The way Fran Millar sees it, the big change shouldn’t surprise anyone. You could watch it coming. It showed right there in the numbers as election followed election. The much-talked-about “blue waves” that swept away Republican red ground in north DeKalb, Sandy Springs and Buckhead has been building for the past couple of elections.
“The wakeup call was in 2016,” Millar said recently as he surveyed the local political landscape after the 2020 election. Support for Republicans eroded that year, he said, and continued to disappear in 2018. This year, once the big wave washed through, only Democrats were left standing.
The surprise isn’t necessarily that more Democrats won local elections, but where they won them. Although Republicans still control the state Legislature, candidates with a “D” after their names have claimed districts once considered safe harbors for Republicans. Democrats now represent parts of the north Atlanta suburbs that once elected big-name Republicans such as former U.S. Congressman Newt Gingrich, former state Sen. Tom Price and former state Rep. Wendell Willard. And, of course, Millar himself.
“The Democrats have taken the hill,” said former state Rep. Ed Lindsey, a Republican who represented a chunk of Buckhead for about a decade. “Whether Republicans can have a resurgence is yet to be seen.”
Millar served in the state Legislature for 20 years. He was a state rep. for a dozen years and a state senator for eight more. He said he won 10 of 11 elections he ran. In his Senate elections, he regularly claimed more than 60% of the vote. Then, in 2016, “the Democrat who ran against me did nothing but a Facebook campaign” and still collected 44% of the vote. “I knew that wasn’t good.”
Two years ago, he lost to Sen. Sally Harrell. “I went from 62% [of the vote in 2016] to 45% in ’18,” he said. “That pretty well says it.”
What changed? Demographics, he said. Dunwoody’s just not the same place it was when he moved there 40 years ago. Back then, it was part of the “Republican Suburbs,” mostly White communities filled with cul-de-sacs surrounded by single-family houses lined up like guards. No more. Nowadays, he said, Atlanta is like Chicago or New York or other big cities scattered around the country where the suburbs politically have become an extension of the city and “most of the area is blue.”
“What I didn’t see was the population shifting so quickly, the demographics shifting so quickly,” he said.
Millar’s quick to say that by “demographics,” he doesn’t mean exclusively race. That’s part of it, but not all. Other factors he cited include the changing politics of some suburban women, including blowback against President Donald Trump; the rise of the tech industry and the younger people who work in tech; the spread of multifamily homes; and the groundswell of new voters organized by former gubernatorial candidate and Georgia voting rights champion Stacey Abrams.
But Lindsey, a lawyer who’s 61 and who spent nearly a decade in the state House and was the Republican whip, believes local Republicans’ problem in his old Buckhead district was simply Trump. “In large part it is, quite frankly, President Trump,” he said.
“It’s a matter of turning off from the president, to be candid,” he said. “He simply wasn’t well-regarded in this area. I don’t see a shift in people’s attitudes about policy so much as a shift in attitudes about leadership style.”
At age 70, Millar, who runs a small marketing firm, misses doing the kind of work he did in the Legislature and working with other lawmakers. “I do miss doing legislation on things that matter,” he said. “You just don’t turn it off after 20 years.”
But he has no plans to try to try for elected office again. After all, it might not be as much fun as it used to be. DeKalb is very divided, he said, and local politics sometimes devolve into the kinds of divisions that now regularly split the country. “I’m old-school,” Millar said. “I can sit down and do a deal with Michael Thurmond [DeKalb’s Democratic CEO].”
After the 2020 elections, Republicans appear likely to do a little soul-searching both nationally and locally.
Lindsey argues the challenge facing both parties in Buckhead will be to nominate candidates who can appeal to conservative voters. “The question is now that we’ll be living in a post-Trump era, will those folks migrate back to Republican candidates who are right of center, or are they in the Democratic camp?” he said. “That’s going to be the challenge for the Democrats and that’s the challenge for Republicans.”
Millar argues that for Republicans, a change needs to come. “I think you have to appeal to people with things that matter — find issues that matter to people. I’m pro-life, but I don’t think abortion and guns are the way… Traditionally, people vote their paychecks. They didn’t this time because of the pandemic and the personal issues of the president. … You’ve got to adapt. You can’t do the same-old, same-old.”