Former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson told Oconee County Democrats in August of last year that they didn’t have to flip Oconee County for the party to be successful statewide on Tuesday.
Tomlinson, then a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination to face U.S. Sen. David Perdue, said Oconee County Democrats only needed to shave three or four percentage points off the 69.8 percent of the vote Gov. Brian Kemp received in Oconee County in 2016.
Former Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond told local Democrats two months later that Oconee County is an excellent opportunity for Democrats because its looks a lot like the Atlanta suburbs turning Democratic because of the influence of college-educated women.
Republicans Bill Cowsert, Houston Gaines, and Marcus Wiedower, representing Oconee County in the Georgia General Assembly, have made it clear at recent gatherings of the Oconee County Republican Party that they, too, are very much focused on how Republican Oconee County votes this election.
For each of these three, Oconee County is part of a firewall created by the Republican legislature in 2011 against Athens-Clarke County to make it likely that Cowsert’s 46th Senate District, Gaines’ 117th House District, and Wiedower’s 119 House District elect Republicans.
To guarantee that outcome, Gaines and Wiedower in particular need a big turnout of Republicans in Oconee County.
Turnout already is at record numbers, as the Republicans have been hoping will be the case, but there are some hints as well from recent Democrats performance in high turnout elections that Democrats could have some success cutting into the Republican margins in the county on Tuesday.
Turnout So Far This Year
As of the end of early voting on Friday, 15,972 persons had voted Advanced In-Person in Oconee County, and an additional 5,516 absentee ballots had been received, for a total of 21,488 votes cast.
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That is 1,012 more votes than were cast in 2016 at the end of the election and represents a turnout rate without any voting on election day of 71.5 percent of active voters and 68.0 percent of all registered voters.
In addition, as of Friday, the county had issued 1,919 absentee ballots that had not yet been returned.
Those voters can return the ballots to the secure drop box at 10 Court Street, across from the Courthouse in Watkinsville, by 7 p.m. on Tuesday, or vote in person on election day.
On Nov. 8, 2016, by comparison, 20,476 of Oconee County’s 24,058 registered voters, or 85.1 percent, cast a ballot.
Of those votes in 2016, 11,768 (57.5 percent), were cast Advanced In-Person, 924 (4.5 percent) were cast Absentee By Mail (absentee), and 7,776 (38.0 percent) were cast at the polling booths on election day.
Eight votes (less than a tenth of a percent) were provisional, that is, cast in person on election day but using a paper ballot and subsequently counted.
The county certainly seems poised to reach and perhaps even exceed the turnout rate of four years ago.
Examining Partisan Sentiment
Georgia does not have party registration, so the only way to get a sense of partisan sentiment over time is through the elections themselves.
But the election cycle is variable, and a comparison of one election to another is problematic because of different turnout rates. It isn’t possible to know if those who stayed at home in a low turnout election would have voted similarly to those who voted or differently from them.
Presidential elections generally have very high turnout, so the best starting point for imagining the final vote tally after Tuesday’s election is November of 2016.
And that election, with 85.1 percent turnout in Oconee County, went overwhelming to Donald Trump, who got 67.4 percent of the vote.
Trump had not been a favorite of the majority of Oconee County voters in the March primary that year. He got only 38.8 percent of the vote, with Marco Rubio getting 24.5 percent and Ted Cruz getting 23.6.
But Republican voters came around to Trump in November, and Democrat Hillary Clinton got only 28.0 percent of the vote.
It is the 67.4 percent Trump vs. 28.0 percent for Clinton ratio that is the key comparison for the outcome of Tuesday’s race.
Republicans will have had success if they hold or boost that ratio, and Democrats will have had success if they lower it.
2016 vs. Earlier Presidential Races
Trump, in fact, did not do as well in Oconee County in 2016 as have other recent Republican presidential candidates, so there is room for growth.
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Trump got a considerably lower percentage of the vote than did Mitt Romney in 2012 (73.6), John McCain did in 2008 (70.7), and George W. Bush did in 2004 (72.5). George W. Bush got just less than Trump in 2000 (65.3 percent).
