March 2, 2020 - Atlanta - Former state representative and candidate for governor Stacey Evans greets Democratic colleagues in line for qualifying. She is running for representative in district 57. A large turnout by both Democrats and Republicans on the first day of election qualifying resulted in long lines of politicians waiting to sign in. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/robert.andres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/robert.andres@ajc.com

Behind the surge of Democratic candidates on this year’s ballot

It was a statement at the start the five-day stretch when office-seekers must fill out paperwork and pay a fee to run for office: Six Democrats worked their way through a noisy, jumbled line to formally become candidates for a sweep of state legislative seats across Forsyth County.

You could call their bids for office in a county that Gov. Brian Kemp won with 71% of the vote in 2018 an uphill battle, a quixotic long shot, a political suicide mission. But the candidates won’t.

“We don’t even know the odds they face, because no Democrat has ever run for these seats since Democrats became what they are today,” said Melissa Clink, the chairwoman of the county’s party.

And what of the Republicans they’ll face in formidable conservative territory? “We caught them by surprise,” Clink said. “We live in an area where they’ve never had to campaign — they just put an ‘R’ next to their names and they win. Well, now they have competition.”

So do plenty of other Republicans not used to tough races.

When the dust settled on a weeklong qualifying period that ended Friday, Democrats fielded candidates in 187 state legislative races — roughly 80% of the Gold Dome seats up for grabs.

And both parties recruited contenders for every congressional race on the ballot, a departure from past years when multiple incumbents went unchallenged. State records show it’s the first time since 1994 when every U.S. House contest is contested.

Many of those newcomers will be defeated in a polarizing election year with President Donald Trump on the ballot, but Democrats are angling to flip a suburban U.S. House district and capture enough legislative seats to gain control of the Georgia House for the first time since the early 2000s.

“It seemed like it’s just the same old, same old. We need fresh eyes in Atlanta — people who are in touch with the community and looking to make changes,” said Montenia Edwards, a clinical project manager who is one of three Democrats running against Republican state Sen. Mike Dugan in a west Georgia district.

Republicans aren’t sitting idly by. Two years after losing 13 legislative seats in the suburbs ringing metro Atlanta, most of the new Democratic incumbents faced challenges — some of them from familiar faces.

Alex Kaufman is once again challenging incumbent Josh McLaurin in Sandy Springs. Betty Price is trying to win back the Roswell-based seat she lost two years ago to Mary Robichaux. And former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel is racing to reclaim the suburban congressional seat Lucy McBath captured in 2018.

200302-ATLANTA-Zulma Lopez, right, poses for a photo with her mother Zulma Gonzalez and her daughter Elisa Lopez, 9, before qualifying to run as a Democrat for Georgia House district 86 Monday morning March 2, 2020 at the Georgia State Capitol. BenGray.com / Special
Photo: BEN@BENGRAY.COM/Ben Gray

But the vast field of candidates who qualified for Georgia’s offices also includes many newcomers: fitness gurus and flight attendants, CPR instructors and stay-at-home moms, librarians and lawyers. Lots of lawyers.

“I’m an immigrant Latino Republican woman, and I see the picture of us that’s being portrayed in the media: the narrative that Republicans are from the rich and not the poor. It’s just not true,” said Noemi Puntier, an attorney and one of six candidates competing for a Gwinnett County-based Senate seat.

“I know I’m like a unicorn,” she said, “but I’m proud of it.”

A new map

The biggest headlines of the week came from the parade of candidates running for the state’s two U.S. Senate seats, dual races that have that have heightened Georgia’s status as a political battleground in November.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and her most formidable Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, qualified for the messy special election within minutes of each other. Over the rest of the week, so did three prominent Democrats and several lower-profile contenders. In all, 21 candidates are seeking the seat, and they’ll all be on the same ballot in November.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, seeking a second term, told war stories from his first run in 2014 moments after he filed his paperwork. He was followed in short order by three prominent Democrats who want to make him a short-timer.

And dozens of candidates lined up to run for U.S. House seats. Beyond Handel’s comeback bid, much of the attention focused on the three open races.

200302-ATLANTA-Clint Dixon poses for a photo with his wife Hayden before qualifying to run as a Republican for the state senate’s 45th district Monday morning March 2, 2020 at the Georgia State Capitol. BenGray.com / Special
Photo: Ben@bengray.com/Ben Gray

One of them is in the deeply conservative 9th Congressional District that Collins vacated. It has attracted 12 candidates with a range of backgrounds, including a former congressman, three state legislators, an ex-party official and the chief executive of a gun manufacturer.

In the neighboring 14th Congressional District, which Trump overwhelmingly carried in 2016, a group of 10 candidates filed paperwork to run. And 13 contenders are competing in Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, a territory spanning parts of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties that was home to the tightest U.S. House race in the nation in 2018.

“We should have flipped the seat last election cycle, and the fact that we didn’t is an indication that we need a different type of candidate, one that has been rooted in the 7th that actually has been doing community organizing,” said state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, one of the Democratic contenders.

But the other narrative was how competitive each of the congressional races has become.

In 2018, two U.S. House seats went uncontested. Two years earlier, three congressional incumbents went without a challenge and Democrats scrambled late to woo a millionaire to run against U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

This year, even Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis drew an opponent after running mostly unopposed for the past two decades. On Friday, Angela Stanton-King filed paperwork to run as a Republican.

“This isn’t about replacing John Lewis, this is about picking up the torch and continuing the fight for justice,” said Stanton-King, an author and reality television star who recently received a pardon from Trump for a conspiracy conviction involving a car theft ring.

‘Scared’

Recruiting used to be a challenge for Democrats, but not this year.

The 187 races the party is competing in this year is the most candidates the party has boasted since 1996, when records for qualifying candidates were first posted online.

“These numbers confirm the growth we have been seeing in our state for the past decade,” said Scott Hogan, the state party’s executive director. “Georgia is no longer a red or even purple state. It’s a blue state, and we will show as much come November.”

200302-ATLANTA-U.S. Sen. David Perdue (R-Georgia) speaks to the media after qualifying to run for a second term Monday morning March 2, 2020 at the Georgia State Capitol. BenGray.com / Special
Photo: Ben@bengray.com/Ben Gray

The stakes are high. The party that controls the Georgia House, where Democrats are contesting 144 seats, will have vast influence in redrawing district lines the following year and help set the agenda on the state’s most divisive and pivotal political issues.

Already, Democrats have noticed a change in tone from Georgia GOP leaders, who have recently embraced proposals to expand paid parental leave for state employees and extend Medicaid coverage for new mothers.

“Qualifying has scared some people,” said Democratic state Rep. Erick Allen, who flipped a Cobb County seat in 2018. “There’s no way you can’t make the correlation between some of the policy shifts in the last few days to Republicans being spooked.”

Republicans don’t seem too frightened.

From the opposite side of the Capitol, where a long line of Republicans waited to qualify, Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer said the Democratic interest reminded him of an earlier time in state politics when his party was firmly in the minority.

“When I was the executive director of the Georgia Republican Party in the 1990s we did the same thing. We ran candidates everywhere,” Shafer said. “I feel good about 2020.”

As the week ended, he pointed to the roughly 1,500 GOP candidates who qualified for county, state and federal office with pride. By comparison, nearly 900 Democrats signed up to run for the seats, which include local posts such as coroner and sheriff. 

“Republicans are better organized and more enthusiastic than at any time I can remember.”

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