Republican State Rep. Mesha Mainor, formerly a Democrat, announces her new party allegiance. Party chairman John McKoon stands behind her. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Republican state Rep. Mesha Mainor, formerly a Democrat, announces her new party allegiance. Party chairman John McKoon stands behind her.

Credit: Ross Williams / Georgia Recorder

Controversial Republican state Rep. Mesha Mainor of Atlanta, formerly controversial Democratic state Rep. Mesha Mainor of Atlanta, announced she is switching parties Tuesday.

“This was not an easy decision,” she said at a conference beneath a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. outside the state Capitol. “I have been a Democrat my entire life. My family are Democrats. So this was not easy.”

Mainor, who was first elected in 2020, irked Democrats for her full-throated support of a failed school voucher policy which would have sent $6,500 of state money to families of children in the bottom 25% of Georgia schools to pull them out and educate them at home or in private schools. The bill will likely be revived and debated again in next year’s session.

State Sen. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat, was so irked that he offered a $1,000 campaign donation to anyone who decided to challenge Mainor in a primary.

But the irking did not stop when the session ended, as Mainor made appearances on conservative television to hammer Democrats for what she described as refusing to support families seeking a better education. Democrats contend that school vouchers take taxpayer money from public schools and send them to private institutions with no taxpayer accountability.

On Tuesday, Mainor said disagreements over bills on school vouchers, police funding and prosecutor oversight crossed into what she called slander and open hostility.

“What the Democrats are doing to me is not about how I’m voting,” she said. “The harassment and intimidation is much bigger than just three votes. It’s about fear, fear of an outsider coming to the capitol working for the people she came up here to serve.”

Mainor said she is now the first Black woman Republican to serve in the state legislature, and she plans to run for re-election next year in the same district, which would grant her the additional distinction of becoming the first Black woman Republican elected to serve in the Legislature.

But that could prove difficult. The newly minted Republican’s district voted for Democratic President Joe Biden by a margin of nearly 90% in the 2020 election, according to data from the City University of New York’s Redistricting and You.

And while polling suggests Black voters support school vouchers more than Democratic elected officials, Mainor 2024 has other impediments, said Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie.

“If this were just the school choice issue, if Rep. Mainor’s constituent services were exemplary, there may be a way for her to survive this,” she said. “But, one, she’s got unified Democratic opposition against her. She was going to face a primary challenge. And she’s also kind of deviated from the party line on issues related to voting rights, which I think is actually a much harder sell to Black communities and to her heavily Democratic constituency.”

Mainor crossed party lines to vote for a bill voting rights advocates say diluted Black representation in a south Georgia election commission.

Mainor’s joining of the fold was celebrated by prominent Republicans, with statements of support from Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, House Speaker John Burns and others. Mainor said she was scheduled to appear on the Sean Hannity program Tuesday evening to discuss her transition.

“Rep. Mainor has demonstrated a courage of her convictions that I admire,” said Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, one of the highest-profile supporters of the voucher bill. “She has fought to give choices to Georgia families trapped in failing public schools, and we welcome her to our team to continue fighting for educational opportunities for all of Georgia’s children.”

Mainor’s shift will change the party balance from 101 Republicans and 79 Democrats to 102-78, but she may be more useful to the GOP as a spokeswoman than as an extra voting member, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

“In the last several elections, there’s been talk of the Republican Party trying to have a bigger tent,” he said. “Remember last year, there were the outreach centers, one Black, one Hispanic, one Asian, that Republicans set up around Atlanta. And if she could be used as some kind of opening wedge, that might have some significance down the road in terms of elections. For example, if Donald Trump had gotten 1% more of the Black vote in 2020, he would have carried Georgia.”

In her first pitch to Black voters as a Republican, Mainor referenced the 1994 U.S. crime bill and what she characterized as a lack of improvement in Black communities under Democratic leadership.

“I am encouraging for Black Americans and Black Democrats in particular, you might have this coat on, I suggest you look at the label, see what is actually on the inside, look around you, see what has changed in your community,” she said.

Echoing other Black conservatives, Mainor suggested the Democratic Party takes Black voters for granted. That is an age-old discussion in Black communities, Gillespie said, but such messaging from Black conservatives can backfire if it becomes too heated or offensive.

“It’s a common trope, but the way that some Black conservatives or Black Republicans in particular use the idea that Blacks are captured to try to mobilize Black support actually ends up being ineffective because they frame it in a way that’s actually pretty offensive to a lot of African-Americans,” she said. “To suggest that folks are easily led, to suggest that folks are stuck on a plantation and to use that language and that imagery is actually something that ends up shutting down a conversation as opposed to actually starting a conversation.”

Gillespie said Mainor is in an extremely difficult position, and her only path to success lies in countering the Democratic narrative that she has not been responsive to their desires.

“She’s got to counter that in her own district, and she’s going to have to do that by being present in her community, by providing impeccable constituent services, by being responsive, and by building on the skills and the experience that she used to get elected to the state House in the first place,” Gillespie said.

Congresswoman Nikema Williams, chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia and former state lawmaker, called Mainor’s party-swap a “stinging betrayal of her constituents,” but she added that Democrats are expecting to win the seat back easily.

“House District 56 deserves a representative who will do the job they were elected to do, including fight for high-quality public education,” Williams said. “Georgia Democrats look forward to electing a strong Democrat next year in H.D. 56 who will serve the people, not personal political ambitions.”

Georgia Republican Party chairman and former state Sen. Josh McKoon, who stood at Mainor’s side as she made her announcement, pledged that the state Republican Party will support her reelection run.

“Rep. Mainor’s legislative priorities, along with others in the Republican Caucus are extremely important to the Georgia Republican Party and we’ll certainly do everything we can to be of assistance,” he said.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.