Democrats are now back for a second round. They’re hoping this year’s marquee gubernatorial contest, paired with simmering suburban dissatisfaction with Trump, will help them defeat Handel.
The party nominated Lucy McBath, a gun control advocate and former Delta Air Lines flight attendant, to take her on. McBath first got involved in politics after the 2012 death of her son, Jordan Davis, a black teenager who was fatally shot by a white man following a dispute over his music at a Florida gas station. McBath said she was motivated to run for federal office following Congress’ tepid response to recent school shootings.
Handel has highlighted recent votes she cast to beef up school security and mental health funding. She’s focused much of her campaign messaging on longtime GOP issues such as tax cuts and increased defense spending, as well as more bipartisan efforts on opioids and human trafficking.
Political handicappers have given Handel the edge in the district, but McBath has bested the incumbent in fundraising in recent months.
There are many ways Lucy McBath can describe herself. Two-time breast cancer survivor. Retired Delta Air Lines flight attendant. Candidate for Congress.
But she leads off her stump speech like this: “I’m still always going to be Jordan’s mom.”
The fatal shooting of Jordan Davis in 2012 made McBath a national figure during a time that the shooting deaths of unarmed African-Americans and gun control were hotly debated. In her grief, she became an activist speaking out against "stand your ground" self-defense laws and advocating for tighter gun laws.
That led to politics, most notably as a surrogate during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Democrats in Georgia took note and recruited McBath, who lives in Marietta, to run for a seat in the General Assembly.
She was ready to do it. But everything changed on Valentine's Day when shots rang out at a Parkland, Fla., high school, leaving 17 dead. Many of the students who survived joined McBath in speaking out for gun control. She decided the best way to help them would be from Washington.
“I’ve spent all this time championing for gun violence prevention; I’ve been helping to build this big organic movement for gun violence prevention,” she remembers thinking. “But if we do not get people in on the inside, it is going to be much, much harder to change the culture and it will take much, much longer.”
Now, she is asking voters in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District to give her that chance by unseating the incumbent, Republican U.S. Rep. Karen Handel. If that happens, McBath would accomplish what Jon Ossoff could not during last year’s special election: “flip the 6th” from red to blue.
The seat includes parts of Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties, and over the decades it has been a reliable win for Republicans. Democrats poured millions into supporting Ossoff, hoping that opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump and changing demographics could give them a win.
He fell short, but similar theories have fueled expectations for McBath. Her supporters are banking that higher turnout in the midterm elections with a gubernatorial race on the ballot plus a possible "blue wave" could usher her into office. The gun control organization that eventually hired her, Everytown for Gun Safety, has spent nearly $4 million on ads supporting her.
Former President Barack Obama endorsed McBath, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pitched in resources and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick joined her on the campaign trail.
But McBath has never run for anything before, and critics have seized on that. They paint her as an interloper — in 2016 she briefly relocated to Tennessee where her husband is based — and say she is a single-issue candidate unprepared for heavy lifting in Washington. Handel has also raised questions about McBath's taxes and commitment to ending Citizens United since she's benefited from Everytown's big spending in the race.
McBath counters those attacks by playing up the other aspects of her life story.
Twice battling breast cancer makes her intimately aware of the needs for quality health care and make her support for Medicaid expansion personal, she says. As a single mom raising Jordan, the recession and resulting pay cuts hit hard and made her question why Congress approved tax cuts that benefit rich Americans the most, she tells voters.
The recording of immigrant children in detention camps crying out for their parents infuriated her, she said, and she has pledged to support the DREAM Act and overhauling immigration laws.
“I know what it’s like to have your child torn away from you,” McBath said.
Still, she readily admits that the opportunity to push for tighter gun laws is the main reason she wants the job.
“Every legislator has something or a series of policies that they’re very passionate about,” she said during a recent interview. “You work on all of them. But there are some that you’re known for. That you continue to champion for. And that is what we need in Washington.”
McBath tells voters she wants to be a congresswoman who listens to their concerns and works hard to address them.
But she also says she needs their help if she is to be one of two dozen new Democratic members the party needs to take control of the House. She said the anxiety she once felt about campaigning has subsided.
“I have a great sense of calm right now because I know we’re doing the right thing,” she said. “I know we’re doing everything that we can to win this race, and we’re doing it for the right reasons.”
Lucia “Lucy” McBath
McBath grew to national prominence as a gun control activist after her son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed in what became known as the “loud music” murder.
Education: A bachelor's degree in political science from Virginia State University.
Profession: Retired Delta Air Lines flight attendant. Most recently served as faith and outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety, but took a hiatus during her run for office.
Public office: Never held office before.
Issues: She is primarily focused on passing laws that make it harder to buy and legally carry firearms. She also supports Medicaid expansion, overhauling immigration laws and providing more money for public schools and higher education.
Notable: After Jordan's death, McBath became an activist on gun control and was one of the "Mothers of the Movement" who campaigned on behalf of Hillary Clinton during her presidential bid.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates up and down the ballot in a busy election year. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.