opinion | Suburbs are saving the Democrats in Georgia — and elsewhere

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MARIETTA, Ga. – Cobb County was founded in the 1830s by white Americans on land occupied by Cherokees who were forced to move west on the trail now known as the Trail of Tears. It is named for Thomas W. Cobb, who was a US Congressman and Senator representing Georgia in the early 19th century and who owned enslaved blacks. Perhaps the most important figure associated with Cobb is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who represented the county in Congress in the early 1990s and is in many ways the intellectual godfather of today’s Republican Party.

But Cobb has changed dramatically. It is now run by a majority black district commission. And Cobb is among a group of suburban counties in the greater Atlanta area that have become increasingly democratic, transforming Georgia into a swing state.

In the 2004 election, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry lost Georgia by 17 percentage points, including a 25-point loss in Cobb. Two years ago, Joe Biden won Georgia by a very narrow margin, in part because of his 14 points victory in Cobb. Senator Raphael G. Warnock led Cobb by 16 points in this month’s election and will need a similar lead to defeat Republican challenger Herschel Walker in the Dec. 6 runoff.

The Cobb County election change is part of a broader shift in US politics. Over the past decade, rural Americans, a group already leaning toward Republicans, have become even more conservative. Urban areas are becoming increasingly democratic, but cities like Detroit and Philadelphia were already so left-leaning that there wasn’t much room for democratic growth. The salvation for Democrats in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections were suburban voters who supported the party, particularly in Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia and Phoenix.

“Democrats in that district felt dejected. We were on the fringes for years,” said Mary Frances Williams, who was born in and now resides in Marietta, one of Cobb’s largest towns.

“I really noticed that things changed in 2016. My district voted for Hillary Clinton. I was shocked by it,” Williams told me when I met her at a coffee shop in downtown Marietta last week.

Two years later, Williams was a candidate herself, turning over a Cobb-based statehouse seat for the Democrats. The 67-year-old was re-elected for a third term earlier this month.

Three factors are driving this suburban shift to the Democrats. First, residents in these suburbs, particularly around Atlanta, are increasingly Asian, Black, and/or Hispanic. In Cobb, 49 percent of residents are Asian, Black and/or Hispanic, compared to 28 percent two decades ago. In Gwinnett, another Atlanta-area district that has firmly transitioned to Democracy, about 66 percent of the residents are Asian, Black and/or Hispanic, compared to about a third in 2000.

Members of all three of these groups are more likely to vote Democratic than white Americans. In many cases, people of color are moving from the city to the suburbs of the same metropolitan area. But especially in the greater Atlanta area, many of the New People of Color in the suburbs come here from other states.

Second, younger and more liberal-minded whites are also moving to these suburbs, both from nearby cities and from other regions. These suburban areas are seeing an increase in college-educated residents. Higher education tends to go hand in hand with more progressive views on race and identity issues and with the election of Democrats.

About 55 percent of people in Johnson County (a suburb of Kansas City) and Chester County (in the Philadelphia area) have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to about 40 percent of adults in the US as a whole. Chester didn’t vote Republican until the 2012 presidential election, and Johnson did so until 2016. But Biden led both counties in 2020, and Democratic gubernatorial nominees won them by double digits that year.

Finally, Trump-style politics is putting off some people in these suburbs who might otherwise vote Republican. For example, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who has distanced himself from the former president, lost Cobb by just five percentage points in this year’s election, a much narrower margin than Donald Trump lost the county in 2020 and Walker earlier this month.

The political history of America’s suburbs is not simply a uniform shift to the left. Few suburban areas have moved as pro-Democratically as the counties surrounding Atlanta in the past decade. Some of the counties around Dallas and Houston, as well as Orange County in the Los Angeles area, transitioned to Democrats in 2012-2016 and again in 2016-2020, but returned slightly to Republicans this year. Voters in the Tampa and New York City suburbs have turned sharply to the right this cycle.

But the surprisingly strong performance of the Democrats in the US House of Representatives and in many gubernatorial and Senate elections was due in large part to the fact that the pro-democracy surge in the suburbs of the 2018 and 2020 elections had not abated too much in 2022.

In the Georgia runoff, both Senate candidates are acutely aware of the importance of the suburbs. Last week, Warnock held a rally in Fayette County, another Atlanta suburb undergoing demographic shifts. 40 percent of residents are Asian, Black, and/or Hispanic, compared to 18 percent two decades ago. Related to that shift, Warnock Fayette lost just three percentage points in the November election, compared to Kerry’s 43-point loss in 2004.

Walker recently feuded with the more suburban-friendly Kemp at an event in Smyrna, another Cobb town.

“Cobb was one of the original white flight cities,” said Jim Galloway, a longtime resident of Cobb who was senior political columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution until his retirement in 2020. From Democrat to Republican,” Galloway said, who started at the newspaper in 1979.

“But when I left the paper, Cobb went from a Republican to a Democrat.”

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