If Democrat Stacey Abrams is elected the nation’s first African American female governor Tuesday, it will largely be because of new minority Georgia voters like Benetta Standly.
A consultant to nonprofit groups, Standly is a transplant who moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta in 2004 and then to Florida and Washington, D.C., returning to Georgia in 2014.
Standly is part of Georgia’s growing African American and minority population, which is contributing to a dramatic shift in the state’s population — and perhaps its politics.
“Atlanta feels like home,” said Standly, who is African American. “It feels like you can actually make change here, and change that really impacts the masses. It’s like you can take a small bite out of the elephant.”
She’ll get that chance Tuesday, as Democrat Stacey Abrams attempts to become the nation’s first woman African American governor. Opposing Abrams is Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
Over the last 20 years, Georgia’s population has mushroomed by nearly 30 percent to 10.4 million people. Between 2000 and 2010, about half of the state’s growth involved African Americans either through births or individuals and families relocating, primarily to the Atlanta area, said William Frey, a demographic expert and senior fellow at Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington.
The changes are part of a black migration southward from urban areas in the North and Midwest fueled by people seeking better job opportunities and living conditions. In some cases it’s folks returning to an area where their family once lived, Frey said.
The influx has pushed Atlanta ahead of Chicago as the metropolitan area with the second-largest African American population — more than 1.9 million — behind only New York City , according to census data.
Abrams’ campaign and national Democrats have aggressively sought to tap into the shift in reliably Republican red Georgia, seeing it as a potential pathway not only to Atlanta’s governor’s mansion but perhaps the White House in 2020.
Georgia hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1998. Recent polls show that the race, which has generated stronger than usual early voting for a midterm election, is essentially tied.
“What happens in a state like Georgia is that the white Republican margin is so high that it would kind of negate whatever demography change that’s going on,” Frey said.
“But I think that’s less the case than was the case in the past,” he said.
M.V. “Trey” Hood III, director of the Survey Research Center at the University of Georgia, was not convinced that demography is destiny for Democrats. It least not yet.
“Demographics are changing in Georgia, true,” Hood said. “Is it enough to swing a state in a statewide election yet? Probably not.”
Republicans acknowledge that while the state’s population demographics are changing, they doubt that its politics are.
“Our state is changing but our values and priorities remain the same,” Kemp told McClatchy in an email. “My opponent is clearly beholden to the San Francisco socialists and radical New York billionaires who are financing her campaign. Her values are not Georgia values.”
GOP officials and strategists cite 2017’s special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, where Democrats thought shifting demographics would enable them to capture a U.S. House seat that has been held by a Republican since 1979 and overwhelmingly voted for Mitt Romney and John McCain in past presidential elections.
But Democrat Jon Ossoff lost to Republican Karen Handel in what was the most expensive House race in U.S. history.
Democrats still see a growing advantage. Between 2004 and 2016, African Americans contributed to more than half the new eligible voters in the state.
“Atlanta by far is the biggest magnet for blacks in the country,” said Frey, author of “Diversity Explosion, How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America.” “There’s also a spread of Latinos in Georgia, which makes the state more diverse, but by far the black population is the biggest group there of minorities.”
While President Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in Georgia 50.4 percent to 45.3 percent, she won Gwinnett County 51 percent to Trump’s 45.2 percent.
“The smallest ethnic group in Georgia are people who were actually born here,” said Michael Seigle, Gwinnett County’s Republican Party chairman.
“You have somebody from Chicago, somebody from New York, somebody from California living next door to somebody from Korea, somebody from Taiwan, somebody from Vietnam and somebody who is African American living next door to somebody who is African from Africa,” he said.
But Mark Palmquist said that Gwinnett’s newcomers don’t necessarily trigger a political shift.
“I just don’t understand why it would turn blue,” Palmquist, a 72-year-old retiree, said at a Gwinnett County Republican Party breakfast Saturday. “It’s a prosperous county, everybody is employed. If it’s the economy, it should be red, right? If it’s something else, then it’s blue.”
But Raymond Cobb III, an African American Gwinnett County resident who is a Republican and a political consultant, said Clinton’s 2016 county win should be a reminder to GOP officials.
“I think people are looking to see the evidence that it’s changed before they actually respond to the change,” said Cobb, who attended the county GOP breakfast. “They’re looking at numbers and this and that.
“At the end of the day they’re saying ‘As long as we continue to win.’ I don’t think they’re responding in an urgent manner, and change is going to occur sometime, like, yesterday.”
A key component of Abrams’ campaign strategy is tapping into the state’s demographic shift. In 2014, she launched the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan voter registration group that targets minorities, single women and 18-to-20 year olds in hopes of adding hundreds of attracting thousands of new voters.
Abrams is no longer affiliated with the group, but her campaign seeks to capitalize on its work. It has implored supporters to vote absentee and early.
Republicans aren’t buying the idea that changing demographics are an automatic Democratic boost.
“Demographics isn’t destiny,” said Seigle, the Gwinnett GOP county chair. “Republicans in Gwinnett and other places will succeed if the common culture — and I mean that in a broad sense — the common attitudes toward education, quality of life, economic opportunity, if those unifying ideas can spread across different barriers.”
Even some Abrams supporters, while enthusiastic about their candidate, temper their expectations.
“Statewide, it’s still a conservative super-majority and people fixated on romanticizing the confederacy and they can’t seem to get past that,” said Standly, who worked for the American Civil Liberties Union in Georgia, Florida and Washington, D.C, before starting her own consulting firm. “Many of us are quite optimistic and we’re doing everything we can, but we have to remember that we are in Georgia and it’s going to be a fight.”