Tonight, the Georgia GOP has scheduled its election night victory party at the spiffy new College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. It’s a stunningly obvious choice for an event that will be spent tabulating wins and losses and analyzing statistics—if from Nate Cohn and Nate Silver, rather than the AP or coaches. Plus, if, as anticipated, the night drags on, attendees can amuse themselves by browsing the exhibits or doing fight song karaoke. It’s also a stunningly obtuse choice: The only more testosterone-filled venue the Georgia Republicans could have selected that better symbolized their status as a (mostly white) boys’ club would be the Atlanta Motor Speedway. (And before you start writing me emails about the number of African American players in college football, let me remind you that’s a relatively recent phenomenon; the SEC wasn’t integrated until the late 1960s.)
And this gets to why today’s races in Georgia are closer than anyone would have projected a year ago. In sports terms, 2014 is the GOP’s to lose. In a conservative state that favors incumbents, governor Nathan Deal should be polling above the needed 50 percent against challenger Jason Carter. He’s not—and hasn’t for a year. In a state that hasn’t sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate for decades, former Dollar General and Reebok CEO David Perdue has been statistically tied with Michelle Nunn, CEO of the nonprofit Points of Light and daughter of Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn.
You can argue about campaign strategists and outside money and the candidates’ resumes and who used social media better. And each candidate has made mistakes. But here’s the reason these races are so tight: The GOP candidates simply don’t reflect Georgia. While the state has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, the governor has doubled down on optimism. In a state with the highest unemployment rate in the nation, Perdue’s record of outsourcing stings and his dismissive remarks about gender wage discrimination have hurt him. With an all-white, all-male slate of candidates for the down-ticket statewide offices, the Republicans don’t have anyone in the race that represents a state where only 55 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white and where 51 percent of residents are female. The Georgia Democrats, on the other hand, have a history-making slate of five African-American female candidates, including Valarie Wilson, whose bid for State School Superintendent right now looks like the surest bet for a Democratic victory today.
And that takes us to the Hyatt Regency, where Carter and Nunn’s election night parties are scheduled. This might not be a stunningly obvious choice (for that, they should have booked the spiffy new Center for Civil and Human Rights) but it’s a historically significant one. The Hyatt was one of the first hotels in Atlanta to fully integrate and for decades has been the venue of choice for local, state, and national civil rights groups. The Hyatt is where the SCLC met in 1967 and where the annual King Center Salute to Greatness dinner is held (in 2015, the event will honor one William Jefferson Clinton). By convening here, the Democrats’ closer-than-anticipated bids are placed into the historic struggle for voting rights in Georgia.
Most predictions have the Republicans winning today—or at least favored to win the eventual run-offs. If Nunn, Carter, and Wilson secure victories tonight, it will be the kind of upset that secures players and coaches spots in a hall of fame. But the fact that this election has become such a close contest means one thing for sure: The face of Georgia politics will change, if not this year, then in 2016.
Correction: The original post stated that the Hyatt also hosts the Mayor’s Masked Ball benefiting UNCF. That has recently been hosted at the Marriott Marquis.