AT A RALLY in Macon, Georgia on October 16th, President Donald Trump trotted out his greatest hits: “globalists…bleeding America dry”, the “radical left…flood[ing] your communities with criminal aliens”, “Mexico is paying for the wall”, and confident predictions of victory. Mr Trump may have seen the rally as a triumph. In fact it was a warning sign, both for his campaign and down-ballot Republicans. For most of the 21st century, Georgia has been safely and solidly Republican. This year Democrats could win not only its 16 electoral-college votes; they could also flip a pair of Senate seats, shattering Republican hopes for retaining control of the chamber.
No Democratic presidential candidate has won Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992. But it is a vastly different state today than it was then. In 1990 its population was just over 71% white, with few Hispanics and Asians. Today non-Hispanic whites comprise barely half of the state’s population. Over the past 30 years Georgia’s Hispanic population has grown roughly ten-fold; its Asian population has more than quintupled; and its black population has grown at a much higher rate than whites. Almost one in three Georgians is African-American, compared with roughly one in four in 1990.
Much of that growth, both in overall numbers and in diversity, has taken place in Atlanta and the area surrounding it. Just under 353,000 people lived in Gwinnett County, for instance, just north-east of Atlanta, in 1990, and nearly 316,000 were non-Hispanic white. Since then Gwinnett’s population has roughly tripled, while its share of non-Hispanic whites has fallen to just over 35%. Georgia’s electorate is also younger than average, further bolstering Democratic hopes.
Demography is not destiny, though, or at least not in the short term. These trends were already in place in 2016, when Mr Trump won Georgia by just over five points. The Economist’s forecast has Mr Trump slightly favoured this year, though other polling averages show Joe Biden holding a small lead. Either way, the race is close. Mr Trump’s obstreperous nativism may be a poor fit for Georgia’s increasingly diverse, well-educated suburban population. But Republican candidates probably could not reject it even if they wanted to.
That dynamic is evident in the state’s senate races. This year, unusually, both senate seats are up for grabs. David Perdue is seeking his second full term, while five candidates are competing in a special election caused by Johnny Isakson’s resignation in December 2019. Mr Perdue—first-cousin to Sonny Perdue, who served two terms as Georgia’s governor and is currently Mr Trump’s agriculture secretary—ran in 2014 as a savvy business conservative in the Mitt Romney mold. He had held senior positions at Reebok, a shoe company, and Dollar General, a discount store that thrived during his tenure
He probably would have thrived in an un-Trumpified Republican party; Mr Perdue always seemed more comfortable in a boardroom and suit than a pick-up truck. But he has been among Mr Trump’s stauncher Senate supporters, voting with the president 95% of the time.
He is running against Jon Ossoff, a moderate 33-year-old documentary-film producer from the Atlanta suburbs. In 2017 Mr Ossoff narrowly lost the most expensive House race in history (he and his rival, Karen Handel, spent more than $55m) in the 6th district, where he grew up. He finished first in the jungle primary—which pits candidates of all parties against each other—but because he failed to win more than 50% of the votes, the election went to a runoff (Ms Handel served a single term before she lost to Lucy McBath, an African-American Democrat who currently holds the seat).
Mr Perdue holds a narrow and unsteady lead. His campaign has revealed something of what old-school Republicans think they must do to tap into Mr Trump’s most fervent supporters. One of his digital ads featured an image of his opponent, who is Jewish, with an artificially lengthened nose. The image pictured Mr Ossoff next to Chuck Schumer, who is also Jewish, and accused Democrats of “trying to buy Georgia” (Mr Perdue’s campaign blamed an outside vendor and took the ad down). While introducing Mr Trump, an angry-sounding Mr Perdue referred to Kamala Harris as “KA-ma-la or ka-MA-la or Kamala-mala-mala, I don’t know. Whatever.” He and Ms Harris have spent the past three years in the Senate together.
The other senate race features Kelly Loeffler as the incumbent. Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, appointed her to fill Mr Isakson’s seat until the special election over the objections of many Georgia Republicans, who preferred the Trumpier Doug Collins, also seeking the seat. Both Mr Collins and Ms Loeffler trail the field’s top Democrat, Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King junior and senior both preached. If elected, Mr Warnock would become Georgia’s first African-American senator. But Mr Warnock’s best polls show his support topping out in the low 40s, and most of them show the two Republicans’ aggregate support exceeding his—giving anxious Democrats flashbacks to Mr Ossoff’s fate in 2017.
Mr Kemp may have believed that Ms Loeffler, a wealthy business executive, would fare better among suburbanites and women than Mr Collins. But that analysis overlooked the dynamics of running as a Republican in 2020. Ms Loeffler has also spent the campaign courting the president’s base. One of her ads featured a man approvingly calling her “more conservative than Attila the Hun,” followed by a shot of an Attila-like figure grunting plans to “attack big government” and “eliminate the liberal scribes.” She has touted her endorsement from Marjorie Taylor Greene, a congressional candidate and conspiracy theorist who believes Muslims should not serve in government, has called George Soros a “Nazi”, and said African-Americans are “slaves” to the Democratic party (Ms Greene will probably represent Georgia’s deeply conservative 14th district in the next Congress).
Like Mr Perdue, Ms Loeffler might have been a typical pro-business Republican in a less Trumpified party. She may in fact have helped attract the sorts of voters—suburbanites and women—now deserting the party in droves. But that is not where incentives lie this year. She and Mr Perdue have lashed themselves firmly to Mr Trump’s coattails, and appear likely to rise or fall as he does.