Female, young voters a force in Senate races after big role in Democratic wins
By Guest Columnist MELITA EASTERS, executive director of Georgia’s WIN List
As Georgia becomes the “center of the political universe,” due to attention focused on Georgia’s highly unusual two United States Senate runoff races, two heavily courted groups are particularly meaningful for turnout as a tipping point towards a winning margin – Atlanta’s suburban women and Georgia’s newly energized youth vote.
Georgia Democrats have consistently relied upon Black women as the foundational voting block for successful campaigns. Both Jon Ossoff and Raphel Warnock will need to add the votes of suburban women and young people if they are to build the winning coalition necessary to prevail over their Republican opponents, senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.
With a total turnout 4 percent higher than the national average, Georgia’s youth vote led the nation in November and pundits are wondering how many of them can be persuaded to vote during January’s runoff, as their participation could be a tipping point for victory.
Suburban women have clearly demonstrated their voting power on behalf of Democratic women candidates in several recent contests, beginning with the 2017 special election victory for Sen. Jen Jordan, which removed the Republican Supermajority. In 2018, Democratic suburban women flipped a record-setting 10 additional suburban seats.
The legislative flips during 2018 shifted control of the Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett county legislative delegations from Republicans to Democrats. In addition, voters elected to shift control of local government in both Cobb and Gwinnett County. The chair of each county commission shifted from a white Republican to a black Democrat. In Cobb County, the new woman chair, Lisa Cupid, will preside over a commission that, for the first time ever, is to be comprised entirely of women.
As Congress convenes in 2021, Georgia, for the first time ever, will have four women in Congress – three Democrats representing Atlanta and the northern arc suburbs, and a Republican Q-anon conspiracy follower representing northwest Georgia. With the victory of Carolyn Bourdeaux in the 7th Congressional District, Georgia became one of only three states nationally where Democrats – all of them women – flipped congressional seats from Republican Red to Democratic Blue this cycle. Congresswoman Lucy McBath retained her 6th Congressional District seat by defeating Karen Handel a second time, and Democratic Party Chair and retiring state Sen. Nikema Williams claimed the 5th Congressional District seat previously held by her mentor, the late civil rights legend John Lewis.
Having four Georgia congresswomen is historic because never before has more than one woman represented Georgia in Congress at any given time. The trio of Democratic women can be expected to bring a new level of energy, enthusiasm and much needed collaboration to Georgia’s Democratic Congressional delegation, particularly in a Biden administration.
On the state level, three suburban Georgia House seats and one suburban Senate seat also flipped from Republican Red to Democratic Blue, giving Georgia bragging rights for the most 2020 legislative flips in the nation. The women elected include Nikki Merritt, in Gwinnett County’s 9thth Senate District; Shea Roberts in Sandy Springs’ 52nd District; Rebecca Mitchell in Gwinnett County‘s 106th District, and Regina Lewis Ward to represent the 109th District in the southern suburbs around Stockbridge.
While the four flips fell short of Democratic hopes for the 16 flips required to shift power in the House chamber, these Georgia suburban victories bucked a national trend for few power shifts in state legislative bodies. Despite Republican boasts they would “re-claim” some of their 2018 losses, all of the women who flipped seats in 2018 won again, despite facing well financed Republican challengers, several of whom had been specifically recruited with hopes of restoring those seats to Republican control.
Further, the women who retained their seats dramatically widened their margins of 2018 victory. For example:
Rep. Mary Frances Williams, House District 37, increased her 2018 margin of 173 votes to a 2,318-vote lead in 2020.
Rep. Mary Robichaux, House District 28 faced a re-match with former Rep. Betty Price and increased the 150 vote 2018 victory to a 1,222 victory for 2020.
Rep. Jasmine Clark, House District 108, increased her 292-vote 2018 lead to a 2,428 victory for 2020.
What is the winning message for these women, you might ask? At the top of the list are the expansion of Medicaid to provide healthcare for more Georgia families; a reduction of Georgia’s embarrassingly high maternal mortality rate; and restoration of full funding for public education, including better pay for teachers and a commitment to reproductive freedom. These issues resonate with suburban women, especially after Republicans pushed through a six-week abortion ban in 2019, which has been set aside by a federal court ruling now being appealed.
For 20 years, Georgia WIN List has worked to elect Democratic pro-choice women to the Georgia General Assembly, slowly increasing the number of elected Democratic women even as Republicans held a trifecta of support under the Gold Dome and at the governor’s mansion on West Paces Ferry Road.
In 2000, while Democrat Roy Barnes was governor, 46 Georgia women served in the General Assembly, 35 of them Democrats and 10 of them Republicans. Over the years of Republican Party control, the number of Democratic women dropped to a low of 32 in 2006. When the General Assembly convenes in January, there will be 73 women legislators, with 55 of them Democrats and 18 of them Republicans, giving women 31 percent representation.
As we think of suburban women voters, stereotypes must be cast aside because Atlanta’s suburbs are increasingly diverse. Gwinnett, Clayton, Douglas, Henry and Rockdale counties are majority minority and the state is not far behind.
Look no further than Senate District 48, said to be the state’s most demographically diverse district, for an example of how women voters have moved away from pale male representation to women more reflective of their communities. Until his failed 2018 bid for lieutenant governor, the district had been represented for 16 years by the current chair of Georgia’s Republican Party, David Schaefer. In 2018, Zahra Karinshak, an attorney and daughter of an Iranian immigrant who had graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and served as a federal prosecutor, was elected to represent the area with a 53 to 46 margin. When she sought higher office this year, voters of the district elected Dr. Michelle Au, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who is a practicing anesthesiologist with a masters degree in public health, by a 10-point margin.
Another example of the slow suburban shift from red to blue is in Gwinnett’s House District 105. A Democratic candidate ran against the Republican incumbent in 2014, falling short by a margin of 47.2 to 52.8. In 2016, Donna McLeod lost her race for the same seat by 222 votes but she persisted and won the seat by a margin of 4,111 votes in 2018. Rep. McLeod defended the seat in 2020 with a substantial 62 to 38 percent margin of victory.
Already, these elected women are working to promote the Democratic ticket for the United States Senate amongst their “base” of suburban women. Expect to hear a great deal from them in January as they propose legislative solutions for the issues they campaigned to promote.
Note to readers: Melita Easters leads Georgia’s WIN List, the state’s only political action committee devoted to training, recruiting and electing women to statewide office and legislative seats. For more information visit the website and follow on Facebook or Twitter: @gawinlist.