By Tom Baxter
Hedging their bets somewhat last week, some Democrats were advancing the idea that simply by making this a competitive election, they were ahead of schedule in Georgia. And there might have been some truth to that.
But in the cold light of the day after Election Day, with less to show for their efforts, overall, than in the midterm elections four years ago, the reverse of that argument also has to be considered.
If the Democrats couldn’t make it into the runoff for either governor or the U.S. Senate, running with name candidates against an incumbent with baggage scattered down the highway and the nation’s highest unemployment rate to answer for, and a newcomer who looked less than impressive on the stump, how likely are they to be two or four years down the road? What’s going to change in that space of time that would give them a better shot than they had this year?
This was a bad day for Democrats nationally, it’s true. But not all their problems in Georgia can be ascribed to Barack Obama.
The striking thing in the first peel back of Tuesday’s results was how little anything changed, anywhere in Georgia, compared to the midterm elections of 2010. For all the attention paid to voter registration drives and voter targeting, fewer votes were cast in this governor’s race than the one four years ago.
The millions that were spent by PACs in this election nevertheless had an impact. Without their depressing effect, turnout over the four-year period would probably have been higher.
Gov. Nathan Deal won most of the Republican Metro counties by a little narrower margin than four years ago, with the biggest erosion in Gwinnett, where his winning margin of about 39,000 votes four years ago was whittled to 23,000.
That was some evidence, if there was any, of the demographic shifts the Democrats are always invoking. But the early-evening graphics showing huge leads for Deal and David Perdue essentially told the tale of these races. As long as Republicans maintain their on the white-majority counties elsewhere, the importance of Metro Atlanta diminishes somewhat.
This election had a lot of consequences, one of the most important being that the chance Georgia will change course and accept the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act has gone from slim to, essentially, none. Some of the counties affected most directly by this are among those that gave Deal his solid majority. How they fare will be one of the interesting stories of the next four years.
In this legacy year of Georgia politics, we have a Carter, a Nunn and a Perdue on the ballot. But the voice from the past we’ll remember from this election — if only because we’ve heard it so often — is likely to be that of Zell Miller.
Is there another politician in the country who would be asked to cut a spot for a Republican candidate for governor and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, and is there another politician with the gall to accept both offers?
Miller’s endorsements of Nathan Deal in the governor’s race and Michelle Nunn in the U.S. Senate race makes a fitting counterpoint to all the PAC-fueled partisanship of this political season. He has managed to put his persnickety stamp on this election, even without a descendent on the ballot. In an era of increasing regimentation by the parties, the old Marine is still doing it his way.
Miller’s cross-party endorsements may have puzzled newcomers, or voters too young to remember the famous zigs and zags of Miller’s career. There will be more of those voters when the state votes again in two years, and fewer of those who retain some attachment to the politics of Georgia in the last century. The youngest voter in the 2000 special election, which was Miller’s last run for office, turned 32 this year.
Regardless who wins at the polls this week, the electorate they’ll encounter two or four years down the line will be generally less familiar with all the famous names that marked this year of passage from one political generation to another.
This sense of passage is perhaps best encapsulated by Clayton County, which for years was represented by the powerful tandem of House Rules Chairman Bill Lee and state Sen. Terrell Starr. Lee, who died last week at the age of 88, represented a political era a world apart from the one in which Clayton County voters will decide whether or not to become part of MARTA.
The voters who will be casting their first ballots this year have known little other than Republican control over virtually all state government, and even with a big upset or two that’s not going to change for a while. But the close races waged by the Democrats in this year’s marquee bouts set the stage for what could be a very lively presidential election year in Georgia.
These are big races this year, with important implications for the state and the balance of power in Washington. But in terms of the state’s future, the most important races may not be those at the top of the ballot, but the little-noticed contests in which a new generation finds its way.