Situated in central Georgia, Washington County rarely breaks national headlines. With a population shy of 20,000, the county ranks among the least populated in Georgia.
That said, Washington County has a distinct trait – being a political bellwether for the state. While the county used to be more left than the state as a whole, its shift rightwards while the state lurches leftward caused it to vote for the winner of the 2018 and 2022 Gubernatorial elections, both winners in the 2021 run-offs, and 2020, when it narrowly voted for Joe Biden.
With the high-stakes Georgia Senate run-off on the brink, this county will be an important one to watch.
Why should I care?
After reading the beginning, you might be wondering why this county matters. A candidate could easily get romped in this County and still win statewide. However, the reason Washington County matters is that it is a puzzle piece. On its own, its electoral strength is insignificant, but coupled with other counties, it shows similarities with a total amount of area that could swing the election.
Southern Georgia used to vote Democrat staunchly, fueled by white social conservatives with more liberal stances on fiscal issues. The Democratic politicians of this era usually reciprocated those values and were almost always white. When southern Georgia started voting increasingly Republican, there were still swaths of blue on the map.
While there were still some, the amount of white Democrats in southern Georgia has quickly shrunk. Even in 2012, there were still signs of residual strength for Democrats, such as Democratic incumbent John Barrow winning re-election to a rural white congressional district. Nowadays, that strength has almost shrunk to zero. There are few white legislators elected in Georgia south of Atlanta nowadays, but there are still islands of blue. This is because while the white voters of southern Georgia have abandoned Democrats, for the most part, African-American voters have not.
While most of these voters are concentrated in the larger cities of southern Georgia, many reside in smaller counties. Take Randolph County, for example, donning a voting-age population of fewer than 5,000 voters. With whites only constituting roughly 39% of the electorate, the county heavily breaks for the Democratic slate.
In the 2022 general election, these counties generally had weak turnout. While Democrats held their own in the Atlanta metropolitan area, they struggled in southern Georgia. The more significant population hubs failed to break big numbers, but so did the rural counties like Randolph. Their electoral power is limited on their own, but when combined with the large number of counties similar to Randolph, it makes a difference. It is one primary reason why Raphael Warnock did not win re-election outright in November.
Washington County has roughly tacked in line with the state, but Republican nominee Herschel Walker did carry the county in November by around 1%. This was not an outlier, but a trend throughout. The electorate in November was likely redder than in 2020. Warnock’s first-round victory is mainly because he flipped swing voters, many also giving their support to Republican Governor Brian Kemp in his big re-election victory.
In the run-off, this same bloc of voters will likely show up but may be more inclined to back Walker based on reasons like the Democrats retaining control of the Senate. On the other hand, the 50-50 split agitates Democrats, and the party desperately wants to nab a functional majority.
What is the data telling us?
The current data is very promising for Democrats. While Republicans can take solace in some factors, most of the data isn’t promising for them. Every credible pollster has shown Warnock ahead, including some GOP firms who projected a red wave in November.
The early voting data is also promising for Democrats, with black turnout being a couple of points higher in the early voting period than in November. Looking at why it is interesting as some of the more concerning trendiness for Dems have been in Atlanta, where turnout is 3% below the statewide average currently. One area Democrats are happy about is the areas mentioned above. Medium-sized cities like Columbus are pulling their weight, and the smaller blue counties have followed suit.
Washington County currently has a majority-minority population of around 54%. The electorate will almost certainly be whiter, but by how much is crucial. If the turnout differentials by race are minimal in the run-off, then Warnock likely has Washington locked in. However, if the turnout gets as white as it did in November, Walker probably holds the county for team red.
The early-voting data in Washington County shows white voters currently making up 46% of the early electorate. Democrats should like this number but hope the white share of the voter doesn’t get much higher than that.
Washington County will be an essential county to watch, but most of the race will be watched in the Atlanta metro. While that region will paint a picture, areas like Washington County will finish that. Pay attention to not only who wins the sparsely-populated majority-minority counties of southern Georgia to see not who wins them, but by how much. Furthermore, eyeball the raw vote totals, as if they are low, that is concerning for Warnock.