Bourdeaux concedes after 7th District recount adds to Woodall’s margin

Spencer Smith, the campaign manager for Democratic candidate Carolyn Bourdeaux, holds binoculars Wednesday as the recount for the 7th Congressional District begins. U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, added 14 votes to his lead through the recount conducted in Forsyth and Gwinnett counties. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

Spencer Smith, the campaign manager for Democratic candidate Carolyn Bourdeaux, holds binoculars Wednesday as the recount for the 7th Congressional District begins. U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, added 14 votes to his lead through the recount conducted in Forsyth and Gwinnett counties. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

Hours-long recounts in two counties sent the candidates vying for Georgia's 7th Congressional District home for Thanksgiving with largely the same results — while simultaneously adding yet another chapter to the turbulent election season in Gwinnett County.

Wednesday's recounts in Forsyth and Gwinnett added a total of 14 votes to the margin of victory for U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, who would represent the 7th District for a fifth term. The contest was by far the closest of his career, with Democratic challenger Carolyn Bourdeaux coming up just a few hundred votes shy.

Bourdeaux requested the recount shortly after the state certified the election results over the weekend. Going into Wednesday's recount, the official tally had the Georgia State University professor behind Woodall by 419 votes, or about 0.14 percent of the more than 280,000 votes cast.

Completing the recounts took about four hours in Forsyth and nearly six in Gwinnett, which has found itself at the center of Georgia’s larger voting rights battle. Woodall picked up votes in both counties, increasing his overall lead to 433 votes.

Bourdeaux later conceded.

“This campaign was about more than me; it was about building community and working for change,” she said in a news release. “We moved the needle in this district more than anyone thought possible.”

Most of the race’s votes were conducted on electronic voting machines that could easily be retallied.

But more than 19,000 absentee and provisional ballots, some of which were filed on paper, took longer to tally. And like many other things in a dramatic month in the rapidly diversifying north Atlanta suburbs, they were not without controversy.

“We just had asked for and really hoped to get a chance to meaningfully review these paper ballots,” said Spencer Smith, Bourdeaux’s campaign manager. “And that didn’t happen today.”

More voting scrutiny for Gwinnett

Gwinnett County, which makes up the largest portion of the 7th District, has been the target of questions — and litigation — from Democrats and voting rights advocates for several weeks. The county was continually under fire for its voting procedures, from its rejection of absentee ballots, which critics said occurred at a far higher rate than in other Georgia counties, to hours-long lines in some precincts on Election Day.

A number of court orders and guidance from the Secretary of State’s Office ultimately led the county to accept hundreds of ballots that might not have otherwise been counted.

A federal court order instructed Gwinnett and other counties to allow voters whose registrations were erroneously flagged due to citizenship questions to cast ballots.

The county certified its election results last Thursday during a crowded, tense meeting, two days later than originally planned.

And ahead of Wednesday’s recount, Bourdeaux’s camp raised questions about the process used by Gwinnett.

An order from Secretary of State Robyn Crittenden on Tuesday directed elections officials to “manually review by hand, in plain view of the public and designated officials for both candidates, any optical scan ballots” that had extra votes, stray marks or were folded or bent in such a way that they couldn’t be scanned.

But Bourdeaux’s campaign said the county interpreted Crittenden’s order in a way that wasn’t consistent with its spirit. The county manually reviewed paper ballots only if they couldn’t be successfully scanned first.

Bourdeaux’s campaign said that essentially meant Gwinnett was completing the same process it did on Election Day.

The Democrat’s team also raised questions about being relegated to an observation area separated by a glass partition from those actually counting ballots.

Observers from the U.S. House of Representatives were eventually allowed behind the glass, Gwinnett elections board Chairman Stephen Day said. But others were not.

Focus to shift to 2020 

The suburban 7th District has not elected a Democrat in a quarter-century, and the party struggled for years to recruit viable political challengers.

But Hillary Clinton’s narrow win in Gwinnett in 2016 inspired no fewer than six Democrats to challenge Woodall this spring.

Bourdeaux was a political neophyte when she announced her congressional run last year. She hinged her campaign on health care and attacked Woodall for being out of step with the district on immigration and insurance protection for people with pre-existing conditions. She had the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the political action committee Emily’s List, which helped her build a massive fundraising advantage over Woodall.

She was also aided by broader excitement over Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial bid, which helped bolster turnout in suburban Atlanta. Abrams carried Gwinnett by 14 percentage points earlier this month.

Woodall, meanwhile, campaigned on sunny messages of political unity, his office’s constituent service work and the benefits of unified GOP control of Washington. He embraced Donald Trump’s agenda but distanced himself from some of the president’s more blustery statements.

Woodall’s narrow win prompted a sigh of relief among many Georgia Republicans, but it has also generated fears about what’s to come in 2020 in Atlanta suburbs that the party dominated not long ago. Next door in the 6th Congressional District, Democrat Lucy McBath toppled GOP incumbent Karen Handel, and a dozen statehouse seats flipped to Democratic control for the first time in years.

National political groups largely stayed out of the 7th District this year, focusing much of their attention on the gubernatorial race and the Handel-McBath contest. But that’s likely to shift in 2020.

This year’s election was the tightest Woodall had ever faced. The former congressional staffer has cruised to re-election with upwards of 60 percent of the vote since first being elected in 2010.

Democrats think having a presidential race at the top of the ticket in 2020 will help aid their cause next cycle. They also see Woodall as vulnerable given his low-key campaign style, an issue that also privately worried the congressman’s GOP allies. Woodall rejected many of the fixtures of modern congressional campaigns, including Twitter and attack ads, and he had trouble keeping up with Bourdeaux’s fundraising. He defended his approach in a post-election interview and insisted he wouldn’t change his tactics in the future.

“Folks value relationships over 30-second commercials, and I would encourage you to go back and look … at folks who spent multimillion dollars trying to create their brand and attack their opponent and us,” Woodall said. “What you’re going to find is my voters came out in larger numbers. My voters didn’t leave.”

Bourdeaux previously said she planned to return to teaching at GSU in January.

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