentally a conservative region. “So you may find it curious that I’m an African American and a Democrat running for sheriff.”
Yet times are changing. A competitive race here in Richmond Hill for a Georgia House seat (and in the sheriff’s race) signals a possible realignment that has raised Democrats’ hopes of winning control of a legislative chamber in today’s election. While it may be a long shot in Georgia, party control of state legislative chambers could flip toward Democrats in a number of states, from Arizona and Texas to Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The result may be more states under split political control, exerting a tug toward middle ground on both state policymaking and redistricting. Back in 2010, by contrast, Republicans won state-level races that allowed them to dominate the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing political maps based on census data.
Amid the flux here in Georgia, Mr. Hagan sees hope. Residents’ “values aren’t really that different,” he says. “This is a great community, but we can make it even better together, and I want to be part of that.”
Georgia residents Larry and Helene Hunt – an African American couple who vote straight-ticket Democrat – have figured out over the years that “change comes slow here in the South,” as Ms. Hunt says.
Their 14-year tenure in Richmond Hill, a suburb of Savannah, exactly matches the years that Republicans have had a lock-tight grip on state politics. One result has been the gerrymandering of their state legislative district into a solid GOP stronghold.
Such partisan mapmaking has left thousands of Coastal Empire residents feeling little reason to vote or otherwise participate in democracy, Ms. Hunt says.
But that map is fraying. Demographics have changed as new people move to Georgia, drawn in part by a strong economy and good schools. And now, as a pandemic and political tumult drive huge numbers of voters to the polls, she says her feeling of democratic detachment “is disappearing with this election.”
Today, a political neophyte named Marcus Thompson – a 40-something Black salesman – is running neck and neck with Ron Stephens, a white Republican who is a pharmacist and seven-term incumbent.
The fraying of this Republican-drawn district on the Ogeechee River hints at the possibility of a tectonic shift in this year’s election: Party control of state legislative chambers could flip in a number of states, from Arizona and Texas to Michigan and Pennsylvania.
In many cases, inroads by Democrats could leave more states under split political control, exerting a tug toward middle ground on both state policymaking and redistricting – the once-in-a-decade redrawing of political maps using updated census data. Knocking Republicans out of power in Georgia’s House looks difficult, but it’s a possibility this year, when Democrats have high hopes of cracking Republican dominance in state-level politics.
“What was safe in 2010 looks a lot different in so many of these states now,” says Joshua Zingher, an Old Dominion University political scientist who studies the nationalization of state politics.
Though little noticed beneath the drama of contests for the presidency and Congress, state-level shifts could influence national politics for years to come. The post-census redistricting could also provide a lens for Americans to see how their differences and similarities shape a nation, some experts say.
“A tremendous amount [of this election] hinges on redistricting, which becomes a great window into the sociological, political, and cultural dynamics in different parts of the country,” says Rick Pildes, author of “The Law of Democracy.” “You may see class differences that emerge in different communities even though they somehow are largely the same when you see how they vote. You learn things like where are white voters more or less willing to support minority candidates.”
A shifting battleground
With more than two-thirds of state legislative seats across the U.S. in play, and polls suggesting the possibility of a “blue wave” outcome, Democrats could crack at least some of the 22 Republican trifectas. (Democrats have full control of the governorships and legislatures in 15 states, while the rest have split control.)
Both of Georgia’s chambers are such battlegrounds.
To be sure, the Georgia political landscape is littered with the shattered hopes of Democrats. Though 10% of Georgians are foreign-born, 32% are Black, and 60% live in cities, statewide offices are all held by white, often rural Republicans, all but one male. The party has largely moderated its policy agenda, with prescriptions on such traditionally liberal issues as early childhood education, state-funded college scholarships, and criminal justice reform.
Bill Benson, a prison guard, says that too many Georgians believe that Democrats at the national level “have gone crazy” for candidates like Mr. Thompson to prevail. “History tells you that their values just don’t work for voters here,” says Mr. Benson, who is white.
But like other states, Georgia is changing. Its economy has turned from heavy on trade and agriculture toward service industries like filmmaking.
And when Georgia last supported a Democrat for president – Bill Clinton in 1992 – about 77% of voters were white. By the time of a closely contested governor’s race in 2018, that number had dwindled to 60%. That’s when a state representative with a liberal streak, a Black lawyer named Stacey Abrams, came within 55,000 votes of beating Brian Kemp, who as then-secretary of state oversaw his own election.
Here in Richmond Hill, a Democratic statehouse candidate got only 40% of the vote in 2012. Two cycles went by when the party didn’t bother putting up a candidate. But then in 2018, the party’s candidate notched 48%.
With Georgia’s electoral votes and down-ballot contests at stake, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden spoke last week in Warm Springs, the Georgia community that Franklin Delano Roosevelt used as a “Little White House” retreat.
“For the most part, state legislative races are still about national political winds, and obviously the political winds are bad for the Republicans at the moment,” says Matt Grossman, author of “Red State Blues: How the Conservative Revolution Stalled in the States.”
One dynamic may be salient in this pandemic year, he says: “People want small government until they see what that entails. They don’t like less health care, less education, less social welfare policy. They don’t want less environmental regulation.”
Remaking the map
While some states now have frameworks designed to prevent partisan gerrymandering, 35 states let their legislatures draw districting maps.
After sweeping into control of multiple legislative chambers in the 2010 midterm election, Republicans drew on technology to divide up voters with surgical precision, such as by packing Black – and presumably Democratic – voters together.
In 2011, Republicans drew 55% of congressional districts, compared to the Democrats’ 10%. (The rest were drawn with split control of the process or by bipartisan commissions.)
But even as a landslide election win can benefit one party, it can also underscore the pitfalls of gerrymandering.
“One thing to keep in mind with the gerrymander, what you’re trying to do, you want to win a large number of seats by a relatively narrow margin of votes,” says Mr. Zingher. “You want to spread your support around in a way that’s efficient by packing Democrats into majority-minority districts in the urban core and win everything else. ... [But] if you get a wave direction cutting against you then these districts you were winning by narrow margins, you may lose all of them.”
It remains far from certain that a blue wave will crest in Georgia’s local elections this year. Al Hagan knows that despite “a real shift in who lives here,” coastal Georgia remains fundamentally a conservative region, cemented by church and Republican politics. “So you may find it curious that I’m an African American and a Democrat running for sheriff.”
The owner of a successful polygraph testing firm, Mr. Hagan is running on a simple message of professionalism and leading the Bryan County department through much-needed changes, including adding equipment – like computers. “They’re still using paper and pen down there,” he says.
But that he and Mr. Thompson are running competitively here suggests to him a realignment that could alter not just election maps but also the shape and feel of communities.
Among residents in this area, “our values aren’t really that different,” Mr. Hagan says. “I love God and a strong economy. I haven’t even asked what the sheriff makes, because it doesn’t matter. This is a great community, but we can make it even better together, and I want to be part of that. You can’t go wrong doing what’s right.”