Luisa Wakeman never used to talk about politics. The Cobb County Democrat knew most of her neighbors were dedicated Republicans and she didn’t want to alienate herself.
Her first toe dip into the political pool was an event in East Cobb supporting then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“We went to the rally and it grew minute by minute,” Wakeman said.
She was energized, volunteering for Clinton and becoming a precinct captain for Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff in the 2017 special election for the 6th Congressional District
While both of her candidates lost, Wakeman was encouraged; she had found people close to home who shared her views, and she was no longer afraid to talk about politics. She went to a one-day boot camp held by Georgia’s Win List, a political group that supports female Democratic candidates.
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“I thought we were signing up to help other candidates run successful campaigns, but then I found out they were signing up to run my campaign,” Wakeman said. “I realized I had to do my part to make sure the needle shifted.”
Wakeman is one of a handful of former Ossoff volunteers who are running for state House districts in Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties that have long histories of Republican domination: Essence Johnson in East Cobb-based District 45, Angelika Kausche in Johns Creek’s House District 50 and Mike Wilensky in Dunwoody-based District 79.
Republicans have held all of those districts since at least 2012.
Republicans are aware that some districts are changing.
A few Sandy Springs precincts in House District 43 went Democratic in 2016, according to Cobb County Republican Party Chairman Jason Shepherd. But the newly contested districts are still "pretty red," he said.
The last time Cooper faced a Democratic challenger, in 2010, she won with 66.9 percent of the vote. In Kausche’s District 50, the last contested election, also in 2010, resulted in then-Rep. Lynne Riley winning with 70 percent of the vote. District 79’s Rep. Tom Taylor won by a 67.7 percent margin when he was last challenged by a Democrat in 2010.
Rep. Sharon Cooper, District 43’s longtime incumbent and chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, is confident that her constituent service combined with her high rank in the legislature will secure her 12th term.
“I don’t think (my district) would want to replace someone with my seniority with a freshman in a minority party that will have little ability to benefit the district.”
Networks and resources
These types of Democratic challenges are not unique to areas within the 6th Congressional District — neighboring Gwinnett County has also seen an increase in Democrats filing to run. But the much-watched, most-expensive special election created a new trove of voter information and campaign infrastructure that wasn’t there before, candidates say.
Mike Wilensky in Dunwoody-based District 79, planned to run for the state House before the 6th District race began, but saw a growth in Democratic campaign resources after Ossoff’s congressional race ended.
There was “very little information at all about who were Democrats in this district” before Ossoff’s campaign, Wilensky said. Ossoff campaign’s nonstop canvassing — it reportedly attempted more than 1 million door knocks — allowed Wilensky and other Democratic state house candidates to better assess their chances and figure out their likely supporters.
Essence Johnson, running for House District 45, was surprised at jhow Republican-dominated the area was when she moved to East Cobb in 2015 from northern Virginia. She had been politically engaged since college, thought about running for local office, but stepped back after having her son, who is now 6. The 6th District race is drew her back into politics.
“It really lit my fire again, people who are progressive and liberal, working to flip the seat and also in the community,” Johnson said.
Before the special election campaign, “there was no organizing” in the East Cobb area, Johnson said. What she found in the 6th District race and now her own is that many of the Democrats getting involved are mothers like herself.
“It’s getting those moms out and getting engaged,” Johnson said. “ ... In East Cobb, I never in a million years thought there would be so many people who are progressive, moderate, liberal, that are my neighbors.”
Special election impact
This kind of network-building is not uncommon after presidential races with candidates that particularly electrify a party’s base — think Kennedy, Reagan and Obama, said Charles Bullock, the Richard B. Russell Chair in Political Science at the University of Georgia. What’s happened in the 6th District is an example of the phenomenon on a smaller scale, he said.
Ossoff came within four points of Republican Karen Handel, who won the seat. The close margin was assisted by an eye-popping $29.9 million fundraising total on Ossoff’s side; Handel raised $6.3 million, but was assisted by $30 million in spending by outside groups. After election day, it was the most expensive U.S. House race in history.
Previous Democratic challengers to Rep. Tom Price, who vacated the seat when he became U.S. secretary of health and human services, lost by up to 40 points.
Democrats hoped to flip the seat and haven’t given up on the quest. Ossoff is not running in the current election, but has supported new 6th District Democratic candidate Lucy McBath. The race has been locked in a statistical tie in recent polls.
But the high fundraising totals and national attention of the 2017 special election may have ended up further galvanizing Republican support, Shepherd, Cobb’s GOP chairman said.
“If you’re well-known in the community, you’ve represented the community well, you represent the district well, you tend to stay in office,” Shepherd said. “People come out to protect an elected official they really like.”
Republicans are also highly energized because of the governor’s race, which has been locked in a statistical dead heat between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp. Cooper thinks her increased campaigning may have a trickle-up effect on the governor’s race and other statewide offices.
“By my turning out more Republicans to vote … that in the end could hurt Stacey Abrams and higher up the ticket,” Cooper said. “If I hadn’t had someone running against me, I wouldn’t have done all this mailing. I wouldn’t be out knocking on door ... I would not have done all I’ve done for our Republican governor candidate Brian Kemp.”
No matter the outcome Tuesday, Wakeman and other candidates are determined to continue growing the Democratic infrastructure in Atlanta’s northern suburbs.
“We didn’t talk to each other about politics and we needed to,” Wakeman said. “Now we’re talking more openly.”