Republicans are doing some soul-searching after losing the presidential election and some winnable U.S. Senate contests. The Georgia GOP should be similarly self-reflective after delivering the second-smallest margin among states won by Mitt Romney.
The same demographic trends Romney failed to overcome are increasingly apparent in Georgia. Republicans here must learn to win over voters they typically haven’t attracted. Fortunately for them, Tuesday also offered a template for doing so: the successful charter schools amendment.
The referendum to affirm a state role in creating these public schools was passed in a Republican-dominated Legislature with crucial, but limited, Democratic support; was endorsed by our Republican governor; was opposed by the state Democratic Party; drew much-scrutinized financial support from wealthy Republicans outside Georgia; and was slammed in a radio ad by a civil-rights icon, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, as a precursor to resegregation.
Yet in Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton counties, home to about a third of all Democrats and black registered voters in Georgia, 72 percent of voters backed President Barack Obama’s re-election — and 66 percent approved the charter schools amendment. And why not? The students and parents in those counties face some of the most dysfunctional school systems in the state.
In all, the amendment got 62 percent in pro-Obama counties, 56 percent in pro-Romney counties.
Georgia Republicans have big trouble in big cities, but the amendment won in every single county where at least 40,000 people voted on it. And it got 65 percent of the vote in the 10-county metro Atlanta region – where the T-SPLOST was defeated in July by 62 percent of the voters.
It may seem odd to liken the passage of the GOP-led charter schools amendment to the defeat of the GOP-created T-SPLOST. But the pairing offers some important lessons.
Each contest featured a coalition of mostly suburban “movement” conservatives and mostly urban black Democrats that has rarely, if ever, figured into Georgia politics.
Why did these groups come together? In part, it’s because the losing side in each referendum essentially argued, “Trust us.”
For the T-SPLOST, it was the state transportation apparatus and the politicians who like to meddle with it. For the amendment — despite opponents’ efforts to tie it to the same politicians — it was the educational establishment that runs local public school districts.
Decades of experience left Georgians wary of trusting either group. There’s an opportunity here.
Republicans often talk about financial waste in public services. They’re less adept at addressing these services’ failings from users’ perspective.
This is less true when it comes to education. The amendment was a chance to reach out to non-Republicans with a solution for improving public education for them. There will be more chances — soon, I hope.
On transportation, the Georgia GOP shouldn’t talk about privatizing MARTA, for example, purely as a way to save money. As long as DeKalb and Fulton have a sales tax for transit, MARTA isn’t likely to cost taxpayers less.
But Republicans could promote privatization as a way to improve transit without spending more money. In my 2010 series on MARTA, I estimated the agency could increase bus services by about one-eighth (over 2008 levels) without increasing spending, by privatizing buses the way some cities out West have.
If Georgia Republicans don’t find a way to promote conservative principles with new blocs of voters, the choice won’t be theirs much longer.
– By Kyle Wingfield