ATLANTA (AP) — Republicans sought to capitalize on their political power in Georgia on Monday, adding a new congressional district in the conservative northeast corner of the state and forcing Savannah Democrat John Barrow into a fight for his political survival.
State lawmakers unveiled a redrawn congressional map Monday as they finish the once-a-decade task of redistricting to adjust political boundaries to new U.S. Census data. Georgia earned a new House seat because of its growing population, most notably in north Georgia.
Population losses in the southern part of the state also shuffled the district lines in that region, creating a new majority-black district in the area. The proposed map now puts all four black House members in such a district.
The new district covers all or parts of 20 counties in northeast Georgia, including the state's power base of Hall County — home to Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.
Currently, Georgia's 13-member congressional delegation has an 8-5 Republican majority. The proposed map could increase that advantage to 10-4, if Barrow loses in southeast Georgia and the new northeast Georgia district goes Republican as expected.
Republicans have made huge gains in Georgia since the last full round of redistricting, when Democrats led the state. The GOP now holds every statewide office and the majority in both legislative chambers, giving them control of the partisan map-making process for the first time.
William Perry, head of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said he was disappointed with the partisan nature of the map.
"It was obviously drawn to strengthen political parties, not to represent constituents or communities of interest," he said.
Before the maps can be approved, they are subject to federal scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act, which is designed to protect African-American voters. Deal, a former congressman, said he thinks the maps are fair and will pass muster with the Justice Department or federal courts.
"I think they represent as nearly as possible the communities of interest across the state," Deal said. "I think the map satisfies the (Voting Rights Act) requirements very well."
Deal pointed out gains for black voters in the southwest Georgia district represented by U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, which he called "a move in the right direction."
But Barrow, the last remaining white Democrat in the U.S. House from the Deep South, is effectively drawn out of the 12th district he represents in southeast Georgia.
The Savannah lawmaker would either need to run against U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston in the 1st District along the coast, or run in the new 12th District that stretches from Augusta south through mainly rural areas to Coffee County.
The 12th district currently is 45 percent black. The new 12th district would be 36 percent black. Blacks tend to vote reliably Democratic.
Kingston said he's a known quantity in Chatham and Effingham counties, which would become part of his district in the new map.
"Savannah is an eclectic place and I've done business here and lived here for the last 35 years," he said.
It is the second time Barrow has been made politically homeless by redistricting. Lawmakers also carved him out of his district in 2005, when he then moved from Athens to Savannah and eked out a narrow victory. Barrow, a conservative Democrat who is a perpetual target for Republicans, has also faced primary challenges from the left.
The four-term congressman showed no signs of backing down Monday, saying he looked forward to meeting his new constituents.
"This isn't the first time the folks in Atlanta have put politics above the interests of the people I represent . and I doubt it will be the last," he said in a statement. "But I've always believed that working hard for the people trumps politics every time."
University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said Barrow faces a challenge.
"It's a more difficult district for him to hold on to than what he's had," Bullock said. "And he's added new territory ... it's the equivalent of it being an open seat in those areas. He hasn't represented those people. He has to go introduce himself."
Bullock said Barrow's loss of African-American voters, who have been critical to his base, could threaten his survival. He could also face trouble if Georgia has another Republican year like in 2010. Translating his incumbency into hefty fundraising will be key to Barrow's staying in office, Bullock said.
Bishop's 2nd District would become the state's fourth majority-black district, and the proposed plan adds much of Bibb County — which has a sizeable African-American population — to Bishop's territory.
In a telephone interview on Monday, Bishop was cautiously optimistic about the map and said he had not yet had an opportunity to analyze the proposed changes.
"This is very early in the process," Bishop said before heading to a town hall meeting in Columbus. "I have to reserve any judgment on what has been offered."
Bishop, who was first elected in 1992 and will seek his 10th term next year, said he doesn't worry about the district's racial makeup.
"I started out with a district with a plurality of black voters," Bishop said. "After redistricting, I ended up with a smaller number. So that has gone up and down over the years. My focus is on representing whomever is in the 2nd congressional district to the best of my ability."
In other proposed changes, U.S. Rep. Tom Graves would see his north Georgia district shift to the northwest corner of the state, and U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey would represent part of the upscale Atlanta neighborhood of Buckhead. He would take territory from U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat, whose district would become more heavily African-American. Buckhead is a popular fundraising stop for politicians of both parties.
Also on Monday, House and Senate redistricting committees approved each other's maps. The plans, which together redraw district lines for 236 state legislators, now head to both chambers for a vote. They could be on the floor this week.