OPINION: GOP can slow change with redistricting, but they can’t make it stop


March 18, 2021 Atlanta – Asian American lawmakers including Sen. Michelle Au speaks to members of the press during a news conference on the shooting deaths of eight people, six who were Asian women, at spas, at the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday, March 18, 2021. Photo courtesy of the AJC.

The outcomes of Georgia’s redistricting this week have generally turned out to be the calm after the storm, with the GOP majority ceding a few seats to the ascending Democrats but not relinquishing control of either chamber of the General Assembly.

In the 180-member House, the future House map offers Democrats a new lead in six seats, while the Senate map provides Democrats at least one new seat in the 56-seat chamber. Republicans, on the other hand, maintain a comfortable amount of breathing room in both. 

“Despite the fact that Republicans control everything, they have relinquished ground, which I believe is a recognition that the state is changing,” said Dr. Charles Bullock. “Of course, the maps haven’t shifted nearly as much as Democrats would prefer. But it’s an understanding that Republicans won’t be able to safeguard everything they do now.”

Bullock is a political science professor at UGA and the state’s leading redistricting specialist. He’s referred to previous maps as examples of powerful parties shooting themselves in the foot, if not both. Republicans in 2021, on the other hand, have at least acknowledged reality, he claims. 

The reality is the 2020 Census, which revealed a population that is much more diverse, better educated, and older than it had been in the previous ten years, with 1 million new Georgia citizens.

The state’s Black population increased by 13%, its Asian population increased by 53%, and its Hispanic population increased by 32%. With just over 50% of the population being white, the state barely stayed majority white. 

Six suburban Atlanta counties, including Cobb, Fulton, Gwinnett, and Henry, saw population increases of more than 10%, while 67 counties, the majority of which are smaller, rural, and Republican-leaning, saw population declines.

Democrats dubbed the GOP-approved plan “smoke and mirrors,” saying it didn’t reflect what Georgia looks like now or where it’s headed, especially with minority numbers trending Democratic and increasing. 

The most notable shift was in state Senator Michelle Au’s Gwinnett district, which went from a solid Democratic edge to a minor Republican lean. It also increased the district’s white population from 37% to 51%.

Au is a rising star and the only Asian American in the California Senate. She’d be the one to target if you wanted to get rid of a Democrat with a lot of potential but an unpleasant habit of interrogating you about technicalities and policy issues. 

Individual Republicans, on the other hand, did not escape untouched. State Rep. Philip Singleton of Sharpsburg was targeted by the GOP by making his district much more Democratic, and GOP state Rep. Emory Dunahoo was drawn out of his Gainesville-area district and into one that will be 92 percent new territory if he runs again.

However, one of the most important takeaways from previous redistricting sessions, many of which were led by Democratic majorities, is that removing someone from a district does not always remove them from politics in Georgia. 

If a legislator wants to be in the ring, he or she will return sooner or later. Democrats Elena Parent and Mary Margaret Oliver, as well as Republicans Newt Gingrich, Sonny Perdue, and Saxby Chambliss, can attest to this, as can Republicans Newt Gingrich, Sonny Perdue, and Saxby Chambliss, who were all drawn into tougher territory, or no territory at all, only to see their stars rise higher than before.

Gingrich was forced to resign in 1991 as part of a plot devised by Democratic House Speaker Tom Murphy, whose hometown of Breman was within Gingrich’s district. 

Murphy’s new map was dubbed “an attempt to destroy me” by Gingrich, but he also picked up and relocated from Jonesboro to Cobb’s new territory. He went on to orchestrate the Republican Revolution of 1994 and the GOP House takeover two years later.

Ten years later, Democrats wrecked Perdue’s district as retaliation for switching parties from Democrat to Republican, prompting Perdue to run for governor of Georgia rather than face a divisive set of voters at home. 

After being lured into a race against another Republican House member, Chambliss opted to run for the Senate instead, against Max Cleland, and the rest is history.

The final edition of Congressional maps, which are projected to provide Republicans a prolonged edge even as the state shifts increasingly Democratic, is the last big ticket item for Republicans in 2021. 

Rep. Lucy McBath, her Democratic neighbor next door, could be sent to the 7th District to battle against U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, making the 6th District more favorable for Republicans.

However, this isn’t the first time two high-profile House members have been turned from buddies to foes. Democrats put Republican U.S. Representatives Bob Barr and John Linder into the same district in 2002 to provoke a primary between them, which Linder won. 

Even still, that contest demonstrated that, while redistricting can delay power shifts, they cannot be avoided. Linder and Barr were fighting for the seat in the 7th Congressional District, which has since gone strongly Democratic and is now occupied by Bourdeaux. 

Redistricting can only keep the power pendulum swung to one side for so long before it swings back in full force, which can happen sooner rather than later.