The Republican Party delegates who gathered in Athens for their annual state convention this past weekend heard a cautionary message from Gov. Nathan Deal about the future of the GOP.
Deal tried to warn party activists that the same demographic trends that helped re-elect Barack Obama as president last year are also reshaping the electorate in this conservative state.
“Demographics are shifting in Georgia,” Deal said, citing the fact that in the state’s public schools, 56 percent of the enrollment is now made up of non-white students.
“This is a shocking statistic,” Deal said. “That is over half, folks.”
“If you want to know what the future electorate of Georgia looks like, look at those who are in our schools right now,” the governor added. “We cannot afford to lose those votes, those volunteers, those potential public servants, because of negative perceptions of the Republican Party. We must reach out to those individuals.”
Public Service Commissioner Chuck Eaton tried to get across a similar message in his convention speech, noting that in recent years the percentage of white registered voters in Georgia has decreased from more than 70 percent to about 58 percent, with a corresponding increase in the percentage of non-white voters.
“I’m not talking about softening our values,” Eaton said. “I’m talking about reaching out to people who ought to be sharing our values.”
Deal and Eaton were making the same point that has been made on the national level by such party figures as Karl Rove: Republicans need to expand beyond their traditional base of white supporters and try to appeal to other demographic groups, such as the fast-growing Latino community.
The governor’s warning speech did not appear to generate much of a response by convention attendees, and it was contradicted by other party leaders.
“We don’t change our principals or values,” said Rep. Jan Jones, R-Milton, speaker pro tem of the Georgia House. “We just communicate them a little better.”
“There are some people who believe we must move away from our principles to win elections,” said B. J. Van Gundy, one of the candidates for state party chairman. “But our principles win when they are communicated in a positive manner. We can take the solid foundation of this party and make it even stronger.”
Just two hours before Deal addressed the convention delegates, tea party leaders held a press conference involving the Republican candidates who will be competing for Saxby Chambliss’ Senate seat and several U.S. House seats next year.
The news conference was staged so that the candidates could comment on the immigration reform legislation now being crafted in Congress, a bill that appeals to the same demographic group – Latinos – that people like Deal are hoping can be persuaded to vote for Republicans.
Each of the congressional candidates declared they were absolutely opposed to passing any part of the immigration reform bill.
“We don’t need any new laws,” said Rep. Paul Broun of Athens, in a typical comment. “We just need to secure the borders, north and south.”
The candidates are reflecting the wishes of Republican supporters who don’t see any need to change their positions on social issues and aren’t worried about the votes of non-white demographic groups. When you look at the election results of the past 10 years, you can understand why they would feel that way.
During the same period when the percentage of Georgia’s white voters has been decreasing by about one point every year, the Republican control of state government has grown stronger, not weaker.
When the GOP first gained control of the General Assembly, it held narrow majorities in the House and Senate. Republicans have steadily gained seats ever since and now control more than two-thirds of the Senate seats and nearly two-thirds of the House seats.
During that same period, Republicans have won every statewide office from governor down to the five seats on the Public Service Commission. The GOP holds both U.S. Senate seats and has an 8-5 majority in the U.S. House delegation.
As the white voter percentage shrinks, the remaining white voters evidently become even more determined to vote for Republican candidates.
That is why the delegates at the GOP convention didn’t share Deal’s concerns about long-term demographic trends. Given the results in recent election cycles, why should they?
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com.)