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Georgia, Once Reliably Red, Is Suddenly a Battleground. What Happened?

WATKINSVILLE, Ga. — For years, state House District 119 was a safely Republican seat in the Georgia Legislature, having been carved out of conservative suburbs along the south side of Athens, a liberal college town, to maximize Republican votes. This year, Jonathan Wallace, a Democrat, could win it.

In fact, Mr. Wallace already has: In 2017, he won the northeast Georgia seat in a shocker of a special election, only to lose it, a year later, to a Republican challenger.

Before all of this dramatic back-and-forth — before Mr. Wallace, 42, a software developer, decided to leap into politics after Donald J. Trump’s 2016 victory — Democrats had not even bothered to run candidates in the district. But these days, much that was once settled in Georgia seems suddenly up for grabs. The Peach State, a Republican stronghold for nearly two decades, is growing fast and changing in profound ways, giving Democrats big hopes for 2020.

With just a week left before the Nov. 3 election, polls show Mr. Trump, who won Georgia by five points in 2016, locked in a virtual tie with his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., who plans to visit the state on Tuesday.

At the same time, a pair of well-funded Democratic candidates, Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, are running competitive races for the state’s two Senate seats. Representative Lucy McBath, a Democrat, is favored to win re-election to her suburban Atlanta House seat against Karen Handel, whom she beat in 2018. The suburban Atlanta House seat of a retiring Republican is expected to flip to the Democrats.

Some Democrats even dream of capturing the state House.

All this is happening in a state exploding with diversity, whose new politics are defined by young voters, suburban women alienated by President Trump, and minorities energized by Stacey Abrams and her near miss bid in 2018 to become the country’s first African-American woman governor.

Georgia Democrats — stung in the past by premature talk of a Peach State realignment — are careful to temper their optimism. The Republican Party remains well-organized, popular and powerful here. Republicans hold every elected statewide office, control both chambers of the state Legislature, still command a majority among college-educated white voters, and maintain a dominance in rural counties.

Jason Carter, the grandson of President Jimmy Carter and a Democrat who was soundly defeated in the 2014 race for governor, joked, “Frankly, I think it would be impossible for Trump to win — and I haven’t been this confident since 2016,” when Hillary Clinton’s campaign dared to dream of a Georgia victory.

Yet there is a bipartisan consensus that the state is not exactly what it was, even just a few years ago. Its population surged from 7.9 million to 10.6 million people from 2000 to 2019, and its foreign-born population now exceeds 10 percent. While Republicans remain formidable in rural areas, an accurate portrait of 21st Century Georgia would have to include not only peach and peanut farms, but also Your DeKalb Farmers Market, a global culinary bazaar in the Atlanta suburbs staffed by workers from 40 countries that attracts both immigrants and native-born bourgeois bohemians.

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And while Mr. Trump leads Mr. Biden by 12 percentage points among college-educated whites, that is down significantly from 2016, when he won the same group by 20 percentage points.

“There’s been so much migration from the North and other parts of the country,” said Eric J. Tanenblatt, global chairman of the public policy and regulation practice at Dentons, a law firm, and the former chief of staff to former Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican and now Mr. Trump’s agriculture secretary. “And so you’re starting to see a turn in the suburbs more toward the Democrats.”

Charles S. Bullock III, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, puts his state in a category with Virginia, North and South Carolina, Florida and Texas that he calls the “Growth South,” as opposed to the “Stagnant South,” represented by states like Mississippi and Arkansas. He argues that this may be a better way to think about the changing region, and the Democrats’ growing strength in parts of it, than the old dichotomy between “Deep South” and “Rim South” states.

Growth South states, he said, “are attracting a racially and ethnically diverse population. So more Hispanics are moving into them, as well as a variety of Asians — Koreans, Indians, Chinese. These groups are all more Democratic than not.”

Dr. Bullock noted that in 1996, when the Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole bested the saxophone-tooting son of the South Bill Clinton in Georgia, about 77 percent of the people who cast ballots in Georgia were white.

In the 2018 governor’s race, he said, that number was around 60 percent.

