Prominent losses in mayoral races have Dems rethinking suburb strategy

Election results dash hopes of flipping seats long held by right-leaning politicians in Atlanta’s suburbs
Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin (left) and Tucker Mayor Frank Auman fended off challenges from Democratic-aligned opponents in Tuesday's municipal elections.

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin (left) and Tucker Mayor Frank Auman fended off challenges from Democratic-aligned opponents in Tuesday's municipal elections.

Democrats are licking their wounds after Tuesday’s elections didn’t go their way in several metro Atlanta races for mayor and council seats.

Despite Democrats winning over suburban voters in high-profile statewide and national elections over the past few years, those newfound gains didn’t translate to victory at the local level this week. Progressive candidates fell short in their bids to unseat established metro Atlanta mayors, matching a poor showing for Democrats across the country Tuesday that has party leaders concerned about next year’s prospects.

“It was a real rough night to be a Democrat,” John Jackson, chairman of DeKalb County Democrats, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday. “We have to look at this and see what we can do to not repeat this in the midterms.”

Results were unofficial Wednesday, but in two closely-watched races considered bellwethers on potential Democratic gains in the suburbs, the incumbents claimed victory by healthy margins.

In Tucker, incumbent Mayor Frank Auman won 56% of the vote over his challenger, Robin Biro. The race was one of the most heated in metro Atlanta due to the candidates’ past partisan affiliations — Auman is the former chairman of the DeKalb GOP, while Biro was a field operator for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Another race pitting a left-leaning challenger against a longtime Republican politician was in Marietta, where incumbent Steve “Thunder” Tumlin bested Michelle Cooper Kelly. Tumlin is a former Republic state representative who has been mayor since 2010, while Kelly is a two-term councilwoman who identifies as a Democrat and was trying to be Marietta’s first Black mayor. Tumlin, who didn’t respond to the AJC’s requests for comment, got 57% of the vote.

Similarly, Johns Creek voters chose a new mayor, John Bradberry, and five candidates for City Council who were all supported by the Fulton County Republican Party.

The losses dash the hopes of liberals who sought to quickly claim local offices in areas that had swung blue in 2020′s attention-grabbing federal elections. Combined with the gubernatorial upset in Virginia, local Democrats are rethinking their strategy for 2022′s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races.

“We’re still processing it. We’re gonna look at the data, analyze and maybe do an after action in the coming months,” Jackson said. “We’re going to go into 2022 and look at what we can do better.”

‘It was a miscalculation’

Auman comfortably bested two opponents in 2016 to become Tucker’s founding mayor. While he said this year’s reelection bid was a hard-fought battle, he said Biro didn’t do himself any favors by relying so much on the county’s Democratic leaders for support and exposure.

“They thought all they needed to do was show up and explain who the Democrats were and everybody would form up and vote that way,” Auman said. “It was a miscalculation.”

Tucker has slowly moved to the left since its incorporation — at least in statewide and national races. More than 70% of the city’s voters chose Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock during January’s senate runoffs.

Auman said it’s foolish to compare the results from those races with a local, nonpartisan mayor’s race.

“You don’t have to vote for somebody because they say they’re a Democrat or a Republican in a local race because you can get to know them, you can see them in the grocery store and you can sit with them at a ballgame and in the park,” Auman said. “You don’t have to judge by a label.”

Biro, who insists that his focus on partisan affiliation was for transparency, conceded the race Tuesday night. He said he’s proud of the extra attention he was able to bring to progressive issues in Tucker, primarily a non-discrimination ordinance that city leaders haven’t adopted. He also focused on Tucker’s voter turnout, which was nearly 10% more than the last mayoral election in the city.

“We set a record turnout for a municipal election in the City of Tucker, which will in turn yield a more progressive city council, more representative of the demographics of Tucker itself,” Biro said.

Jackson, who selected Biro to face off with Auman, also focused on the increased voter turnout, which helped left-leaning council candidates win across DeKalb in Brookhaven, Chamblee, Doraville and Stone Mountain, he said. However, Jackson called the Tucker mayoral race the “centerpiece” campaign for Democrats this year, and they came up short.

“We did pretty decent (Tuesday), but the most high profile race — Tucker — didn’t go well. And there’s a lot of factors to that,” he said.

Finding the right message

Cassandra Littlejohn, a Democrat who ran an unsuccessful bid for a Johns Creek council seat, said Tuesday’s losses present liberals with an opportunity to develop a better game plan going forward. She said more consistent messaging would allow Democrats to counter tactics and false claims by Republicans.

“Republicans seem to feel if you don’t say exactly what they want you to say they will cancel you quickly,” she said, of the party’s strategy. “We (Democrats) value differences and a person’s right to speak for themselves but we have to figure out how do we get everyone on the same page. And I think it’s in our messaging.”

Marci McCarthy, chairwoman of the DeKalb GOP, said her party’s grassroots canvassing efforts in the suburbs have led conservatives to have a better idea what voters want. She said Tucker voters saw prominent Democrats pushing for Biro’s election solely because he leans left, which she said backfired.

“I think the Democrats have lost their way and have lost touch with voters,” McCarthy said. “It was a huge turnoff in the Tucker mayoral race when Robin Biro decided that he was going to run as a Democrat and was handpicked by chairman John Jackson of the DeKalb Democrats.”

Cobb Democrats believe their path to victory at the local level is getting voter turnout in off-year elections to match voter enthusiasm when presidential and gubernatorial candidates are on the ballot. Participation in Marietta’s mayoral race was only about a third of what it was last presidential election.

However, Cobb Republicans said the low turnout is thanks to progressive policies that aren’t popular in suburbia.

“I think the low turnout is attributable, in large degree, because of the progressive agenda and the attack on our American values,” Salleigh Grubbs, chairwoman of Cobb Republicans, said. “Who’s going to go to the ballot box to defend that?”

Kelly, who’s attempt to unseat Tumlin was unsuccessful, said she worries the tough losses suffered by Democrats in Atlanta’s suburbs could foreshadow a challenging 2022. She said “red flags” are there for those paying attention.

“We’re nonpartisan elections, but at the end of the day, I think partisanship did enter into our election,” Kelly said. “So I do think that if you’re reading the tea leaves, certainly it’s telling you something regarding what the midterm is going to look like in 2022.”

— AJC staff writer Adrianne Murchison contributed to this report.