When Shelly Hutchinson and Matthew Wilson found out that former President Barack Obama had endorsed them, the Georgia House of Representatives candidates were surprised that they were on his radar, but not shocked their districts were.
In what he called his first round of endorsements for the 2018 political cycle, Obama listed Democrats Hutchinson and Wilson under his endorsements for gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and lieutenant governor candidate Sarah Riggs Amico earlier this month.
Neither Hutchinson nor Wilson had any heads-up the endorsement was coming, and hadn’t formally met with Obama regarding their campaigns. But both candidates knew they were in competitive Republican-held districts that had been identified as “flippable” — having a distinct possibility of a Democratic victory in November.
Back and forth
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“I found out when he tweeted out the full list. I got a phone call from my campaign manager, who said ‘Barack Obama just endorsed you on Twitter.’ I made him say it to me twice,” said Wilson, an attorney running in House District 80, which includes parts of Brookhaven, Chamblee and Sandy Springs. District 80 is considered by Democrats to be the top opportunity to win a Republican-held legislative seat in Georgia this year, Wilson said.
The 2016 election in District 80 was decided by only 286 votes, with Rep. Meagan Hanson, a Republican, ousting incumbent Rep. Taylor Bennett, a Democrat. Bennett had won the seat in 2015 over Republican candidate J. Max Davis by 452 votes in a runoff after leading by less than 100 in the original special election.
“District 80’s been pretty much a tossup for a number of years now,” said Lane Flynn, chairman of the DeKalb County Republican Party. “It’s flipped twice just since 2014. It’s certainly going to be very competitive. Both sides are going to come in with a lot of energy and a lot of money.”
It’s part of the sixth U.S. congressional district, where Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff faced off in a special election last year. Democrats hoped to flip the seat, long held by U.S. Rep. Tom Price. That fueled Ossoff’s fundraising total of $29.9 million, nearly quintuple Handel’s $6.3 million, making the race the most expensive for any U.S. House seat. Outside groups, largely supporting Handel’s bid, poured in another $30 million or so.
Handel won with 52.3 percent of the vote, her four-point margin of victory notably smaller than Price’s past elections, in which he drew between 61.7 and 79.9 percent of the vote when challenged by a Democrat. That kept hope alive for Democrats looking to flip not only the Sixth, but state seats like House District 80.
The upper middle-class district, populated heavily with college-educated young professionals, tends to be more moderate on both sides of the aisle and “not as interested in red meat social issues,” Flynn said.
“They are more interested in the economy, jobs. They want housing values to go up and they’re interested in good schools for their kids,” Flynn said.
Hanson, too, believes her constituents will put policy over politics. When she won in 2016, Bennett had also received Obama’s endorsement, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton earned 54 percent of District 80’s vote. Hanson, a Republican, still won the House seat with 50.58 percent of the vote.
“These numbers tell me that the people of House District 80 make their own determination of which candidate to support based on issues important to them, not partisan politics,” Hanson said.
Democrats hope that a significant number of those moderate voters could be swayed to Wilson’s side, said Don Richards, chair of the District 80 Democratic Committee of the DeKalb County Democratic Party.
“There are so many young people and so many new people in the district, and so many people who may have been traditionally Republicans but may not like how the party is going now,” Richards said.
That close split illustrates to Wilson that it’s important to connect with as many voters as possible before the election. Because of the nearly 50-50 voter share, the election may come down to the number of doors knocked and hands shaken, said Barbara Campbell, chair of the DeKalb County Democratic Party.
In Hutchinson’s District 107, which covers parts of Lawrenceville, Snellville and Lilburn, the playing field is different. Instead of a one-term incumbent who won by a margin of 1.16 percentage points, Hutchinson is in an open race against fellow newcomer Janet Mihoci, a Republican. Mihoci did not respond to interview requests.
Rep. David Casas, a 16-year Republican incumbent, is retiring, leaving an open race for his seat. Since 2012, Casas has run unopposed, something that always bothered Hutchinson.
“Every time I went to vote and saw an incumbent running unchallenged, I didn’t want to vote for them,” Hutchinson said. “So, I wrote in my own name. I got one vote every year.”
Hutchinson, a mental health counselor, retreated from political discourse after the election of President Donald Trump. She stopped watching the news and logged off of Facebook. She didn’t seriously consider running until Rep. Spencer Frye, an Athens Democrat and a colleague on a University of Georgia alumni board, told her how competitive District 107 could be.
In District 107, where Casas ran unopposed for three terms and won handily in the five contested elections before that, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won the presidential vote by 12 percentage points; she won Gwinnett County by six percentage points, though losing the state of Georgia by the same amount.
“The demographics are changing a lot,” said Gabe Okoye, chairman of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party. “It’s not what it used to be two years ago. It’s not what it used to be four years ago. It’s changed.”
Hutchinson said she’s seen the changes first-hand. She and her husband moved to District 107 over two decades ago and they were the only non-white couple in their subdivision, she said. By 2014, when they were moving to a new home, there was only one white family in that same subdivision.
That anecdotal evidence is rooted in demographic evidence; Gwinnett became a majority minority county in 2010, meaning there were more non-white residents than white residents. Politically, more Democrats are running for county and state offices in Gwinnett than in recent memory.
To capitalize on the shift, Hutchinson is taking a two-pronged approach: getting the district’s Democratic base to cast their ballots for her, while also reaching out to Democratic voters who don’t often turn out to the polls.
“People who feel marginalized, who feel like their vote doesn’t matter,” Hutchinson said. “Our message is that your voice matters. We are here for people that believe in a more respectful, inclusive Georgia.”
Does it matter?
The county’s demographic shift could make Obama’s endorsement more useful for Hutchinson’s campaign, said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University.
“In districts undergoing [demographic] change, the hope is this will nudge voters to pay more attention and change the page on the vote screen so they remember to vote downballot,” Gillespie said.
Both candidates said that while they’re appreciative of Obama’s endorsement, they don’t think it will be the make-or-break factor with voters come November.
“It sends a message that I’m serious to the rest of the country, and it tells me I’m doing something right,” Hutchinson said.
Wilson hopes that the endorsement will put a brighter spotlight on District 80 and put a sense of urgency in Democratic voters.
“I don’t know that any endorsements carry much weight as far as swaying voters to vote for you, but what it does is communicate to people that a lot of people are watching this race, that this is a very competitive seat,” Wilson said.
Obama’s endorsements in these districts are “strategic,” Gillespie said. It’s not about swaying voters, but giving those already inclined to vote for you another excuse to remember to turn out on Election Day.
“You didn’t see Obama making endorsements in districts where a given candidate was a foregone conclusion,” Gillespie said. “He chose to make endorsements in competitive districts where a candidate wants to claim any competitive advantage they can.”
For Eric Nichols, a Lawrenceville resident and a steady Democratic voter, that stamp of approval gives him hope that Democrats could make inroads up and down the ballot in Georgia after this election.
“I’m just hoping to see that blue wave that everybody talks about. Now is more critical than previous times,” Nichols said. “I am hoping to see something different, something very different than what is going on.”