Rockdale County, just east of Atlanta, often gets overlooked in Georgia politics. It’s small, but it’s not Georgia’s smallest county (that’s Clarke) nor least populous (that would be Taliaferro). And even though actors Holly Hunter, Jack McBrayer and Dakota Fanning were born there, as the smallest of the 10 counties that make up the “metro Atlanta region,” a lot of people tend to treat it as the “oh yeah” County. As in, ” …Henry, DeKalb, Clayton, umm… and oh yeah, Rockdale.” But if you want to see close campaigns that demonstrate the limits of Republican politics, and the likely future of the GOP in Georgia, study Rockdale County’s elections tonight with a magnifying glass. Or maybe an electron microscope.
Until 2008, Rockdale County was Republican turf. The 3-member board of commissioners was all Republican, as was just about every elected office in the County. But in Rockdale in 2008, Barack Obama beat John McCain by nearly 10 points. Jim Martin beat Saxby Chambliss by 11. And except for the Sheriff, all the contested local county offices flipped from “R” to “D.” Clerk of the Court went from R to D by a margin of less than 3%. County Chairman: A Democratic challenger beat the Republican incumbent by just over 1% -a mere 501 votes. Post 1 Commissioner Jason Hill, a Republican, lost to Oz Nesbitt by 90 votes out of 35,788 cast, a nano-margin of 0.0025%. There’s just no way to describe how small that margin is to folks who aren’t statisticians, pollsters or political junkies. It’s a single puff of wind while sailing around the world, less noise than you get in any signal, a margin of error undetectable by any pollster. (By way of disclosure, I was the general consultant on Hill’s campaign in 2008, and I have a few words I used to describe that loss. I just can’t repeat them in public.) A mathematician told me that number was “halfway between the line and the curve on the asymptote,” but then I punched him for using big words, so I still don’t get it.
As small as the loss was mathematically, it was huge for Rockdale County government, and for the Rockdale GOP. I’ll skip the policy details, but the last four years of governing under a Democrat-controlled county have not been well-received by any longtime Rockdale resident, whether Republican or Democrat, black or white.
Oh, did I forget the racial component? It wouldn’t be Georgia politics without a racial undercurrent, allow me to clarify: Every contested county office in Rockdale has an African American Democrat facing off against a white Republican. Every. Single. One. Here’s a slate mailer the Democrats sent out, see for yourself:
The ones with the red slashes across their faces are white Republicans. The others are not. (And coroner? Really? Who challenges the coroner?) But for too long, that’s been the face of politics in Georgia: White Republicans versus Black Democrats. That division hasn’t helped either party, either race, nor any Georgian.
I’m not a general consultant to any campaign in Rockdale this year, but I’ve provided some polling and advertising services to several of the campaigns on the Republican side. I’ve been asked what I think is going to happen in that county, and I honestly can’t say. Everything I measure is inside the margin of error. Every projection I see depends on variables too small to predict with any more certainty than a coin toss. Early voting data shows that black voters have a 587-vote advantage. Did any of them vote for any of the Republicans? Among all voters who can vote today, whites have a 258-vote advantage. Are they all Republicans, and will they all show up? I don’t know, there are 26,150 registered voters remaining, which is 2,910 fewer than in 2008, and even the weather forecast (as of yesterday) called for EXACTLY a 50% chance of rain. I’ll give you an answer as soon as that coin stops flipping.
What I know is that a lot of volunteers for the Rockdale GOP have been dialing and canvassing and waving signs and driving voters to the polls. I’ve never seen such effort from any local Republican party, and I’ve never seen such a sincere and concentrated effort, on the part of the candidates, to win black votes. Ever. So there are two reasons to pay extra-close attention to little ole’ Rockdale County’s election returns tonight. The first is that it’s close, and anyone who likes close contests is in for a ride. The second is that Rockdale County is a bellwether for the future of every Republican in Georgia. Because to win, the Rockdale GOP needs nearly all of the white votes AND enough black votes to make the difference. And if they can pull THAT off, they’ll have mapped the path for long-term Republican success.