April 29, 2021
Reading time: 3 minutes, 44 seconds

Few people could have predicted that Georgia would end up playing such a pivotal role in the 2020 presidential and senate elections. Even the University of West Georgia’s Dr. Karen Owen, a regular commentator and panelist on NPR’s “Political Rewind,” was a bit surprised.

“I think most people thought it was on the horizon,” said Owen, assistant professor of political science and the director of UWG’s Thomas B. Murphy Center for Public Service. “As researchers, we knew it was probably coming because of the demographic changes and the messaging and policy issues that were affecting the state. But I was a little surprised that it occurred in 2020.”

Karen Owen

The Murphy Center is a non-partisan, educational and community-engaged organization that promotes civic engagement through enriching programs. For example, the center sponsors trips to the Georgia Capitol for students to witness the state's legislative session in action and partners with student organizations to host voter registration drives before major elections.

Owen recently joined forces with Dr. Charles S. Bullock III, a renowned professor of political science at UGA, to write “Special Elections: The Backdoor Entrance to Congress,” which analyzes all special elections since 1945, with particular emphasis on one that occurred in 2017-18. It’s a text she uses often in her American government classes on elections and campaigns. 

“We both were very interested in the 6th district race at the time between Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff because we live really close,” she detailed. “We also knew people who were working for the candidates, so we decided to explore that contest. Because we were able to interview campaign managers, we were able to really look at the different margins and explain those features to students. And because it’s in Georgia, they feel more connected.”

It’s the ability for Americans to effect change that drove Owen to become involved in political science and public administration.

“As an undergraduate, I was a really good history/government student,” she shared. “I loved the reverence that is placed on the American government system and how unique it is. I loved that it educates people about how the system works and how they can be involved. We are very fortunate in America to have this great governmental system that allows us to have freedoms and liberties.”

After graduating from the University of Georgia with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public administration, Owen worked as a legislative assistant to then-Georgia Congressman Nathan Deal for two years on Capitol Hill. Upon her return to Atlanta, she began her role as a public health legislative analyst for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“While I was working at the CDC, everyone around me was super smart,” Owen recalled. “Here I was with a master’s degree, but I felt completely underqualified. So I left the CDC and returned to school to receive my Ph.D. in political science. My goal was to end back up in public policy work, but then I started to love teaching.” 

She taught at UGA and founded the Master of Public Administration program at Reinhardt University, where she wrote “Women Officeholders and the Role Models Who Pioneered the Way,” which examines the motivation of female state legislators to run for Congress and state governorships.

Shortly after her arrival at UWG in 2017, Owen was asked to participate on “Political Rewind,” an NPR radio program hosted by Georgia Public Broadcasting that reviews and analyzes recent developments in Georgia politics.

“UWG’s University Communications and Marketing reached out and asked if anyone would be interested in going on the show as a guest speaker,” she said. “Two weeks later, I was called by [host] Bill Nigut to be on the show. I was so nervous. Ever since then, he’s been so kind to extend invitations; I have been on the show every two or three weeks.”

And as for what will be the lasting impact of the 2020 election and how it might impact future elections?

“We will probably see more people engaged and wanting to run for office, on both sides,” she concluded. “We're going to see more competitive races where a lot of money will have to be raised. I think another big thing we have to pay attention to is what will happen at the end of this year, which is redistricting and how the legislature and the governor will redraw the lines for Congress, the state House and state Senate. That will tell us much about the future of politics for the state.”