Georgia Republicans should broaden their party’s appeal to Latinos, Asians and African Americans if they want to retain control of the governor’s mansion and the Legislature in the future, local political experts say.
“We need to reach out and work with people who aren’t Caucasian. It’s that simple,” said state Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody). “We need to have a message that resonates with these people.”
Millar was re-elected Nov. 8 to a third term representing District 40, which covers portions of DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. Although traditionally a Republican stronghold, the district’s demographics have changed dramatically in recent years as members of minority groups and transplants have moved to the suburbs.
Millar’s opponent, Tamara Johnson-Shealey, a Peachtree Corners Democrat who ran on a platform that included protecting voter rights and being supportive of immigrants, received 44 percent of the vote — seven more points than she received when she ran against Millar two years ago.
“And she didn’t do anything. She ran a Facebook campaign and got 44 percent of the vote. That is an area of concern for me,” he said.
State Sen. Hunter Hill (R-Smyrna), whose district includes parts of Sandy Springs and Buckhead, won his re-election with only 52 percent of the vote over Democrat and political newcomer, community activist and pediatric dentist Jaha Howard.
And with Cobb and Gwinnett counties voting for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump in the presidential race, Millar said state Republicans can no longer “take things for granted.”
“This is maybe a wake-up call,” he said.
Republicans did score a victory in House District 80, which includes Brookhaven and a slice of Sandy Springs, with Meagan Hanson defeating incumbent state Rep. Taylor Bennett by fewer than 300 of the 24,486 votes cast.
Joseph Knippenberg, a professor of politics at Brookhaven’s Oglethorpe University, said while Democrats like to claim HD 80 is a swing district, “it’s basically a Republican district” where “a generic Republican beats a generic Democrat for the time being.”
Knippenberg said Hill’s “near-death experience” is due to the rapidly changing demographics of his district and that some Republicans, such as Hill and Millar, can no longer waltz into office and will have to “break a sweat” in upcoming races and also reach out to minorities.
Millar, who voted for Trump, said the contentious president-elect might have played a role in hurting some local Republican candidates in the metro Atlanta suburbs, such as in Cobb and Gwinnett.
“For me, [voting for Trump] was about capitalism and the Supreme Court,” he said.
Millar denied criticisms that Trump ran a racist and anti-Semitic campaign and said “he’s not going to deport 10 million” undocumented immigrants like he promised throughout his campaign. Instead, Millar said he believes Trump and his administration will focus on health care, education, lowering taxes and transportation.
“For the things that are important to everyone, you have to offer a solution,” Millar said.
State Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) ran unopposed in District 79, which includes portions of Chamblee and Doraville, cities known for their ethnic and racial diversity and immigrant populations. He agreed with Millar that this election might indeed be a wake-up call for state Republicans.
“Georgia’s population is becoming more urbanized,” he said. “We had a large influx of immigrants from the Olympics who have now become citizens. We’ve got a lot corporations relocating here.”
Rather than focusing on rural, mostly white constituents, Republicans will need to be more welcoming of being labeled “fiscal conservatives but social moderates,” Taylor said.
Knippenberg said the state GOP may have to rein in rural lawmakers who might feel emboldened by a Trump presidency to continue to push for controversial socially conservative policies.
“Republicans who have won in metro Atlanta need to figure out a way to persuade rural Republicans to not hang issues on them that will hurt them,” he said. An example is the Religious Restoration Freedom Act, vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal last year, and heavily supported by Republicans living outside Atlanta’s blue bubble.
“If the party is not competitive in metro Atlanta, it is not going to win the governor’s seat,” he said.
The national Anti-Defamation League, with a Southeastern office in Atlanta, is tracking upticks of hate crimes across the country in the wake of Trump’s election.
It condemned the appointment of Steve Bannon, former Breitbart News executive, CEO of Trump’s presidential campaign and now the White House chief strategist, warning of Bannon’s support of the alt-right movement, a “loose network of white nationalists and anti-Semites.”
David Schaefer, director of Policy and Advocacy for the Latin American Association, which has an outreach center on Buford Highway in Brookhaven, said his organization still is analyzing Trump’s transition and his cabinet picks.
“[W]e are responding in ways that will address the concerns of the community,” Schaefer said. “We are working with the Mexican Consulate [located on Chantilly Drive, just across I-85 from Brookhaven and Buckhead] to hold a series of community informational forums in the upcoming weeks.”
Locally, two Cross Keys High School teachers recently were suspended after they were accused of making deportation threats to some students; Cross Keys is known for its many Latino students.
Taylor said in a recent interview he voted for Trump but knew nothing of Bannon. “I had never heard of him … I know no history of this guy,” he said. “There’s a lot of rhetoric out there.”
He asked people to “give everyone a chance” and said change in government moves like an aircraft carrier, or, in other words, very slowly.
“We will have to wait and see what happens,” he said.