The Democrats’ suburban gains in Georgia are especially noteworthy because of historical context and immediate circumstance.
The historical context is that in Georgia, as in most southern states that voted reliably Democratic for the first century after the Civil War, Republicans established their initial beachheads in what were then “white flight” suburbs around Atlanta. Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who once lived and worked in Georgia, notes that when the GOP started seriously competing with Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s, Gwinnett and Cobb were the party’s first strongholds. “As Republicans, we used to get 60-plus percent in Cobb and Gwinnett,” Ayres told me. By contrast, both Warnock and Ossoff won almost exactly 60 percent of the vote in Gwinnett, and between 56 and 57 percent of the vote in Cobb.
The immediate context is that Republicans suffered this erosion in the big Atlanta suburbs with two candidates who, on paper, should have been a good fit for their many prosperous subdivisions. Both Perdue and Loeffler are buttoned-down, multimillionaire former corporate executives who had never held public office before taking their Senate seats. (Perdue was elected in 2014, and Loeffler was appointed last year to replace the retiring Republican Johnny Isakson.) And each spent enormous sums on advertising trying to disqualify their opponent as an un-American socialist who would fundamentally, and irrevocably, transform America.
Less than seven years ago, Perdue won his GOP primary race against Representative Jack Kingston, a much more doctrinaire conservative, primarily because of his strong performance among business-oriented Republicans in the Atlanta suburbs. Governor Brian Kemp selected Loeffler in part because he believed that she could help reel back the suburban white women who have been drifting from the GOP in the Trump era.
Instead, Perdue and (especially) Loeffler tried to reinvent themselves as born-again Trump-style populists. Both supported the president unreservedly—to the point of denouncing the state’s Republican election officials and backing challenges to the November vote that would invalidate the results, and disenfranchise the voters, in their own state. The apex—or nadir—of their reinvention came on Monday night, the day before the election, when Loeffler (in person) and Perdue (via video) shared a stage in rural northwest Georgia with Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican representative who has openly embraced the corrosive QAnon conspiracy. To see “two corporate executives standing on the same stage with [the] QAnon congresswoman creates a head-snapping picture,” Ayres told me.
The price of their political makeover may be most apparent in their weak showing in metropolitan counties across the state. Figures provided to me by J. Miles Coleman, the associate editor of the newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball, show that from 2014 through the 2020 general election, Perdue increased his share of the vote in nearly 120 of the state’s 159 counties, most of them smaller, rural, and exurban. But over that same period, Perdue’s share of the vote declined in 42 counties, including all 10 of the state’s largest. In six of the 10 largest (including Cobb and Gwinnett, both of which he won last time), his vote share declined by double digits from 2014 to 2020. Notably, he declined not only in the racially diversifying inner suburbs, but also in preponderantly white but well-educated exurban counties. Though the Republican strongholds of Forsyth and Cherokee Counties still gave him large margins in November, in each of them his advantage was far smaller than it was six years ago.