Trump also ran considerably behind Johnny Isakson in 2016, the Republican seeking re-election to the Senate. Isakson got 73.0 percent of the vote.
Trump’s numbers also were not uniform across the county.
Trump ran strongest in Dark Corner Precinct, in the northwest of the county, where he got 77.4 percent of the votes cast, and weakest in City Hall, where he got only 57.0 percent of the vote.
Trump generally was stronger in the less populated south and west of the county and weakest in the northern and eastern parts of the county.
Bogart was the exception. Trump got 68.9 percent of the vote there, or a little above average for the county’s then 13 precincts.
But he got only 60.2 percent in Athens Academy (now East Oconee) and 62.5 percent in Annex (now merged with City Hall).
North Oconee gave Trump 73.7 percent of the vote, and High Shoals gave him 72.0 percent.
For the election results from November of 2016 to be informative about what happens on Tuesday, two things have to be true.
First the electoral base has to be the same. Second, turnout has to be the same.
Certainly, the base has changed. In 2016, Oconee County had 24,058 registered voters. When registration closed on Oct. 5 of this year, Oconee County had 30,033 active voters, or nearly 6,000 more voters than in 2016.
The county also has another 1,561 inactive voters, who will become active voters if they show up and vote.
The Secretary of State Office has not yet released the data file based on Oct. 5 registration, but it has released the file as of Sept. 1. That file contains breakdowns by race and gender, but not age. The comparative file for 2016 is not publicly available.
It is possible, however, to examine registration by precinct just before the November election in 2016 and as of Sept. 1 of 2020.
That comparison of voter registration by precinct on election day in 2016 with voter registration on Sept. 1 of 2020 shows only small differences.
In 2016, 13.9 percent of the registered voters were in what is now City Hall (a combination of City Hall and Annex Precincts). In 2020, the figure is 13.0 percent.
In 2016, Athens Academy made up 9.5 percent of the registered voters. On Sept. 1, 2020, East Oconee (the current name for Athens Academy), made up 8.8 percent of the registered voters.
The precinct that gained was Dark Corner, which went from 9.7 percent in 2016 to 11.7 percent in 2020.
Dark Corner was where Trump did best in 2016, and Athens Academy and City Hall and Annex were where he did more poorly. But there is no guarantee that the voters who have swelled the rolls in Dark Corner are the same as the voters they joined there.
So there is reason to think that the 2016 presidential vote should vote should be a reasonable starting point to assess what happens on Tuesday.
The base has expanded, but, on at least one standard, precinct registration, it isn’t so different from four years ago.
And turnout once again is likely to be very high.
Comparisons of 2016 and 2020 Primaries
Three comparisons could help identify any trends: of the outcomes of presidential primaries in 2016 and in June of 2020, of the outcomes of the U.S. Senate races in the party primaries of 2016 and June of 2020, and of the outcome of the gubernatorial election in 2018.
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Unfortunately, for this comparison, the presidential primaries in 2016 and 2020 were different in two significant ways.
First, there was no contest at all on the Republican side in 2020 and little uncertainly on the Democratic side.
That had not been the case in 2016, when, particularly on the Republican side, the race was not yet settled.
Second, the pandemic upended the 2020 presidential primary while early voting was underway, and the presidential primary election ultimately was merged with the state primary, which was moved from March to June 9.
Despite these difference, the comparisons do offer some hints of what may take place on Tuesday.
In 2016, Republicans in Oconee County cast 9,161 ballots in the presidential primary, and Democrats cast 2,337. Of those total votes of 11,498 in 2016, Republicans cast 79.7 percent and Democrats cast 20.3 percent.
In 2020, Republicans in Oconee County cast 8,178 ballots in the presidential primary, and Democrats cast 3,116. Of the total votes of 11,294 in 2020, Republicans cast 72.4 percent and Democrats cast 27.5 percent.
In short, Republicans lost 7.3 percentage points, and Democrats gained that amount.
U.S. Senate Comparisons
While the 2020 Presidential Primary was quite different from the 2016 Presidential Primary, the 2016 primaries for the U.S. Senate were more similar.
