Dunwoody voters elected two Democrats to represent them in the General Assembly next year, a historic flipping of seats firmly held by Republicans for decades. A backlash against President Donald Trump and a successful get-out-the-vote campaign by Democrats are credited by some observers as contributing to the city’s political shift.
State Sen. Fran Millar, who has served at the Gold Dome for two decades, lost to Sally Harrell, who served in the state House with him more than a decade ago, in the Nov. 6 election.
And political newcomer Mike Wilensky, a recent transplant to the city from his hometown in Sandy Springs, defeated Ken Wright, the city’s founding mayor, to serve in the state House. Wilensky replaces Tom Taylor, who decided this year not to seek reelection after four terms in office. Taylor won the seat after Millar was elected to the state Senate.
Mayor Denis Shortal publicly endorsed Millar and Wright but said he doesn’t believe that will hurt the city’s relationships with Wilensky and Harrell.
He said he has met already with Wilensky and invited him to speak at a future City Council meeting. He said he does not know Harrell but plans to extend her the same invitation.
“I believe in the process,” Shortal said. “You won’t see me, if the election is lost, … demonstrating in the streets. Or if you’ve got a hat on for the opposition, I won’t be knocking it off your head.”
Shortal also said he doesn’t believe having two new Democrats, and members of the minority party, will affect Dunwoody’s chances of having its voice heard at the General Assembly.
“I’m going to talk to them about our priorities and I expect them to represent us,” Shortal said.
As for Democrats winning the state legislative seats, Shortal said the results are likely part of a long tradition of a new sitting president losing support in Congress. Ronald Reagan, he said, was a popular president, but Republicans lost the House and Senate after his first term. He said he did not know if Trump played a role in the local races.
The upsets were not entirely surprising as local Republicans knew they were campaigning against the national Republican brand now defined by Trump — a divisive brand that does not traditionally play well with moderate voters living in metro Atlanta, said Joseph Knippenberg, professor of politics at Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven.
Incumbents like Millar and state Rep. Meagan Hanson in Brookhaven tried to shake off the Trump stamp by campaigning on local issues such as property taxes, transit and school safety. But such issues did not seem to matter this year as they historically have in local races, Knippenberg said.
“The adage used to be ‘all politics is local.’ This year it wasn’t,” he said. “Trump was on the ballot even if he wasn’t. And as long as the Republican brand is defined by Trump, that’s going to be an issue.”
City Councilmember Lynn Deutsch said she saw men and women who had never been involved in politics before becoming energized by the 2016 presidential election.
“I think people have realized that it’s not enough to just pay attention to what’s happening in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “You have to pay attention to what’s happening at home, too.”
Governor candidate Brian Kemp embraced the socially conservative ideals of Trump including an anti-immigrant stance and support of gun rights and concentrated all his energy on rural voters, Knippenberg said. That left suburban Republican candidates facing an uphill battle because they had no moderate support from the top of their party’s ticket, Knippenberg said.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, on the other hand, who spearheaded an impressive get-out-the-vote effort, likely helped carry down-ticket Democrats over the finish line, he added. Local Democrats including Wilensky and Harrell also campaigned hard on their support of issues like Medicaid expansion, funding public schools, gun control, a woman’s right to choose and opposition to so-called “religious liberty” bills.
“In one sense, you can say Atlanta is part of a larger national story — the Republicans taking a bath among voters who would have been their bread and butter as recently as 2012,” Knippenberg said.
The traditionally college-educated, white and affluent voters living in the suburbs, like metro Atlanta and in Dunwoody, went for Democrats this year, a party shift that may or not be sustainable depending on who is in the White House, he said.
“What I do know is if you look at demographics across the country, suburban voters led by suburban white women voted for Democrats. It seems marginally easier for Democrats who look like the national party to do well in the suburbs, and that’s a change,” Knippenberg said.
Evelyn Andrews contributed.