Battleground Gwinnett: Why candidates are beating a path to the suburb

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts waves to supporters during a rally at Central Gwinnett High School, becoming the first Democrat to hold a campaign event in Georgia this year after launching a presidential bid. Gwinnett Democrats are touting the county, with its diverse population, as the future of the party and a destination for its presidential candidates. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts waves to supporters during a rally at Central Gwinnett High School, becoming the first Democrat to hold a campaign event in Georgia this year after launching a presidential bid. Gwinnett Democrats are touting the county, with its diverse population, as the future of the party and a destination for its presidential candidates. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The road to the 2020 election in Georgia leads directly through Gwinnett County, which has transformed from a reliably Republican trove of votes to a must-win for Democrats hungry to flip the state.

Nearly two years before the next election, candidates are already making a beeline to the diverse suburban county. The first presidential candidate to visit Georgia held a rally at a high school smack in the middle of the county, and a vast field of Democrats is forming to contest a newly opened U.S. House seat.

Suddenly on the defensive, Republicans are trying to shore up the county, long a linchpin in any election strategy. It was no coincidence, then, that Ivanka Trump decided to visit Gwinnett this week for a business-friendly meeting, joined by Gov. Brian Kemp and UPS executives.

The March 19 vote on expanding MARTA in Gwinnett only heightens the competition. Democrats see the special election as a test run for the presidential race and are using the referendum to hone get-out-the-vote strategies and gather data on likely voters that's sure to come in handy next year.

The Democratic Party of Georgia is putting its full weight behind the effort. It announced earlier this week that it will dispatch field operatives, communications staffers and other resources to support the referendum in an all-in push to see it passed.

Bianca Keaton, the county’s recently installed party chairwoman, sees Gwinnett as a model of the country’s electoral future. That puts Gwinnett in the spotlight, not just for candidates’ outcomes, but for how the party operates moving forward.

“Gwinnett has to be a destination for presidential candidates and for conversation about our Democratic Party’s future because soon the country will look like Gwinnett. It will be a melting pot,” Keaton said. “We have got to show up for that with answers on how we win. Diversity comes with challenges that people often don’t want to talk about, they want to gloss over. But you have to see race, you have to see culture to have a conversation.”

The glare of attention only underscores the county’s head-spinning demographic changes. For decades, Gwinnett was a majority-white county dominated by conservative politicians. Today, more than 60 percent of its nearly 1 million residents are black, Latino or Asian.

Gwinnett’s politics have morphed with the explosive growth. Hillary Clinton narrowly won the county in 2016, breaking a string of GOP victories that stretched to Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and Stacey Abrams carried the county by 14 percentage points in November’s race for governor.

That countywide wave has washed down to local politics. Two Democrats joined the five-member County Commission in January — becoming the board's first Democratic members in more than 30 years. And Democrats flipped six state legislative seats to give them control of the county's legislative delegation.

That’s one reason why Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren picked Gwinnett to hold an organizing rally days after entering the presidential race. She’s the first Democratic presidential candidate to visit Georgia since formally announcing her bid, and she declared the county “the future.”

"This is a place where Democrats need to get out and make the case for what we are fighting for," she said in an interview, "and to enlist people from all around this county and around this state to make this a country that works, not just for a thin slice at the top, a country that works for everybody."

Longtime Gwinnett politicos are pinching themselves. When Ilene Johnson was first elected to the board of the county’s Democratic Party a few years ago, she sailed through in a voice vote. Now there are “oodles of competitors” and so many attendees at meetings the party needed a bigger space.

She and others credit Tommy Hunter, the GOP county commissioner who called Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis a "racist pig" on Facebook. That social media activity led to months of protest and a public reprimand from his colleagues — and also gave local Democrats a kick in the pants.

“That story went around the world. It helped spark interest from Democrats in the county who didn’t pay attention,” Johnson said. “Now, all roads to Georgia lead through Gwinnett. We are big and we are a force to be reckoned with.”

Flush with victory, these new Democrats in Gwinnett are eager to flex their muscles — but wary of overreach, lest they let local Republicans brand them as radicals.

Solicitor Brian Whiteside, who toppled a veteran Republican incumbent to become one of Gwinnett’s top prosecutors, said he wants to give police officers more discretion for certain crimes while also backing more lenient sentences for lesser offenses.

“We try to have a balance between backing police officers and protecting minorities who have sometimes been oppressed,” said Whiteside, a former police officer. “We try to be progressive, but we also want to show that Democrats respect safety and security.”

The budding field for the 7th Congressional District, which encompasses much of Gwinnett and a chunk of south Forsyth County, will give both parties a new chance to test their mettle.

That race was the tightest in the nation last year, with U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall staving off Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux by just 433 votes. She’s running again, and so are at least two other Democrats. He’s not, and his decision to retire triggered interest from a dozen prominent Republicans.

The county’s remaining Republican officials are fast preparing for the fight.

State Sen. P.K. Martin was selected as chairman of the powerful Education Committee, a pulpit he hopes will produce a string of new laws that will give him a leg up in November. His GOP Senate colleague in Gwinnett, Renee Unterman, is likely to enter the race for Congress.

“Things are very partisan now. And what’s interesting is my issues are not partisan issues,” said Unterman, who said she’d focus on quality-of-life policies. “I also think there’s a void, and I think that women bring something different to the table.”

David Shafer, long one of Gwinnett’s most powerful politicians, is also considering a run for the House seat or a bid for Georgia GOP chairman after losing the party primary for lieutenant governor. He sees the suburbs as a land of opportunity where conservative principles are bound to dominate.

“In 2020, we have to reclaim our mantle as the party of opportunity and upward mobility,” he said, “in contrast with Democrats who have become the party of dependence and decay.”

Democrats are eager to prove him wrong.

Warren’s event at Central Gwinnett High School drew nearly 1,100 people, filling up much of the floor and packing a wall of bleachers. Every so often, chants of “Warren! Warren!” erupted as she issued her standard stump speech on immigration, health care and voting rights.

Some attendees, including Eve Thomas of Lawrenceville, had already decided to back the Massachusetts Democrat. Others arrived with an open mind. Bailey Beebout, a 17-year-old from Grayson, wants to capitalize on Georgia’s battleground status: He aims to see every candidate who visits Georgia.

He may not have to go far. During the event, Warren played up the importance of Gwinnett and fielded questions from the audience. One questioner, a teenager from the area, asked why she was “swinging audaciously into a reliably red state” this early.

“Far be it from me to correct someone from Georgia,” Warren said, “but I don’t think you’re so reliably red.”