As the demographics have changed, Georgia politics have also been transformed by the stories of two recent Republican winners — Mr. Trump and Gov. Brian Kemp — and two Democratic losers, Mr. Ossoff and Ms. Abrams.

Though Mr. Trump won Georgia in 2016, he lost to Mrs. Clinton in the Atlanta suburbs of Cobb and Gwinnett counties, which had for years been crucial and reliable bases of Republican support. A year later, Mr. Ossoff mounted a high-profile but unsuccessful campaign to take a House seat in some of those same suburbs, drawing support from college-educated women who came out of the shadows to create powerful new volunteer networks. Ms. McBath won the seat in the wave election of 2018.

The 2017 Ossoff race “flipped a light switch — we were in the dark and suddenly we would see each other,” said State Senator Jen Jordan, a lawyer who jumped into politics that year, winning a formerly Republican-held Atlanta seat.

The next year Ms. Abrams, a former minority leader in the state House, electrified Democrats with a race that gave the party a fresh plan for taking advantage of the changing electorate. Four years earlier, Mr. Carter, an Atlanta lawyer, had endeavored, with centrist policy and a pair of cowboy boots, to win back some of the white working-class and rural Southerners who had over the decades abandoned the Democratic Party.

Ms. Abrams focused instead on turning out minority and intermittent voters, while embracing an unapologetically liberal platform.

She was narrowly bested by Mr. Kemp, a white, drawling, deep-voiced Georgia native with an agriculture degree who liked to talk about football, his guns and how he would personally round up “criminal illegals” in his pickup.

His victory underscored the enduring power of rural voters, yet Ms. Abrams lost by just 55,000 votes out of four million cast, and she said Mr. Kemp, who had also overseen the election as secretary of state, had engaged in voter suppression.

Echoes of both the Ossoff and the Abrams races reverberate in 2020.

The New Georgia Project, a nonprofit organization founded by Ms. Abrams to boost minority and youth voter registration, has signed up thousands of new voters, said Nse Ufot, the group’s chief executive, including in the streets of Atlanta as protests raged over the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks, a Black man in Atlanta.

“The 2020 numbers of youth registration in Georgia blow previous election cycles out of the water — and 2018 was a high-water mark for us,” Ms. Ufot said. According to a Tufts University study, the percentage of Georgians ages 18 to 24 who were registered to vote as of last month was 34 percent higher than in November 2016 — the biggest gain in the country.

Pallavi Purkayastha, a political strategist from Johns Creek, in the Atlanta suburbs, ran a successful campaign in 2018 for State Representative Angelika Kausche, a German immigrant and a Democrat who flipped a Republican seat after running on a promise to fund public education and expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

This year, Ms. Purkayastha said her candidates are being helped not only by changing demographics but also by the escalating conservatism of the Republican Party.

“Republicans, on their own without any kind of provocation, are moving more and more to the far right,” she said.

She mentioned the policies of Mr. Kemp, who signed a “fetal heartbeat” bill seeking to restrict abortions last year, and allowed businesses to open early on in the Covid-19 crisis, a move that even Mr. Trump criticized.

Though the Republican message remains popular in the countryside, the party may face a reckoning, either this year or in the future, if it fails to find a way to reconnect in the suburbs, where population growth is more robust than in rural areas.

The enduring, same-as-it-ever-was Georgia lives on in places like rural Crawford County, near Macon, where population growth is stagnant, the foreign-born population hovers around 1 percent, and Mr. Trump won handily in 2016. Robert L. Dickey, III, a Republican and veteran state representative, is running unopposed this year in Crawford County.

But even Mr. Dickey, who runs a family peach farm founded during the McKinley administration, is aware that Georgia has changed, and that Republicans have struggled to keep up. “I don’t think Republicans have messaged as well as they could have,” he said.

Somehow, in the Trump era, he said, the Republican story became too clotted with “personalities.” To win over the newcomers, he said, Republicans need to go back to basics with a low-tax, business-friendly message. Whatever the outcome of the 2020 election, though, it seems unlikely that even the best Republican messaging can stand in the way of Georgia’s rapid demographic shifts — and their profound implications for its politics.

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