National News

There Are Two Georgias. One Just Made History.

Posted May 23, 2018 9:28 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA — Stacey Abrams, who won the Democratic primary for governor, was born and raised in Mississippi. But in many ways she is a product of Georgia’s capital city, which she once represented in the state House of Representatives.

Atlanta is a place black people call a mecca — home to black colleges, black culture, black businesses and black political power. It is, in short, a city where a woman like Abrams — a Yale-educated, unapologetically liberal, African-American transplant — does not stand out at all.

But now Abrams, the first black woman in American history to win a major political party’s nomination for governor, must run statewide in a general election against one of the two conservative white Republicans locked in a runoff battle.

And the rest of Georgia is decidedly not Atlanta.

While every Southern state has its liberal-leaning cities surrounded by conservative countryside — blueberries floating in tomato soup, as Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, once described Austin — the divide is particularly pronounced in Georgia because of metropolitan Atlanta’s immensity, its central role in the American civil rights movement, and the rapidly growing number of nonwhite people who have been choosing to live in the city’s sprawling suburbs, which were once destinations for white flight.

The Georgia countryside certainly has swaths of racial moderation and iterations of conservatism that are detached from white grievance. But there are also political attitudes in rural Georgia, and ways of expressing them, that stand in stark contrast to a capital city that has long offered itself to the world as a beacon of racial comity.

Rural Georgia is a place where the Confederate flag, for complex reasons, is still embraced by many white residents as a proud symbol of heritage. And some still display it as an overt symbol of white supremacy.

For Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project, the get-out-the-vote group Abrams founded in 2014 to focus on people of color, the election for governor will pit two major historical forces against each other.

“So it’s the Confederacy and the Civil Rights movement — they both lay claim to Georgia’s history,” Ufot said. “And the descendants of both of those are fighting for Georgia’s future.”

Her group and the Abrams campaign say they see untapped potential for Democrats in rural Georgia, where there are liberals and people of color who have not been aggressively courted in the past. There are some votes to be had there for a liberal candidate, Ufot said.

She added that in more than a dozen of Georgia’s 159 counties, black residents are in the majority, including some sparsely populated rural counties and others, like DeKalb County outside Atlanta, that are among the most populous in the state.

“I think that when people assume rural voters means ‘white conservative,’ they do that at their own peril,” she said.

Still, while Abrams won among Democrats in nearly every corner of the Georgia, Atlanta was vital to her triumph in the primary. Five counties in the metropolitan area supplied more than half the votes she won statewide. The rise of Atlanta began to radically reshape Georgia politics in the boom years after World War II, according to James C. Cobb, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Georgia. For decades, the state’s rural areas had enjoyed extraordinary political power because of a vote allocation system that gave sparsely populated counties outsized influence in primaries. The system was struck down in the early 1960s.

Over time, state lawmakers became more friendly to urban areas, particularly metropolitan Atlanta. Thomas B. Murphy, a rural legislator who dominated Georgia politics as House speaker for 30 years, often used his power to benefit the city and supported major economic development efforts. That approach has frayed in recent years, as conservative rural lawmakers have backed social legislation like religious liberty bills that liberals said were conjured to discriminate against gay people. The Atlanta business community strongly opposed those bills out of concern that they would harm the city’s welcoming reputation.

Newcomers from other states and other countries have already begun changing the politics of the suburbs to Atlanta’s north, which were once solidly Republican but now appear increasingly to be in play. Local political observers were shocked when Hillary Clinton won populous Cobb and Gwinnett counties in 2016, even while Donald Trump was winning comfortably statewide. David Kim, a Korean-American Democrat running for Congress in the suburban 7th District, won enough votes on Tuesday to earn a spot in a runoff. Sheikh Rahman, a Bangladeshi immigrant, effectively won a state Senate seat on Tuesday by winning a Democratic primary, because no Republican is running for the seat.

Kim said in an interview Wednesday that he had reached out to black, white, Latino and Asian voters in his district. “The Seventh is, from a diversity point of view, a melting pot of America, and what I’d call the New South,” he said.

As the suburbs have evolved and thrived, many rural Georgia counties have struggled, prompting residents to migrate to urban centers like Atlanta and Savannah. Small towns, especially in South Georgia, sometimes have more shuttered storefronts than open businesses. In recent months, lawmakers have even considered offering tax incentives to people willing to move to rural areas.

White Georgians in places like those are among the main targets for the hard-edge ads with anti-illegal immigration themes ads that were prominent in the Republican primary for governor. One candidate rode around in a “deportation bus,” promising to fill it with “murderers, rapists, kidnappers, child molesters and other criminals.” Another, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, bragged that he had a pickup truck big enough to “round up criminal illegals and take them home myself.”

Kemp’s homespun, hard-right ads (in another, he is seen brandishing a shotgun at a young man who wants to date his daughter) probably help lift him into a runoff with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Republican front-runner.

Concern about illegal immigration runs high in the state, especially among conservatives. A poll of likely primary voters, commissioned in April by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV, found that nearly 82 percent of Republican respondents rated the issue as “very important” or “important” to determining how they would vote, as did about 60 percent of Democrats.

Liberals often see such concern over illegal immigration as a malign response to the rapid changes in the state. Census figures show that the white share of the population is down to 61 percent, from 72 percent in 1980, while the number of Hispanic residents has surged. Statewide, more than 1 million people now speak a language other than English at home. Josh McKoon, a Republican state senator from west-central Georgia who lost a bid for secretary of state Tuesday, said that the illegal immigration issue is fueled not by racial animus but by legal and practical concerns.

“I spent 10 months traveling the state,” he said, “and one of the things I’d talk about is the frustration among many local election officials around the state of having to print ballots in multiple languages, and provide bilingual translators at the polls. When I spoke out about that in the Q-and-A sessions, the person that would always stand up and be angry about it was a first-generation naturalized American. And they were from all over.”

Abrams has called immigration a “federal issue,” and said that “the state should not be involved in turning immigration into a weapon against its people at any level for any reason.”

That is not her only stance that may strike rural voters as too liberal: She has called for the removal of the immense Confederate monument carved into the side of Stone Mountain, she supports a range of gun-control efforts, and she has said she would reverse a Republican-led tax cut enacted earlier this year.

“I just don’t think that campaign will hold muster in Georgia,” said Rep. Alan Powell, a Republican who represents a rural district near the South Carolina border. “Georgia citizens, they want and expect certain things, but I don’t think the vast majority of folks who vote want everything to given away off the government dole.”

There is one more notion of hers, though, that strikes even some Georgia Democrats as radical. Her campaign believes that she can win the governorship without having to court rural white conservative voters at all.