Geoff Duncan is the Republican lieutenant governor of Georgia. He is forty-six years old, a retired minor league baseball player and a healthcare executive. He is relatively new to politics after running for the state parliament for the first time in 2012. On March 8, as a Republican, he presided over the Senate Bill that restricted electoral access came to the ground. The bill and a parallel proposal at Georgia House were already notorious for the severity of some of their provisions: severely restricting postal voting, removing three-quarters of ballot boxes in metro Atlanta, making them illegal for anyone who is not an election worker to people queuing to vote, watering and closing elections on the final Sundays before an election when black churches traditionally hold their turnout known as “Souls to the Polls”. Duncan had no material way of registering an objection – the lieutenant governor has no vote – but he thought the bill was so wrong that he left the chamber instead of voting on it. When Greg Bluestein, the great political reporter for the Atlanta Journal’s constitution, found Duncan, he was sitting in his office with chin in hand, watching the vote to pass the bill on television. There were two cans of Coke Zero in front of him.
Duncan’s dissent did not affect the outcome of the debate. Governor Brian Kemp signed a version of the bill on March 25 that passed a party line without a strict ban on Sunday voting, with most of the other provisions intact. But Duncan’s reaction provided an early indication of how badly the bill would align with Atlanta’s corporate mainstream. A day after it was signed, Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian issued a cautious statement praising Republicans for removing some of the most outrageous regulations. Five days later, in an internal memo to Delta employees, he called the bill “unacceptable” after his company was pressured by Black Lives Matter protesters (and perhaps more importantly, a network of Black Business executives) had been. The Coca-Cola CEO made a similar statement the same day, saying he wanted to “be crystal clear” that the soft drinks company does not endorse the law, which “makes it harder for people to vote, not easier”. On April 2, Major League Baseball announced that it was pulling its all-star game out of Atlanta. On April 10, more than a hundred CEOs called on Zoom to review the implications and how to make it clear that they stand up for voting rights nationwide. This week, actor Will Smith and director Antoine Fuqua announced that a movie they wanted to make in Georgia would now be made elsewhere. The title – is it in the nose too? – reads “emancipation”.
One way to look at the issue has been an eternal struggle: Conservatives are trying to restrict the right to vote, constituencies and democratic politicians want to expand it. Newly elected Senator Raphael Warnock, longtime pastor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Church in Atlanta, said the bill represented “Jim Crow in new clothes.” Stacey Abrams similarly called it “Jim Crow in a suit and tie”. In many ways the label fitted: the intent to suppress the voices of the Black Atlantans seemed both deliberate and clear. The Democrats were united in their opposition to the law; The Republicans, despite having managed to make it without breaking ranks, had unsettled their own coalition. Conservatives had either misjudged their relationship with Atlanta or had bothered to maintain it.
When I reached Duncan on the phone on Monday, he emphasized what he thought was one of the real causes of the legislation: In December, Rudy Giuliani, who was then President Trump’s envoy, traveled to Atlanta and submitted his case to a legislative committee that the November elections had been stolen. Duncan described the sessions as “hours of airtime to vent the most ridiculous conspiracy theories you’ve ever heard”. This presentation, similar to the one that dozens of judges had rejected or rejected, seemed less meant to convince lawmakers than to raise the temperature among conservative voters. It was successful in that regard. By the end of last year, nearly three-quarters of Georgia Republicans told respondents that they thought the elections had been stolen. Brad Raffensperger and Gabriel Sterling, the Republican officials who denied Trump’s request to overturn the Georgia election results, said they and their families had received death threats. Duncan, who reported last November that his office had not seen “credible examples” of widespread election fraud, said his family did too. Duncan did not see this as an organic phenomenon. “It was really that revolving-the-base process,” said Duncan. “If 75 percent of Republicans believe the earth is flat, our job is to go to these GOP meetings and tell them it’s not flat, it’s round, and here’s the evidence. That’s the heavy lift. “
When I asked Duncan if he believed that Republican supporters of the bill anticipated corporate backlash, he replied, “Obviously not.” Duncan said, “In a perfect world, I would have liked to have seen – all-star game – the business world, Major League Baseball, the owners, putting the brakes on for a few weeks and locking us in a room with a couple of sandwiches and warm coffee to find out there is a way forward. “Duncan believed there might have been a voter registration event or” an intense collaboration with inner-city communities and color communities. ” The warm coffee, the sandwiches, the well-secured room, an arrangement that may have linked voter restrictions to some voter registration and averted a boycott – this was a long-standing vision of the Republican establishment . In the present, however, it was not evident that the company had any incentive to avert a conflict with lawmakers. Perhaps more strikingly, it wasn’t exactly obvious that Republicans had an incentive in the legislature to stave off a conflict with corporations.
