By Rich McKay
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Five black women are on the November ballot for statewide offices in Georgia, a record in a state that just 11 years ago featured a Confederate battle emblem on its flag.
The candidates, all Democrats, have come to be known as the "Georgia Five." Political commentators say that while only one of them has a real shot at cracking the Republican stronghold on statewide offices in Georgia, their nominations signal a shift in where the state's politics are headed.
"It's a sign of tremendous change happening right now in Georgia politics," said Sean Richey, an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University. "I'd say within 10 years that Georgia will turn from a reliable Republican state to a battleground state."
An increase in minority residents is playing a role. In 2000, Georgia was 65 percent white and 35 percent black and non-white. Now the state is about 54 percent white and 46 percent black and non-white, according to 2013 U.S. Census estimates.
The old-guard whites voted mostly Republican, but blacks and other non-whites tend to vote Democratic, Richey said. An influx of white voters from northern states is further tipping the balance toward Democrats in Georgia.
Most attention in Georgia this election cycle has been focused on its governor and the U.S. Senate races, where Democrats have proven competitive in their fight to wrest control of those seats from the Republican party.
The "Georgia Five" are hoping enthusiasm among Democratic voters about those races might give them a boost in their tough down-ticket contests in the Nov. 4 elections.
Four of the women face entrenched incumbents with vastly larger campaign war chests. In the secretary of state race, for instance, Republican incumbent Brian Kemp raised $1.06 million compared with candidate Doreen Carter's $10,000.
Carter said despite having little to spend, she has been encouraged by the largest-ever slate of black female candidates. Her colleagues are running for lieutenant governor, state school superintendent, insurance commissioner and labor commissioner.
"We didn't set out to be the Georgia Five, it just happened," she said. "But it feels like something different is happening in politics, not just in Georgia, but the whole country. Look who our president is."
The change is happening in a state where the Confederate emblem - viewed by some in the South as a symbol of southern soldiers' valor but by many as a relic of the disgraced institution of slavery - was voted off the state flag only in 2001 and finally removed in 2003.
MORE BLACK CANDIDATES
Nationally, a record number of African-American candidates were nominated by major parties this year for federal and statewide offices, according to political scientist David Bositis.
There are 83 black candidates at the federal level, up from the previous high of 72 in 2012, when the first black U.S. president, Barack Obama, won re-election, Bositis found. In Utah, Mia Love appears poised to become the first black Republican woman elected to Congress.
There are 26 black nominees for statewide offices, up from 17 in 2002, said Bositis, who notes that many of the increases occurred in states where whites are leaving the Democratic party.
Among the "Georgia Five," Valarie Wilson, who is running for state school superintendent, is considered to have the best shot at winning.
Wilson, a past president of the Georgia School Boards Association, far out-raised her Republican opponent, high school teacher and administrator Richard Woods, and won the endorsement of Georgia's current state school superintendent, a Republican.
"Our candidacy, and the (Georgia) Five is indicative of how Georgia as a state is going," said Wilson campaign spokeswoman Lillian Govus. "The majority of students in this state are non-whites. African-American women are a key demographic of Georgia. It only makes sense that the candidates reflect the voters."
William Boone, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University, agrees change is afoot but expects Republicans will continue to dominate the Georgia political scene in the near future.
“We have five black women nominated by a major party for statewide office. You can't underestimate that," Boone said. But, he added, “Not to put a damper on things, this state will remain a white, Republican stronghold for now.”
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Frances Kerry)