Can Amazon HQ2 Turn Georgia Blue?
If Amazon chooses Atlanta for its 50,000-job second national headquarters, it would become the state's largest employer. Besides the job and economic growth it could mean, Amazon can also supercharge the changing demographics of the once-reliably Republican state, and hand it to the Democrats.
“Amazon coming to Georgia could impact our political alignment," Robinson Republic President Brian Robinson said. Robinson is the former chief communications officer for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican who is in his final year in office. "The numbers are big enough and could make a difference.”
Democrats have gained ground every year in Republican-controlled state politics over the past few election cycles. In Georgia's 6th Congressional District — one of its most conservative — Republicans' margin of victory has shrunk from 60% in 2002 to less than 5% last year, according to Vox.
For statewide elections, Democrats are shy of about 200,000 votes to be competitive for the gubernatorial vote and other statewide seats, said Charles Bullock, the Richard B. Russell Professor of Political Science at the School for Public & International Affairs at the University of Georgia.
In some longtime Republican stalwart areas, such as Gwinnett and Cobb counties, President Donald Trump won against Hillary Clinton by a razor-thin margin, a big change from past presidential elections, Bullock said.
Bullock said depending on the number of employees Amazon brings to Georgia it has the potential to turn Georgia blue in future elections. Robinson said this has a cadre of conservatives in state politics concerned about the impact Amazon could have on future elections.
“It's not something you hear in passing,” he said. "It's something you hear consistently. It's on people's minds."
Amazon would not be the first time Georgia lured a major corporate headquarters. Companies that have planted flags in the Atlanta area include UPS, NCR and, more recently, Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot's North American headquarters.
Amazon is a different animal; those headquarters were house pets to Jeff Bezos' elephant.
With a projected 50,000 employees, the retail giant would become the metro area's top employer, eclipsing the three largest current employers: Delta Air Lines, which has nearly 32,000 employees; Emory University/Emory Healthcare with 26,000 employees; and The Home Depot with 25,000 employees.
Atlanta is among the 20 areas in North America being considered by Amazon for its $5B project, and many observers have put the metro region toward the top of the list of contenders, thanks to a relatively low cost of living, a deep talent pool and a business-friendly environment.
But recent incidents have some questioning whether Georgia could be making it harder — if not impossible — to win the biggest economic development race in a generation.
For one, the state legislature recently voted to remove a tax exemption for Delta after the airline eliminated a discount for the National Rifle Association — an organization that donates heavily to Republican campaigns — in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, shooting.
"The only thing I've read that makes me more confident is Atlanta and the shenanigans they pulled rescinding the tax abatements for Delta," Capitol Riverfront BID CEO Michael Stevens, whose neighborhood is included in one of D.C.'s proposed HQ2 sites, recently told Bisnow. "If those local and state officials want to shoot themselves in the foot, that's great."
There is a question as to how many of those 50,000 positions would be filled by Georgians versus by workers imported from other parts of the country. Bullock said the more Amazon employees migrating to Georgia, the greater the chance that their politics would be more progressive than that of the locals. And co-workers can have an influence on the politics of others, he said.
“The impact of you working there, and the leadership of your co-workers, who are much likely to talk positively about Democrats, is likely to rub off,” Bullock said.
PolicyBEST Executive Director and GOP consultant Charles Harper said the demographic shift taking place in Georgia — especially Metro Atlanta — has been evolving for years as a result of in-migration of people to the state.
Already, the metro area is adding some 100,000 people a year, which is doing more to centralize state politics than any one company ever could, said Harper, who also is the publisher of Georgiapol.com.
“The truth is, we're adding almost two Amazons a year,” he said. “We're moving a lot of these folks in, and they're younger and they're [more] liberal.”
University of Georgia political science professor Scott Ainsworth echoed that sentiment.
“As more people come into the state, it will become bluer on average,” Ainsworth said. "But that has nothing to do with Amazon."
The change has a lot to do with Atlanta's increasing racial diversity as well, Landmark Communications President Mark Rountree said. Rountree is a political consultant who focuses on GOP candidates. He has worked in more than 1,500 races in more than 20 years.
In 1996, 19% of Georgians who turned out to vote were African-American. Today that number is 30%, a number that has stayed consistent for the past few elections, Rountree said. About 95% of black voters support Democrats.
“If you start off with 30% of the voters African-American and 95% vote Democrat, you're really starting 28.5% of the vote. Which gives you some idea of the changes going on,” Rountree said. “Georgia's already on a trajectory to become more racially diverse and more Democratic. It's been happening every year."
Georgia state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Republican whose district covers portions of Cobb County's most conservative jurisdictions, said she and other Republicans are unconcerned about Amazon's influence over voter demographics in the state.
“I just don't buy the premise that it's necessarily going to change the political landscape in Georgia,” Kirkpatrick said. “Those people [hired by Amazon] are going to be people who are educated, and they're going to have good-paying jobs. I think most employers don't impose their political views on their employees.”
While it was not clear, it could be assumed that many, if not a majority, of the employees hired by Amazon for HQ2 would be among the millennial generation, a cohort of the U.S. population that is identifying more liberal Democrat than older generations, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.
There are elements bubbling under the surface of an anti-Amazon element in Georgia. A website called AtlantaAgainstAmazon.org recently went live, citing problems such as housing affordability and exacerbated congestion as reasons to reject Amazon's overtures, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.
For Robinson, many of his Republican colleagues sweep aside any concern about political impacts simply because most of Georgia's key power structure is gunning to win Amazon to the state.
“I can tell you at the top people want us to win this,” Robinson said.
In the end, Robinson said attracting Amazon has little to do with 50,000 jobs.
“It's about telling the world that we've arrived. That we're worthy. That this is the place that the biggest of businesses take seriously,” he said. “We want to be seen as a place in the Southeast as a hub of a technology economy and to further separate ourselves from the rest of the Southeast. And to me, that's bigger than Democrat or Republican politics.”