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In 2016, Republican incumbent Sen. Johnny Isakson had at least some primary opposition from Mary Kay Bacallao and Derrick Grayson, and 6,110 Republicans in Oconee County cast a ballot.
On the Democratic side, Jim Barksdale, Cheryl Copeland and John Coyne III competed for the party nomination, but only 303 Oconee County Democrats cast a ballot.
Of the 6,413 votes cast across party in those two races, 95.3 percent were Republican, and 4.7 percent were Democratic.
In 2020, when incumbent Republican David Perdue was alone on the Republican ballot, 8,816 Oconee County Republicans cast a ballot.
On the Democratic side in 2020, with seven names on the ballot, including Sarah Riggs Amico, Tomlinson, and ultimate victor Jon Ossoff, 3,603 Democrats cast a ballot.
Of the 12,419 votes cast across the two parties in 2020, 71.0 percent were Republican and 29.0 percent were Democratic.
In other words, Republicans lost 24.3 percentage points and Democrats gained that same amount.
Primaries are different from general elections in terms of turnout, so inferences from the primary in 2020 to the general election underway have to reflect that difference.
In the March 1, 2016, Presidential Primary, 11,503 (53.6 percent) of the county’s 21,429 registered voters cast a ballot. Of these ballots, 2,341 (20.3 percent) were Democratic, and 9,162 (79.7 percent) were Republican
In the May 24, 2016, primary, 6,856 (30.8 percent) the county’s 22,255 registered voters cast a ballot. Of those, only 358 (5.2 percent) were Democratic, 6,446 were Republican (94.0 percent), and 52 (0.8 percent) were voters who only used the nonpartisan ballot
In the Nov. 8, 2016, general election, 20,476 (85.1 percent) of the county’s 24,058 registered voters cast a ballot. That is the election in which Trump got 67.4 percent vs. 28.0 percent for Clinton.
Turnout on June 9 of this year was 13,810 voters (48.3 percent of the 28,594 active voters). This included 3,757 Democratic votes (27.2 percent), 314 voters who only voted in the nonpartisan elections (2.2 percent), and 9,739 Republican votes.
Turnout, in short, reflects the votes for the presidential and senate primaries, showing big increases in Democratic votes.
More importantly, in 2016, Democrats did best in the high turnout election and poorest in the low turnout election.
In November of 2018, in the election U.S. Senate Candidate Tomlinson referenced in her comments to Democrats last year, Democrat Stacey Abrams got 29.0 percent of the vote in Oconee County, to Brian Kemp’s 69.8 and Libertarian Ted Metz’s 1.2.
Turnout in that race was high. Of the county’s 27,538 registered voters, 20,796 (75.5 percent) cast a ballot.
The comparisons suggest three things.
First, in high turnout elections, such as the one underway, Democrats have done better than in low turnout elections.
Second, the split between Democratic vote and Republican vote is somewhere around 30/70, not the 20/80 from the past.
The split was closest to 30/70 in November of 2016, but it was at that level again in the lower turnout June 9 combined presidential and state primary this year.
The split was roughly 30/70 in the 2018 gubernatorial race.
So the third conclusion is that the Democratic voting percent is increasing.
So the question for Tuesday is simple: Will that split 30/70 split hold, increase or decrease?
A secondary question is: What could it mean for local elections on Tuesday if the 30/70 split holds or changes?
When Senate Candidate Tomlinson, former Labor Commissioner Thurmond, State Sen. Cowsert and State Representatives Gaines and Wiedower were talking about the importance of Oconee County voters in the current election, they were not focused on county races.
Republicans hold all of the local offices in the county, and it is likely that will be true when the results of this election are announced as well.
But Democrats do have some candidates on the ballot in several key races, and that gives Democrats voting options they have not had in the past. It also shows the current re-emergence of the party.
In 2016, 10 county offices were up for election, and the Democrats did not have any candidates running in any of those races.
In 2018, two County Commission and two Board of Education Posts were up for election in the county. All were held by Republicans who were seeking re-election.
