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Democrats, GOP follow parallel paths to Georgia political dominance

For over a century, Democrats dominated Georgia politics. Then came a GOP wave in 2002. What will happen this year?
Published: May. 24, 2022 at 6:59 PM EDT|Updated: May. 24, 2022 at 8:26 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - One of the biggest issues that could be resolved in Georgia’s 2022 elections is whether the Peach State is still Republican red or has turned Democratic blue.

Or, at least, a varying shade of purple.

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From 1872 until 2002, Democrats had a stranglehold on every statewide constitutionally elected office. However, in 2002, Democrat-turned-Republican Sonny Perdue stunned the political world when he defeated incumbent Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes. That win set the stage for a GOP tidal wave in 2004 that saw Republicans sweep into power at the state legislative level and then, in 2006, sweep all but one statewide office.

“Georgia politics, for a very long time, has been one-party dominant,” said Dr. Ben Taylor, professor of political science at Kennesaw State University. “It was the Democratic Party for 150 years and then it’s been the Republican Party for the last 20 years or so.”

Businessman Guy Millner ran for governor in 1994; US senator in 1996; and again for governor in 1998, losing all three times. But those campaigns, coupled with a nationwide conservative shift that also made its way into Georgia, may have laid the groundwork for future GOP electoral success.

“We presented a campaign that was legitimate, that wasn’t way outside,” Milner said. “There weren’t issues that I took that would offend people. Candidly, the issue was I was too Buckhead, I was too buttoned down. “I couldn’t be as good as Brian Kemp. It’s just not my nature.”

Millner is the multimillionaire founder of Norrell Corp., a temporary employment agency which was later acquired by Spherion and then Randstad. His closest election came in 1994 when he earned 48 percent of a vote in his quest to unseat Gov. Zell Miller. He remains a major GOP donor and supporter.

“I was running against an incumbent governor in 1994,” Millner said. “I got lucky because we had a wave [that year] through the ‘Contract with America,’ Newt Gingrich’s efforts. I traveled 300 miles a day, six days a week. I probably made five stops every campaign day. I caught that wave, just as Kemp is catching the wave in 2022.”

Supporters of Stacey Abrams, who will win Georgia’s uncontested gubernatorial Democratic primary Tuesday night, are hoping to follow GOP success in registering voters.

“When you look at the shifts that took place in regards to state politics and gubernatorial politics in the 1990s, it’s a slightly different shift than what we’re seeing now,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter. “The Republican shift was really a reflection of changes going on across the country, particularly in the south, and really were trailing some of the trends we were seeing at the presidential level.”

Albright, who founded the nonprofit in 2016 with LaTosha Brown, said 1990s GOP shift in Georgia happened among voters who were already ideologically conservative simply moving from Democrat to Republican.

“The shift we’re seeing now is a shift of reaching out to more voters, registering more voters and tapping into people who had previously been disengaged,” Albright said. “It’s a different kind of shift, not so much a shift of conversion but a shift of engagement and outreach.”

Like Millner, Abrams and her supporters have continued their voter registration efforts after her loss to Brian Kemp in 2018′s nationally watched governor’s race. The election’s final results show Abrams lost by 54,723 votes in a race that to date, she has not conceded.

>> Why does Georgia have so many counties?

“What we’re seeing now is the emergence of actual competition in Georgia politics, which is something of a change,” said Taylor. “If Stacey Abrams is successful, or some of these statewide Democratic candidates are successful, the likely outcome is not some sort of flip back to Democratic control but just more competition statewide.”

“Whether you’re converting or expanding the base, both of those require you continue to work even after you’ve had a defeat,” Albright said. “It takes ongoing work. That’s part of what the Stacey Abrams campaign but also the wider eco-system has been committed to, and that is in some way similar to what you saw republicans doing for decades leading up to the Republican shift.”