Republicans have held the governorship of Georgia since 2003, and most of their candidates won the elections with no problems. The party has controlled both houses of the state parliament since 2005. Historically, that coalition was the George W. Bush coalition, the New South Coalition – an association of corporate and evangelical interests. Among the Bush-era Republicans who came of age and the gentler variety of talk radio hosts, one can still hear a tone of affirmation that the American majority belongs to wealthy Conservatives – these are the notes Mike Pence hits, and for much of this century they were met throughout the southern suburb. David Lublin, chairman of the American University government department and scholar on South Political Transitions, noted that the stereotype of voters in the North who opposed abortion and other liberal social policies “is poor Bubba from rural Georgia who owns one Pickup that hardly drives and that smokes and drinks beer in the wreckage of his old car in the yard. Indeed it is not. The people who built the evangelical movement were middle class suburbanites. “It is difficult to build a mega-church in a rural area,” Lublin emphasized, “because there are not enough people.”
But this coalition and tone were built on circumstances that no longer exist. Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, noted that about three-quarters of the Georgia electorate were white in 1996 and the state assembly’s Republican majority had a different perspective on access to elections. In 2005, an early, strict law on voter identification and a law extending postal voting were passed. As the largest American cities boomed, the Atlanta area in particular has expanded. It is now home to the second largest black population in the United States, just behind New York, and the level of education in the Atlanta area is well above that in Georgia as a whole. According to Bullock, only fifty-eight percent of the state’s electorate is white, and as the parties have realigned on education, the fastest growing places are also sliding off the Conservatives. “I would describe it as having growth in the south and the stagnant south, and in growth in the south the Democrats are making headway,” Bullock said.
A little ruefully, Bullock told me that not so long ago he had informed both the Democratic and Republican caucus in Georgian lawmakers of these demographic trends. A presentation he believed might lead some Republicans to expand their reach to black and Latin American communities. Conservative campaign advisors could see the case, he said, “but it clearly found no response from ordinary members.” And why should it be like that? As bad as the 2020 elections in Georgia were for the Republicans at the national level, who cast both their electoral votes and control of the U.S. Senate to the Democrats, the Republicans in the state legislature had only lost three seats and their members. Many of them are in safe districts and still control the state government. Bullock said, “The losses, this year at least, didn’t affect these lawmakers.”
A good question right now is whether anything will be. Corporations cannot isolate themselves as easily as rural politicians. They are not dependent on votes, but on markets, which is what interests them in particular in prosperity and youth. The Republican business relationship is often what connects the stagnant South and the growing South, or cities and rural areas. Many Republicans seem comfortable with severing it. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton recently accused the US Chamber of Commerce of “serving as a front-line service for smart corporations trying to spread anti-American theories.” Florida-based Marco Rubio warned in a USA Today that “the days of the conservative, taken for granted by the business world, are over”. Josh Hawley of Missouri this week proposed a ban on mergers and acquisitions of all companies with market capitalizations above one hundred billion dollars and warned of the increasing exercise of political power by “industry across the board”.
To Republicans like Duncan, this all seems like a misjudgment – a Giuliani-induced stumble. But the Georgia law policy seemed clear. Many Republicans – the vast majority of Republicans elected in Georgia – feel comfortable standing on the wrong side of corporations. Whether you can still hear its echoes on talk radio, the politics of the New South has disappeared. When Delta denounced the electoral law as “unacceptable”, the Georgian House of Representatives did not crouch. Instead, a law was passed that revoked a tax break on jet fuel.