Two Democrats challenged the Board of Education incumbents, with one getting 26.4 percent of the vote and the other getting 26.7 percent.
This year, with 11 county races on the ballot, Democrats are running in two Board of Commissioner races and in two Board of Education races.
Eric Gisler is challenging incumbent John Daniell for chair of the Board of Commissioners.
Daniell had two challengers in the Republican Primary, which he won handily. The challenges were more conservative in the positions they took, and it isn’t likely their supporters will switch to Gisler. It is possible, of course, they won’t vote.
Gisler could get to something close to 30 percent in the current environment where ticket-splitting is not something many people want to do.
No one filed to run as a Democrat against Post 1 Commissioner Mark Thomas or Post 4 Commissioner Mark Saxon.
When the special election was announced to fill the unexpired term of the late Post 3 Commissioner William “Bubber” Wilkes, Jacob Douylliez qualified as a Democrat, and Amrey Harden and Aaron Nowak qualified as Republicans.
Nowak has challenged Harden from the right, exploiting a long-standing division in the local Republican Party. Nowak was explicit in this pitch in the candidate forum that three other citizens and I organized, but it also is in evidence in his campaign materials.
Douylliez, who hasn’t run much of a visible campaign, could garner something close to 30 percent because he is running as a Democrat, and Harden and Nowak could split the remainder of the vote so that neither got more than 50 percent of the vote.
In that case, the election would go into a runoff, and Douylliez, with 30 percent, could be a participant in the second round of voting.
School Board Races
School Board Chair Tom Odom didn’t draw any opposition in his bid for re-election, but Post 4 Member Tim Burgess did. Laura Ormes filed to run as a Democrat against him.
Wayne Bagley is stepping down from Post 5, and Joan Parker filed to run as a Democrat for the open seat. Michael Ransom defeated Adam Spence in the Republican primary on June 9 to run as the party’s nominee for that spot.
Under normal campaign circumstances, it might have been possible for Ormes and Parker to make broader, non-partisan cases for their election. The restrictions on campaigns resulting from COVID-19 have made that difficult.
The current Board sees itself as a promoter of the schools and as a supporter of Superintendent Jason Branch and his staff.
Burgess, in another forum run by myself and three colleagues, articulated that position, saying the Board should be concerned about fiscal issues but otherwise should turn things over to the superintendent to manage.
Burgess also was clear in saying it wasn’t the Board’s job to respond to citizens.
Ormes and Parker said the Board should be responsive to citizens and were more willing to question administrative decisions.
Ransom has fallen more in line with Burgess, who has endorsed him.
The vote tally on Tuesday will give some sense of whether voters, who have voiced frustration with the Board, are willing to split the ticket on this race, which really doesn’t have much in terms of partisan underpinnings.
District Attorney Race
The race for District Attorney for the Western Judicial District, which includes Oconee and Clarke counties, is an oddity on several counts.
It is a special election resulting from the decision by Ken Mauldin, a Democrat, to step down as District Attorney.
Deborah Gonzalez, an Athens attorney, and Brian Patterson, currently acting District Attorney and Oconee County resident, filed to run as Democrats. James Chafin, currently an assistant district attorney under Patterson and an Athens resident, chose to run without a party label.
No one filed to run as a Republican.
The three met early in the campaign at a candidate forum organized by The Oconee Enterprise and have spoken together or independently in subsequent settings.
Patterson has stated that he is running as a Democrat because he is a Democrat. Chafin has said he does not want politics to be a part of the operation of the District Attorney Office or his campaign.
The tally on Tuesday will tell where Republicans turn given those choices. A runoff is again a possibility.
House And Senate Districts
Oconee County voters can play key roles in House District 117 and House District 119 races and a lesser role in the Senate District 46 contest.
Prior to redistricting in the Republican controlled General Assembly in 2011, Oconee County was in tact and dominant in House District 113, which also contained parts of Clarke, Morgan, and Oglethorpe counties.
Doug McKillip, who had been elected as a Democrat in old House District 115, which was entirely in Clarke County, switched to the Republican Party prior to redistricting.
