Republican Houston Gaines and Democrat Deborah Gonzalez participate in a candidate forum in Winder. Maya T. Prabhu/

Athens-area Republicans aim to reclaim state House seats lost in 2017

And Democratic state Reps. Deborah Gonzalez and Jonathan Wallace, who won special elections last year after incumbent Republicans left when they were appointed to other positions in the state, said they are ready for the fight.

“I was canvassing after I won last year to get to the neighborhoods I didn’t have a chance to visit during the (short) special election window,” Wallace said.

Republicans issued a rallying cry in the hours after the ballots were counted. The following morning, House Speaker David Ralston said things already were in motion for Republicans to get the seats back.

“Our House Republican Caucus and Georgia GOP are already working to reclaim those seats lost last night in next year’s elections when a greater percentage of Georgians will go to the polls,” the Blue Ridge Republican said.

Defeated candidates immediately stepped up, making each race a rematch of sorts.

Wallace, 40, is facing off against Republican Marcus Wiedower, who placed third in the four-man special election last year. Gonzalez will again face her opponent from last year’s head-to-head matchup, Republican Houston Gaines.

Republicans are spending some money in an attempt to fare better this year, according to campaign finance information filed last week.

Ralston, who headlined a fundraising rally Friday in Oconee County, contributed $1,500 to Gaines and $2,600 — the maximum allowed by law — to Wiedower. Several incumbent House Republicans have also contributed varying amounts to both campaigns.

The Georgia House Republican Trust also contributed $2,600 apiece to both Wiedower and Gaines.

The Democrats are also getting financial help.

The Democratic Party of Georgia contributed $2,000 each to Gonzalez and Wallace. The Clarke County Democratic Committee contributed $1,700 to Gonzalez and $1,500 to Wallace.

The local Republican parties in Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties also shelled out money to each open new headquarters as hubs for candidates and volunteers heading into November.

Wiedower, a custom homebuilder who lives in Watkinsville, said the “victory offices” help pull all the area Republican candidates together to work toward winning in November. He said he threw his hat back into the ring to make sure there was a conservative choice on the ballot.

“In general, Jonathan is a great guy,” Wiedower said. “We’re getting along just fine. But policywise, we’re very different.”

For example, Wallace said one of his top priorities is to push the Legislature to expand access to Medicaid, the public health program for the poor and disabled. Wiedower said he believes Georgians are paying too much for health care, but he opposes expanding Medicaid.

Wiedower has a slight financial lead in the race against Wallace. Wiedower reported raising about $111,000 as of Sept. 30. Wallace had raised about $100,000.

Russell Edwards, who recently served as chairman of the Athens-Clarke County Democratic Party, said he’s barely seen Wiedower on the campaign trail.

“The Republicans are invisible,” he said. “Maybe they’re running a stealth campaign, but I haven’t seen them. Jonathan is simply outworking his opposition. Marcus is invisible.”

Wiedower, 43, who recently returned from an overseas family trip to visit his brother who is in the U.S. Air Force, said he has focused on door knocking and meeting voters face to face during his campaign.

Gaines, a 23-year-old former University of Georgia student government president and budding political operative, said he believes he lost because of the traditional low turnout in special elections.

He said he feels confident that Republicans are heading to the polls in big enough numbers to win in November. Turnout could jump up because of excitement around Athens native Brian Kemp’s run for governor, he said.

“Plus, I think we deserve better,” Gaines said of Gonzalez. “She is far out to the left. That doesn’t line up with the values of the district.”

Gonzalez, a 52-year-old entertainment attorney who lives in Athens, said her win last year was a reflection of the changing priorities of the voters in the district that spans portions of Barrow, Jackson and Oconee counties, as well as a small part of Athens. Gonzalez filled the seat after Gov. Nathan Deal appointed state Rep. Regina Quick to a Superior Court.

“I go to these communities where voters are talking about criminal justice, mental health, health care, education,” she said. “Voters wanted new representation and different solutions to the problems they’ve been faced with for years.”

Gaines is far outraising Gonzalez in the race. Gaines reported raising nearly $230,000 as of Sept. 30, nearly twice what Gonzalez reported — $122,000. But Gonzalez said she’s not concerned about fundraising. She won the election last year despite Gaines raising more than three times the $54,000 Gonzalez reported in contributions.

During a candidate forum in conservative-leaning Barrow County on Wednesday, Gaines and Gonzalez traded tense barbs on topics such as public safety and sanctuary cities, where local governments limit their cooperation with federal immigration law.

It’s Gaines’ opposition to sanctuary cities, and focus on public safety, that caused Charlie Chase to support the Republican.

“If you can do something that’s good for the public, I’ll support you,” the Winder bail bondsman said.

Gonzalez made news in January when she criticized the Clarke County Sheriff’s Department’s initial decision to cooperate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The department in April moved to limit its cooperation with ICE.

Over in the Watkinsville-based district, Wallace shocked political onlookers last year when he beat three Republicans in the special election to fill the seat vacated when state Rep. Chuck Williams was appointed director of the Georgia Forestry Commission. Wallace, a software engineer who lives in Watkinsville, pulled in 57 percent of the vote.

Wallace said he’s sticking to the same playbook for this year’s election — knocking on doors, raising money and getting in front of as many people as possible.

Jordan Chinouth, an Athens-based Republican strategist advising Wiedower, said a huge part of their strategy is getting Republicans who typically only vote in presidential elections to turn up during the midterms — and to make sure they work their way down the ballot after voting for Kemp.

“That’s why we need to make sure that the Republican candidates for statehouse go to every single door that they possibly can,” Chinouth said. “That way in November, voters that showed up to vote for Brian Kemp will say, ‘Oh yeah, Marcus came to my door or Houston came to my door.’ That face-to-face interaction is so important.”

Chalis Montgomery, a former teacher who ran unsuccessfully this May in the 10th Congressional District primary as a Democrat, said she wasn’t concerned about Republican enthusiasm for trying to regain the House seats.

“We’re calling this month ‘knock-tober,’ ” the Bethlehem educator said. “We’re going places where they said they’ve never seen candidates before. The old logic was that if we have more money, we win. But we’ve seen that it’s boots on the ground and talking to people that matters.”

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