The Gwinnett Republican who could reshape GA politics for a decade

Republican politicians in Gwinnett County are practically an endangered species, but one will have a huge seat at the table when maps are redrawn this year

State Rep. Bonnie Rich (R) first arrived at the Gold Dome in 2016. Though she has kept a relatively low profile since being elected, the Suwanee attorney will soon have a very important role in reshaping Georgia politics for the next decade: this year, state lawmakers will convene to redraw Georgia’s political maps in the decennial redistricting process, and Rich is the chair of the House redistricting committee.

The decline of Gwinnett County Republicans

Rich finds herself in an interesting position because she is from a county where many consider Republican politicians to be on borrowed time: Gwinnett County. Located about 30 miles northeast of Atlanta, Gwinnett was once considered a bastion of Republican politics. GOP presidential candidates would easily win the county every four years, it had a majority-Republican state legislative delegation, and all of the countywide offices were occupied by Republicans.

These days, however, Gwinnett is ground zero of the ongoing political and racial earthquake unfolding in Georgia: thanks to a soaring minority population, Democrats have made gains in the county that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. Not only have Democrats have formed an impressive majority in the county’s state legislative delegation, but the county commission is now entirely Democratic after comprising of all Republicans as recently as 2017.

As she watches Democrats make gains in her own backyard, Rich will be tasked with leading the effort to cement Republican dominance in state government for the next decade. Though Democrats notched impressive statewide victories in last year’s elections, Republicans will control the redistricting process because they remain in control of both chambers of the state legislature plus the governor’s office. But those legislative majorities are not as solid as they were at the start of the decade: In 2013, Republicans held a 119-60 majority in the 180-member House and a 38-18 majority in the 56-member Senate. But those majorities have narrowed to 103-77 and 34-22, respectively, fueled by Democratic gains in suburban counties such as Gwinnett.

The tasks Rich faces

Rich will also bring a unique perspective to the drawing board as one of a handful of Republicans from competitive districts. She is one of a dozen Republican state lawmakers who represent districts that voted for Joe Biden, according to calculations from Daily Kos Elections. Rich was re-elected by a narrow four percentage points last November while Biden carried the 97th district by three. It was a reversal of the 2018 governor race, when Brian Kemp won the district by more than five points.

Rich exemplifies the difficult task ahead of Georgia Republicans as they prepare to reconfigure the state’s political boundaries. Recent political and demographic changes in metro Atlanta’s northern suburbs have swept Republican politicians out of office, from the congressional level all the way down to the county/local level. Republicans know that the wind is not at their back, and they will fight tooth and nail to protect their most vulnerable lawmakers, including Rich.

The task ahead of Rich is not going to be easy. Her own political implications aside, the entire Republican caucus is relying on her to prevent the ripple effects of recent statewide Democratic victories from trickling down to the Gold Dome. The way I see it, I think it’s important to have a voice like Rich’s at the table when maps are redrawn. A Republican from increasingly hostile turf could have invaluable suggestions on how to stave off future Democratic gains, as opposed to a Republican from an area like the North Georgia mountains.

Rich will also have the advantage — or what some may see as a disadvantage — of being a woman in a Republican caucus that has long been dominated by white men. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, we can all agree that if there’s one thing that male politicians love more than anything, it’s power. It remains to be seen how much input Rich’s male colleagues will have in the process. It’s unlikely that the party out of power will be satisfied with the final maps, but you may have some members of the majority party who may take issue with living a couple of precincts over from their new district. Some may also dread the thought of having to run against one of their colleagues in a primary because they both now live in the same district.

“I think she’ll do fine”

I spoke anonymously with a former Republican state lawmaker from Gwinnett County about the task that Rich faces. “With the stakes so high, there will be a laser focus on every single step of the process,” he said. “Also, no matter how the maps are drawn the Dems are going to be appalled because that is how they can continue to drive the narrative.” He says that while she may be in a tight spot, all she can do is the job she’s been given to do to the best of her ability. “I think she’ll do fine,” he concluded.

Rich is going to catapult from being a quiet state lawmaker to a very powerful one. Over the next several months, the decisions that she will make as chair of the redistricting committee could have ramifications for the next decade. She represents a competitive district herself, so she will have to address the interests of her Republican colleagues before she can think about addressing her own. It’s a difficult line to walk, so it will be rather interesting to see how she does it.