McKillip then helped rewrite the map so the new District 117 contained less of Clarke County and was made Republican by the addition of three precincts from Oconee County plus parts of Jackson and Barrow counties.
The remainder of Oconee County was joined with parts of Clarke County to make House District 119, with each county contributing roughly the same number of residents. Residents, not voters, are used in redistricting.
Senate District 46 was changed to make it more Republican by the subtraction of parts of Clarke County and the addition of parts of Walton County.
An underlying goal of both the House and Senate plans was to reduce the influence of Clarke County on the General Assembly, and Oconee County was a tool in the process.
Then County Commission Chair Melvin Davis, and others, spoke out strongly against the division of Oconee County, but to no avail.
Republicans controlled House District 117 and 119 until, in special elections in 2017, Gonzalez, now running as for District Attorney, defeated Gaines in the 117th, and Jonathan Wallace defeated Wiedower and Steven Strickland in the 119th.
Gaines and Wiedower then won rematch elections in 2018.
Mokah Jasmine Johnson is challenging Gaines in the 117th this year, and Wallace is challenging Wiedower in the 119th. Gaines and Johnson are from Athens. Wallace and Wiedower are from Oconee County.
Based on Sept. 1 registration data files, Clarke County makes up 56.8 percent of the 117th, Oconee contributes 22.6 percent of the voters, Jackson County contributes 13.0 percent, and Barrow County contributes 7.6 percent.
Clarke voters are 47.9 percent of the registered voters in House District 119, with Oconee County contributing 52.1 percent.
An analysis of the June 9 primary vote shows that Oconee County is crucial for both Gaines and Wiedower to hold on to their seats.
Cowsert is being challenged by Zach Perry, a law student from Athens, in the 46th Senate District.
Putting that District in play is a real long shot.
All county voters also are deciding if the county’s Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax should be renewed.
Given the subdued nature of the election because of the COVID-19 pandemic, no real controversy or opposition has arisen, and it has not been a part of any of the campaigns.
At the county level, it is a proposal for spending projects being proposed by incumbent Republicans. Each of the county’s four cities also have added projects to the funding list.
Watkinsville also will be electing three new council members in what officially is a nonpartisan race.
Current Mayor Bob Smith has been clear in arguing that he views it as partisan, and he has endorsed Carolyn Maultsby against Jeff Campbell in open Post 5 and Peter Steckel against incumbent Christine Tucker for Post 4.
Smith ran against the current Council, won by two votes, and has continued to feud with the body since assuming office in January.
Chris Summers and Brett Thomas are competing for Post 3, which is open.
Smith is a very visible supporter of President Trump, displaying signs for Maultsby, Steckel and Trump in his yard. Tuesday will tell how successful his strategy of making the race openly partisan and endorsing Maultsby and Steckel has been.
Watkinsville is only a part of the new precinct of City Hall, which is a combination of the old Annex and City Hall Precincts.
In 2016, City Hall precinct gave only 57.0 percent of its vote to Trump, and Annex gave 62.5 percent. Those two precincts were among the three lowest in the county in terms of vote for the president.
Chipping Away Or Expanding
The vote in the county in the County Commission, School Board, and legislative races will give some sense of whether Tomlinson and Thurmond were right in saying this was the year Democrats could expand their numbers in Oconee County or whether Cowsert, Gaines and Wiedower were successful to garnering more Republican support in the county.
The real reference point, however, is likely to be the vote in the two U.S. Senate races and in the contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
“We don’t have to flip Oconee County to win,” Tomlinson said.
“So we have to turn out the base," Thurmond said, "but at the same time, we have to reach out to people who may, quite frankly, just be sick of the leadership that’s being exhibited at the national level right now.”
“If we don’t get out and vote for them, it (a defeat) can happen,” Cowsert told Republicans, referring to Gaines and Wiedower.
Fran Leathers, director of Elections and Registration for Oconee County, assured those participating in the virtual session in early September that Oconee County voters at least will know the outcome of voting in the county several hours after polls close at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.