Woodall on track to hold onto 7th District seat

Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, left, and incumbent Republican Rob Woodall. The two are locked in a tight race to represent Georgia's 7th Congressional District.

Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, left, and incumbent Republican Rob Woodall. The two are locked in a tight race to represent Georgia's 7th Congressional District.

Lawrenceville Congressman Rob Woodall appeared to narrowly clinch a fifth term in the U.S. House late Thursday in a rapidly diversifying suburban district he had won comfortably just two years ago.

The Republican was on track to eke out a 419-vote win over Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux after the Gwinnett elections board finalized its election results during a tension-filled meeting.

Woodall’s slim lead in the 7th District puts the race well within recount territory, an avenue the Georgia State University professor previously suggested she would pursue after the state certifies the results. Georgia law allows a candidate to request a recount if they are trailing by less than 1 percent of the vote.

“We will carefully review the results tonight and discuss how to proceed,” said Bourdeaux spokesman Jake Best.

Woodall said he was “excited and humbled” by the election results.

“Now, we must turn our attention from elections to service, from those things that divide us to those things that make us stronger,” he said in a statement.

The results capped off a hectic day in which Bourdeaux unsuccessfully sought to compel Gwinnett to count more discarded absentee ballots, and activists locked horns as the county elections board huddled.

Last-minute motions

Earlier Thursday, a federal judge had denied Bourdeaux's emergency request for the county to tally absentee ballots that had address and signature issues.

In a motion filed Thursday morning, Bourdeaux pointed to what she saw as major discrepancies in the way absentee ballots were counted in Gwinnett and Forsyth County, which also lies within the 7th District. She said Gwinnett voters were 10 times more likely to have their absentee ballots “rejected for trivial errors” than their counterparts in Forsyth, a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

“Because the Equal Protection Clause prevents states from ‘valu(ing) one person’s vote over that of another’ by ‘arbitrary and disparate treatment’ … the voters in one Gwinnett County cannot be made to cast votes that are less likely to be counted than votes cast in other counties in Georgia,” Bourdeaux’s motion stated.

U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May swiftly denied Bourdeaux's request, calling it tantamount to "simply repackag(ing) prior arguments" from a previous request, and dismissed the comparison to Forsyth out of hand.

“Even with this newly discovered evidence,” May wrote, “the entirety of (Bourdeaux’s) legal argument on their equal protection claim still rests on a single sentence without any detailed analysis of the complicated legal principles the Court must resolve.”

In Gwinnett, 183 7th District ballots were rejected for address issues, signature problems, or some combination of multiple issues of which address or signature was one of them, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis.

Contentious meeting

Also on Thursday, Gwinnett elections officials tabulated a trove of several hundred other ballots that May had previously ordered to be re-evaluated for signature mismatch issues and missing or erroneous birthdate information, as well as a few outstanding provisional ballots.

The scene ahead of the election board’s meeting quickly grew tense Thursday evening as activists and advocates from both sides of the voting rights debate shouted at each other and waved signs. Much of the rhetoric centered on the outstanding gubernatorial race between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams.

During a recess, the election board’s chairman, Stephen Day, played hall monitor and said he would bring in police to maintain the peace.

“I would ask that we act like mature adults,” Day said.

A handful of Gwinnett County sheriff’s deputies later arrived and stayed through the remainder of the meeting.

Before the results were announced, Day delivered a lengthy monologue defending his elections staff but also calling for the state to better define election law and what dictates a ballot to be discarded.

“I hope the state legislature in the upcoming session will address these issues and aggressively provide law that allows for fair, equitable, clear, easy and consistent interpretation across all 159 counties,” he said.

Federal Judge Steve Jones ruled late Wednesday that all Georgia counties should count absentee ballots that were rejected solely because of birthdates. Gwinnett was already re-evaluating such ballots in accordance with a previous order directed solely at the county.

Suburban woes

Even though Woodall appeared to hold onto his seat, the close results were another ominous sign for the GOP in Atlanta suburbs it had once dominated.

Democrats had long struggled to recruit viable political challengers in the 7th, where Woodall regularly cruised to reelection with upwards of 60 percent of the vote.

But Hillary Clinton’s narrow win in the majority-minority Gwinnett in 2016 inspired no fewer than six Democrats to challenge Woodall this spring. And Abrams’ 14-point victory in the county, as well as Democrats’ success flipping the nearby 6th Congressional District and roughly a dozen suburban statehouse seats last week, will undoubtedly make the 7th a tempting target in 2020.

Bourdeaux was a political neophyte when she announced her congressional run last year. She hinged her campaign on health care and attacked Woodall for being out of step with the district on immigration and insurance protection for people with pre-existing conditions.

Woodall campaigned on sunny messages of political unity, his office's constituent service work and the benefits of unified GOP control of Washington.

Ahead of Election Day, Woodall worried Republican operatives in because of his low-key style. He rejected many of the fixtures of modern congressional campaigns, including Twitter and attack ads, and had trouble keeping up with Bourdeaux's fundraising.

In an interview earlier this week, Woodall defended his style and insisted he wouldn’t change his tactics in 2020.

“Folks value relationships over 30-second commercials, and I would encourage you to go back and look ... at folks who spent multi-million dollars trying to create their brand and attack their opponent and us,” he said Tuesday. “What you’re going to find is my voters came out in larger numbers. My voters didn’t leave.”

Staff writer Jennifer Peebles contributed to this article.