ATLANTA -- Tuesday’s election results leave Georgia’s political leaders facing a question with three options.
Republicans spent all fall pooh-poohing national polls that showed President Barack Obama ahead because they said the pollsters were wrongly assuming that blacks, Hispanics and Asian voters would turn out at the same level as they had in 2008. Well, the pollsters were correct after all.
That means ‘08 wasn’t a fluke but the start of a trend, one that is driven by a demographic steam engine that continues to barrel forward, disrupting 236 years of political dominance by mostly men who trace their ancestry to Western Europe.
In recent years, the political parties have cleft along racial lines, and Tuesday’s voting followed that pattern.
So, the white Republican men who hold every top elected office in this state can either (a.) modify their positions enough to win support from voters of color, (b.) convince voters of color to modify their positions, or (c.) eventually become a permanent minority.
Republicans tend to hold fast to their principles, and the tea-party movement in recent years helped elect many strong conservatives to the Legislature. These stalwarts, especially the junior members, aren’t inclined to modify their stance on anything, and they don’t even mind bucking their own leadership if it strays from the ideological path.
But the GOP didn’t pick up the seats it expected that would have given the super majority needed to pass constitutional amendments without any Democratic votes. So, it will at least have to compromise in those instances.
Instead of moving to the center with the aim of assuring GOP relevance after the demographic tide swamps Georgia, the staunch conservatives are rushing to complete their agenda before they lose power. Of course, the more they pass, the more they hasten their departure.
Republicans will argue that polls show many people of color hold conservative positions on social issues, offering hope they can one day be swung into the GOP camp. What that ignores is that economic issues take a top priority for people of color, and they process the issues differently.
For example, when Republicans offer legislation to require drug tests of welfare recipients, they describe it as a social issue to stop the government from subsidizing illegal addictions. People of color view it as an economic issue because it will make it harder for people like them to get government benefits they’re otherwise entitled to.
When former state Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta, introduced the first bill to require a photo ID when voting shortly after the GOP took control of the House, the Wisconsin native expressed genuine surprise that black lawmakers would suggest it was racially motivated. Such political insensitivity only hampers efforts by GOP pragmatists to broaden the base.
After the protests and speeches that pointed out how people of color felt -- again viewing voting as an economic issue -- Republicans did not modify their position but instead introduced more bills verifying the citizenship of voters, college students, private workers and government beneficiaries. Each drove another nail into the GOP coffin.
If Republicans got busy and sparked a baby boom, they would still have trouble keeping up with the population explosion of people of color which will tip the balance before the members of that baby boom reached voting age.
In local politics, whites have tried consolidating cities and counties, most recently in Macon/Bibb County, and those around Atlanta have created majority white cities as enclaves within black-run counties.
On the state level, redistricting has held the Democratic tide in check in most places for now, but with some notable exceptions. It was supposed to snuff out U.S. Rep. John Barrow, the last white Democrat in the Deep South, yet he prevailed Tuesday, perhaps in part because a four-person primary led to the nomination of the least articulate candidate to challenge him.
Instead of exterminating Barrow, perhaps Republicans should take notes from him on how to appeal to both conservative whites and voters of color at the same time.
Redistricting of the legislative map didn’t work its magic reliably.
“With a strategic ground game, we won 60 races, including four that the Republicans did not expect and where we were running on GOP-drawn lines and with a fraction of their resources,” said House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams.
The people of color have their own challenges. They must stop electing incompetent or unethical people. The black majority in Chatham County elected its first black district attorney four years ago, Larry Chisolm, and then booted him Tuesday for repeated incompetence. Likewise in Clayton County where voters had elected their first black sheriff eight years ago, Victor Hill, then ejected him in the next election for ethics problems, only to put him back into office Tuesday because his replacement was incompetent, meaning they re-elected a man with multiple indictments who’s legally ineligible from serving.
Plus, Clayton County’s school board members were just the first of several in which people of color have been removed for ethical problems.
As Republicans rehash Tuesday’s presidential results, they are likely to initially grasp at the least disturbing explanation, that Mitt Romney executed poorly. It’s easier to blame the candidate than to have to confront the three choices. Some pragmatists will note that option (b.) hasn’t worked to convince voters of color to change their views, and so they will push for the first option, the hardest because it requires compromise and personal change.
How the party makes its choice, here in Georgia and nationally, will be interesting to watch in the coming months.