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Opinion Suburbanites are saving the Democrats in Georgia — and elsewhere

Canvassers listen as then-Democratic Senate candidate Raphael G. Warnock speaks in Marietta, Ga., on Jan. 5, 2021. (Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post)

MARIETTA, Ga. — Cobb County was established in the 1830s by White Americans on land that had been occupied by Cherokees, who were forced to move west in what is now known as the Trail of Tears. It is named after Thomas W. Cobb, who was a U.S. congressman and senator representing Georgia in the early 19th century and owned enslaved Black people. Perhaps the most important figure associated with Cobb is former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who represented the county in Congress in the early 1990s and is in many ways the intellectual godfather of today’s Republican Party.

But Cobb has changed dramatically. It’s now run by a majority-Black county commission. And Cobb is part of a group of suburban counties in the Atlanta area that has become increasingly Democratic and turned Georgia into a swing state.

In the 2004 election, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry lost Georgia by 17 percentage points, including a 25-point defeat in Cobb. Two years ago, Joe Biden very narrowly won Georgia, in part because of his 14-point victory in Cobb. Sen. Raphael G. Warnock carried Cobb by 16 points in this month’s election and will need a similar margin to defeat Republican challenger Herschel Walker in their Dec. 6 runoff.

The electoral transformation of Cobb County is part of a broader shift happening in U.S. politics. Over the past decade, Americans who live in rural areas, a group that already leaned toward the Republicans, has become even more conservative. Urban areas are increasingly Democratic, but cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia were already so left-leaning that there wasn’t much room for Democratic growth. What’s been the saving grace for Democrats in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections has been voters in suburban areas backing the party, particularly around Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia and Phoenix.

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“Democrats in this county were feeling beaten down. We had been on the fringes for years,” said Mary Frances Williams, who was born in Marietta, one of the largest cities in Cobb, and lives there now.

“I really noticed things were changing in 2016. My precinct went for Hillary Clinton. I was shocked by it,” Williams told me when I met her at a coffee shop in downtown Marietta last week.

Two years later, Williams was a candidate herself, flipping a Cobb-based statehouse seat for Democrats. The 67-year-old won reelection for a third time earlier this month.

Three factors are driving this suburban shift to the Democrats. First, the residents in these suburbs, particularly around Atlanta, are increasingly Asian, Black and/or Hispanic. In Cobb, 49 percent of residents are Asian, Black and/or Hispanic, compared with 28 percent two decades ago. In Gwinnett, another Atlanta-area county that has flipped decidedly to Democrats, about 66 percent of residents are Asian, Black and/or Hispanic compared with about a third in 2000.

Members of all three of those groups are more likely to vote Democratic than White Americans are. In many cases, people of color move from the city to the suburbs in the same metropolitan area. But particularly in the Atlanta area, many of the new people of color in the suburbs are coming here from other states.

Second, younger and more liberal-leaning White people are also moving to these suburbs, both from nearby cities and other regions. These suburban areas are seeing a surge in residents with college degrees. Increased education tends to be correlated with more progressive views on issues of race and identity and with voting for Democrats.

About 55 percent of people in Johnson County (a suburb of Kansas City, Kan.) and Chester County (in the Philadelphia area) have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with around 40 percent of U.S. adults overall. Chester voted Republican as recently as the 2012 presidential election, and Johnson did so until 2016. But Biden carried both counties in 2020, and Democratic gubernatorial candidates won them by double-digits this year.

Finally, Trump-style politics is turning off some people in these suburbs who might otherwise vote Republican. For example, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who has distanced himself from the former president, lost Cobb by only five percentage points in this year’s election, a much smaller margin than Donald Trump lost the county in 2020 and Walker lost it earlier this month.

The political story of the American suburbs is not simply a uniform shift to the left. Few suburban areas have moved toward the Democrats over the last decade as much as the counties around Atlanta have. Some of the counties around Dallas and Houston, as well as Orange County in the Los Angeles area, shifted toward the Democrats from 2012 to 2016 and again from 2016 to 2020 but moved back slightly to the Republicans this year. Voters in suburban Tampa and New York City turned sharply to the right this cycle.

But the surprisingly strong performance of Democrats in the U.S. House and in many gubernatorial and Senate races was in large part because the pro-Democratic suburban surge of the 2018 and 2020 elections didn’t ebb too much in 2022.

In the Georgia runoff, both Senate candidates are very aware of the suburbs' importance. Last week, Warnock held a rally in Fayette County, another Atlanta suburb undergoing a demographic transformation. Forty percent of its residents are Asian, Black and/or Hispanic, compared with 18 percent two decades ago. Related to that shift, Warnock lost Fayette by just three percentage points in the November election, compared with Kerry’s 43-point defeat in 2004.

Walker campaigned recently with the more suburban-friendly Kemp at an event in Smyrna, another town in Cobb.

“Cobb was one of the original White-flight cities,” said Jim Galloway, a longtime Cobb resident who was the senior political columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution until his retirement in 2020. “When I started out, Cobb was going from becoming Democratic to becoming Republican,” said Galloway, who began at the paper in 1979.

“But when I was leaving the paper, Cobb was going from being Republican to Democratic.”

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