Lucy McBath, the Sixth District and a wave of Democratic women

Credit: David Barnes

Credit: David Barnes

Lucy McBath is a former flight attendant, a mother who lost a son to a burst of senseless gun violence, and the very personification of the suddenly beefed-up ambitions that Georgia Democrats have for 2018.

Democratic women, especially.

Recruiters had long eyed McBath as the perfect, down-ticket candidate to offer a November challenge to state Rep. Sam Teasley, a Republican from Marietta who has held onto his swing district for the last eight years.

Late Thursday morning, McBath indeed put her name on the Democratic primary ballot for May 22. But as a candidate for Congress who aims to face down U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, R-Roswell, in the general election.

McBath’s reasons for going straight for the graduate degree in American politics: A “cultural shift” created by President Donald Trump, a school massacre in Parkland, Fla., and the recent tussle between the NRA and her former employer, Delta Air Lines.

“Enthusiasts and hunters – as long as you’re using your weapons properly, you have a right to do so,” McBath said. “But we cannot let vigilantes continue to run our country, using their guns any way that they want, based on loopholes in our existing gun laws.”

McBath joined a record number of female candidates who signed up as candidates for local, state and federal offices last week.

Since Trump’s inauguration last year, and the massive women’s marches that followed, Democrats have predicted a backlash in November 2018. But waves don’t just happen. Candidates are required. They must be recruited and somewhat trained in their would-be profession. They must learn the fine art of asking both friends and strangers for money.

Qualifying week at the state Capitol was the first concrete proof that Democrats in Georgia might benefit from a national, mid-term realignment. The swell of the wave was quickly evident.

Two years ago, for instance, 19 women signed up for state Senate races over a five-day period. Twelve were Democrats. This year, both those bars were surpassed by Tuesday. Ultimately, Senate Democrats fielded 26 candidates. The Republican caucus generated two fewer women candidates than in 2016.

By Friday, Democrats in the state Capitol were also putting the finishing touches on 121 competitive state House races, up from 82 in 2016. Their chances will be boosted by the fact that 17 current House members aren’t seeking re-election – a relatively high rate of turnover. Of those, 16 are Republicans.

House Minority Leader Bob Trammell of Luthersville said this year’s crop of candidate recruits have two things in common. One is their gender. Two thirds of House Democratic candidates will be women. And they will be new to politics. “That’s certainly a common thread. They haven’t done this before, but can’t sit on the sidelines anymore,” he said.

Georgia’s female wave isn’t wholly Democratic. State Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, indeed has a Democratic challenger, Bill Lightle, a retired teacher. But Harbin also has a GOP primary challenger in Tricia Stearns, a local Realtor backed by business interests. Harbin’s district includes Pinewood Studios, which has become an economic powerhouse in the region. And Harbin has been a supporter of “religious liberty” legislation opposed by the movie industry.

But back to the Sixth District congressional race and the rise of Democratic women in Georgia.

With enthusiasm comes volatility and uncertainty. Already, the anti-Trump backlash and its sister, the #MeToo movement, have required Democrats to reassess the influence of both African-Americans and women within its power circles.

In Georgia, the Democratic race for governor between Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans – the former black, the latter white – has prompted a sharp internal debate over how primaries should be fought, and how general elections might be won.

Lucy McBath’s entry into the Sixth District race may require a similar conversation. Two well-funded Democrats, former CBS46 anchor Bobby Kaple and businessman Kevin Abel, were already in the race and have raised significant funds. (A fourth candidate, Steven Knight Griffin, also qualified last week.)

Democratic leaders in the area tell us that they were given no warning of McBath’s decision to join the contest, despite the fact that Kaple and Abel have been quietly soliciting important endorsements. U.S Rep Cedric Richmond, D-La., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, held a quiet fundraiser for Kaple last month.

It gets more complicated. McBath is African-American. Kaple and Abel are white. The Sixth District, for those of you who have lost track since last year’s epic showdown between Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff, is drawn to ensure GOP control. More than 70 percent of the voters in the Sixth are white. Some 13 percent are black.

McBath argues that the issue of gun violence, especially in schools, transcends both race and age, to her advantage. “We are now seeing a whole new generation, whole new demographics of young voters who are standing up and saying, enough is enough – our lives are important,” she said shortly after qualifying.

To the degree that Sixth District voters are protective of some of the best public high schools in the state, she may be right.

McBath has a compelling story. In 2012, her son Jordan Davis was shot and killed at a gas station in Jacksonville, Fla., by a white man who objected to the music Davis was playing in his car. The shooter used Florida’s stand-your-ground law as his defense, but was ultimately convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

McBath is now a national spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. She was in Kentucky, lobbying against a bill to permit guns on college campuses in that state, when the 19-year-old gunman walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

She declared herself appalled by our GOP-controlled state Legislature’s decision to strip her former employer of a jet fuel tax credit when, reacting to the Parkland massacre, Delta sought to distance itself from the NRA. “I was so angry that they would attack Delta for putting public safety over profit,” she said.

But it was a recent Republican attempt in Washington, which would have wed a Democratic call for improved background checks for gun purchases to an NRA-backed provision to loosen concealed carry restrictions across the nation, that finally pushed McBath to set her sights on Washington — and Karen Handel.

“I’ve been on Capitol Hill, and I’ve been at these hearings,” McBath said. “And I’ve watched her sit there and be silent.”

There is a risk in making the Sixth District race a single-issue contest. Handel’s biography includes the unhappy fact that she had to leave home as a teenager, after an alcoholic mother pointed a gun at her.

And yet Handel received high marks from the NRA in last year’s contest against Ossoff. And she has shown herself comfortable around firearms in previous campaigns. A 2010 run for governor took her through the Heckler & Koch arms plant in Columbus. Her campaign eagerly sent out photos of the visit.

The question may become whether a discussion of Second Amendment rights and obligations in a Republican primary is different from one that occurs in a general election climate — one in which ticked-off suburban women of all colors play a central role.

McBath intends to chase down the answer.