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Democrats aim high in effort to win state House majority before next redistricting

Via @AJRElectionMaps on Twitter.

By Tom Baxter

In 2018, Democrats took a huge bite out of the legislative map which Republicans drew at the beginning of this decade, flipping 11 state House seats and two Senate seats. That set the stage for the battle which will be decided this Election Day.

If the Democrats could win another 15 House seats, that 180-member chamber would be tied at 90 for each party. With 16 flips, they would hold a slim majority in the House heading into next year’s reapportionment. Republicans will still hold the governor’s office and almost certainly the Senate, but they would greatly improve their ability to affect what the coming decade’s map will look like.

The problem: The current legislative map wasn’t drawn to be friendly to Democrats. Although they’ve had a good run of legislative victories, each race becomes more of a challenge as they attempt to hollow out the old map so they can have a crack at the next one.

With a lot of legislative majorities at play this year, the Georgia House isn’t one of the 11 “Top Target Chambers” listed by Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which spearheads these races for the Democratic National Committee. Instead it’s cited, along with the Kansas House and Senate, as a “Notable Expansion Target.”

The independent group Swing Left does have Georgia on its list of 12 “Super States” where it’s directing money to legislative races. But Ryan Quinn, Swing Left’s political director, said last week the group is “clear eyed” about winning a majority in the chamber, which he described as “an inside straight.”

“We’re definitely going to be picking up seats in Georgia,” Quinn said, “and setting the stage for Georgia as a pivotal swing state in years to come.”

Republican House Speaker David Ralston said last week he was “guardedly optimistic” his party will hold on to a solid majority in the House. Just to be sure, he did a fly-around last week to support Republican incumbents where they are encountering greater Democratic opposition this year. Since earlier in the decade, when they were down to 64 seats, the Democrats have expanding the map, challenging Republicans even in districts still considered safe for the GOP.

The more competitive status of legislative races here as drawn more national Republican money, but a cool million dollars of it has been poured into a single race, not to defend a vulnerable district but to defeat House Minority Leader Bob Trammell of Luthersville in the last rural Georgia seat held by a white Democrat. That race is in fact the Republican State Leadership Committee’s top race in the entire country.

You can see how Trammell would look vulnerable, in a district that went heavily for both Donald Trump and Brian Kemp. But the suburbs of Luthersville are not hemorrhaging Republican votes, and the suburbs of Atlanta are. Putting that kind of priority on a country district that might not even exist after the next map is drawn seems over the top.

The rematch between Republican Rep. Deborah Silcox and Democrat Shea Roberts, who ran a close race with her in 2018, characterizes the dilemma Republicans face in Metro Atlanta. Silcox was targeted by the Family Policy Alliance of Georgia because she was one of two Republicans who voted against the “Heartbeat Bill,” which enacted strong anti-abortion restrictions. At the same time, she’s been hammered in television ads — still a rarity in state House races — as a Trump ally.

The Republican Party infrastructure in her Buckhead-Sandy Springs district is very strong, but with both candidates running unopposed in the June primaries, Roberts got some 3,000 more votes in the Democratic primary than Silcox in the Republican primary. You can get a sense of the intensity in this district by the early vote totals from the Georgia Votes site. Turnout has been through the roof everywhere, with some counties voting 100 to 120 percent of their total vote in 2016. In the district Silcox and Roberts are competing for, it was a truly astonishing 141.9 percent.

If the Democrats do fall short of winning a House majority, look for a call for some kind of nonpartisan redistricting commission like those created in some other states. Before they reject that idea out of hand, the Republicans might want to reflect on the hash Democrats made of the last redistricting in which they held the majority. Sometimes in politics, what you fight hardest to hold on to can hurt you the most.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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