By Kyle Wingfield
Everyone knows by now that Georgia’s political fault line runs between its urban and suburban counties on one side, and its exurban and rural ones on the other. But the sheer depth of that chasm – and how it might be bridged – are worth exploring.
For one example, look to the presidential election. Joe Biden, projected to win the state pending a manual “re-tally” of the ballots, cleaned up in the most-populated counties, taking seven of the 10 largest. But he won just 13 of the 105 counties with less than 35,000 people, a common threshold for what qualifies as “rural.”
If we define truly “urban” areas as those cities with at least 50,000 people, Georgia has 18 of them. Biden won the counties home to all but two: Warner Robins (Houston County) and Valdosta (Lowndes County).
But the particulars of that race, with some voters picking Biden over Donald Trump but then voting for Republicans down-ballot, make it a little tricky for coming to firm conclusions. A better gauge of where the GOP and the Democrats truly stand is the state House.
Of the 180 seats in the House, roughly 65 are based in the five core metro Atlanta counties. (Zig-zagging district lines make it difficult to speak in absolutes here, so keep that in mind as you read along.) Democrats won a whopping 52 of them – a 4-to-1 advantage over Republicans. Just a decade ago, the ratio was only about 4-to-3.
If we add the rest of the metro Atlanta seats Democrats hold, as well as those in other largely urban and suburban counties elsewhere in the state, we get 74 – out of the party’s 77. That’s right: Democrats hold only three seats in what we might classify as rural counties, or 4% of their total.
For the flip side, see the GOP. About a quarter of its House members hail from rural counties, and about a third from urban or suburban ones. The largest group come from exurban areas – not close enough to a major city to qualify as truly urban or suburban, but too large to be rural.
On a percentage basis, exurban counties have been some of the fastest-growing in recent years: We’re talking about places like Jackson and Barrow counties between Atlanta and Athens. But they’re growing off a relatively small base; the bulk of new residents are still going to urban and suburban areas.
These different types of places face different types of challenges. And that’s where the lack of familiarity within each party for certain parts of the state could pose a problem.
With very few Republicans representing the state’s largest cities, and very few Democrats representing its smallest towns, there can be a tendency for the two parties to talk right past each other. That’s on top of better-known divisions, such as party philosophy, race and more.
As I’ve previously written, America is overdue for a political realignment. Maybe there will be a shift in the geographic patterns of our politics. If so, it’ll probably be because someone figures out how to speak across this divide, to the issues that affect everyone.
Education is one such issue. The availability of good schools with quality teachers is a concern everywhere, even if the obstacles to having them may vary by location. Similarly, giving families options to find the best fit for their children can be a solution for Georgians wherever they live.
Or take healthcare. There may be more doctors near downtown Atlanta than down in South Georgia. But whether rural or urban, communities struggle to provide meaningful access to care for those who can’t afford insurance. And those with insurance have difficulty with price transparency, no matter where they are.
Housing is another issue that affects all types of communities: too little housing that fits the budgets of lower-income workers.
We may have separated ourselves geographically regarding partisan politics, but there’s still a place for coming together to solve common problems.
Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.