Right now, I feel like we’re living in the most interesting state in the world, to adapt a line from a popular beer commercial. Not only does Georgia, with its two Senate runoff elections, hold the fate of the Senate, and hence of the balance of power in Washington, in its hands, but it’s also the only state in the Deep South to have voted for Joe Biden. What’s more, two of the very few bright spots for Democrats at the Congressional level were Lucy McBath’s retention of the local seat she flipped in 2018 and Carolyn Bordeaux’s flipping of another suburban seat.

Joseph Knippenberg, a professor of political science at Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven.

How we got here is, I think, an interesting and illuminating tale. Everyone’s easy answer is to credit Stacey Abrams with the feat of “turning Georgia blue,” as one headline inaccurately put it.  She certainly had a hand in it, working to register and mobilize hundreds of thousands of voters.  But as one observer recently noted, none of what Abrams accomplished would have been possible without Atlanta, whose economic dynamism attracts people from all over the country.

Consider these numbers. More than half the almost 5 million votes cast in the presidential election came from counties in the Atlanta metro area. Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties alone accounted for about 1.7 million votes, giving Joe Biden a 625,000 edge over Donald Trump. Of course, the picture gets a bit more clouded when you factor in all the other metro counties, but it’s clear enough that the Atlanta metro area makes Georgia competitive.

No other major Southern city has the same effect on its state’s political complexion. Not Charlotte, not Nashville, and certainly not Birmingham or Columbia.

The closest southern analogue to Atlanta’s outsized influence is the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where Joe Biden’s 500,000 vote margin (out of roughly 1.5 million votes cast) overcame Donald Trump’s slight 50,000 vote edge in the rest of the state.

Since 2008, Virginia and Georgia have followed similar trajectories. Barack Obama added nearly a half-million voters to the Democratic columns in both states back then. Joe Biden duplicated that feat this year, adding 431,000 votes in Virginia and 594,000 votes in Georgia.

This comparison takes a bit of luster away from Stacey Abrams’s accomplishment. Virginia Democrats were not exactly lost without her in 2020. Also, Georgia Republicans have a much larger margin outside Atlanta than their Virginia counterparts do outside the D.C. suburbs. But they shouldn’t rest too comfortably on that cushion, not only because it didn’t produce victory at the presidential level in 2020, but because that’s not where the state’s voting population will grow in the future. Retaining the non-Atlanta base is necessary, but not sufficient, for long-term Republican success in Georgia politics.

In a word, the Atlanta metropolitan area holds the future of Georgia politics in its hands. Both parties have strong incentives to improve upon their performances ITP and OTP.

For Democrats, the two keys are holding onto the affluent, White voters who moved from splitting their tickets in 2016 to voting “D” in more races in 2020, and increasing turnout among Black and Latino voters. Since Donald Trump will not always be around to help them with the former effort, they will have to find ways to differentiate their candidates from the louder progressive voices that tend to dominate the national party. We can expect to hear more of the intraparty debate that has been evident in the aftermath of the disappointing results below the presidential level. As for the other challenge, I will restrict myself here to saying that claims of voter suppression are a better mobilizing tool than they are a description of facts on the ground.  There are lots of votes to be gotten from people of color, but those who aren’t already voting are going to be very difficult to get to the polls.

Republicans have to hope that they can retain their appeal to non-metro voters while distancing themselves from the Trump persona in the metro area. In the January special elections, the task is straightforward, for they can argue that the only way that President Biden can be the moderate he claims to be is if there’s a Republican Senate to balance a Democratic House.

After that, the test will be whether Georgia Republicans and their national counterparts can articulate a nationalist and populist message that isn’t as abrasive and offensive as that offered by the current occupant of the White House. I take it for granted that there’s no going back to the party of Mitt Romney, however much some of those who would be in the executive suites if they weren’t working from home would want it. That party doesn’t win enough votes outside the metro area to counterbalance its inevitable deficit around the Perimeter.

None of us really wants to pay much attention to politics for the next two months, but we can’t avoid it. Democrats and Republicans have a lot at stake, in the short term and in the long term.  For Georgians, the question is whether purple is a stop on the way to blue or a condition that we’ll, so to speak, enjoy for the foreseeable future.

Joseph Knippenberg

Joseph Knippenberg, a professor of political science at Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven.