Sweeping from Cumming to Suwanee and down to Lawrenceville, the 7th District hasn’t elected a Democrat to Congress since the early 1990s. People there had so reliably voted Republican that Democrats struggled for years to recruit strong challengers.
But Gwinnett County’s explosive population growth — particularly among immigrants and minorities — along with simmering opposition to President Donald Trump among many well-educated suburban voters has changed the political calculus.
No fewer than six Democrats lined up this spring for the chance to challenge incumbent Republican Rob Woodall, who has cruised to re-election since winning his first race in 2010.
Georgia State University professor Carolyn Bourdeaux eventually clinched her party’s nomination and has taken on the four-term Woodall with a health care-focused message. Woodall, once the top aide to U.S. Rep. John Linder, has embraced Trump and many of his signature policies, including on health care, trade and tax cuts.
Outside political analysts say Woodall has the advantage in the 7th District, which Trump won by roughly 6 percentage points in 2016. Democrats see hope in Bourdeaux’s relatively strong fundraising numbers and the pull of the state’s nationally watched gubernatorial contest.
Carolyn Bourdeaux has been running for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District for more than a year, but she hasn’t completely shed her classroom manner.
“Come sit down and get comfortable,” Bourdeaux said, motioning to a cluster of chairs assembled in front of her. “I’m a professor, you know I’ll go on for a while,”
In a question-and-answer session that followed a stump speech, she laid out her case in a matter-of-fact, occasionally wry tone that would not be out of place in a lecture hall. That’s where she’s been for the past 15 years, teaching public policy at Georgia State University.
The Suwanee Democrat has dedicated more than 25 years of her life to studying, teaching and creating public policy, but she didn’t see herself running for office until recently. Bourdeaux always knew, however, that her calling was public service.
The seeds were planted decades ago, as the child of educators in the mountains of western Virginia. Both parents shared a “strong commitment to public service.”
While Bourdeaux was in college, her family went bankrupt. Her father had gotten “burned out” in teaching while she was in high school, and he decided to make a career selling ornamental paper hats shaped like animals at craft fairs.
Bourdeaux partially credits that career choice with helping her get into Yale; her college essay was titled “How to Sell a Paper Hat in the Rain” (it involves a tarp, a broom and a giant paper unicorn). While she was still an undergraduate, the hat business folded. Her parents drained their savings and lost their home; she thought she wouldn’t be able to finish school.
She received Pell grants and Stafford loans. Family and friends pooled money to cover the difference. While she knew she had debts, her father reminded her of the family’s commitment to public service.
Bourdeaux caught a break when she found an opening for a legislative aide to then-U.S. Rep. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and now a U.S. senator. Two decades after helping Wyden draft bills, she still likes drawing a parallel between legislation that secured federal funding for Portland’s light-rail system and what she calls the 7th District’s “soul-sucking commute.”
After four years on Capitol Hill, Bourdeaux went back into academia before landing an associate professor position at GSU and eventually serving a three-year stint as director of the Georgia Senate Budget Office.
Bourdeaux first entertained the idea of seeking office after Donald Trump won the presidency and congressional Republicans began trying to unravel the Affordable Care Act.
She said her parents’ experience with swelling health care costs — her late father was a diabetic — underscored her support for the 2010 law.
Bourdeaux believes in “fixing” the ACA, making it adhere more closely to the health insurance legislation passed in Massachusetts in 2006 under Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, and she’s slammed incumbent U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, for voting repeatedly to repeal the law.
The district has long been represented by Republicans. Woodall was chief of staff to his predecessor, U.S. Rep. John Linder, and the 7th District hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1992. But Bourdeaux thought she’d have a good shot given the changing demographics in the district that includes most of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties. While Forsyth is deeply Republican, Gwinnett has been trending more blue, due in no small part to an influx of immigrants. It officially became a majority-minority county in 2010, and Hillary Clinton won Gwinnett by 6 percentage points in 2016.
Woodall has largely ignored Bourdeaux in his relatively quiet campaign — no TV ads and few advertised events. He’s cited high Republican primary turnout numbers as a reason why he’s not sweating the race. While Bourdeaux regularly criticizes Woodall as ineffective, she mostly focuses on promoting her own positions.
Democrats are hoping disdain for Trump, particularly among suburban women, paired with this year’s nationally watched gubernatorial race, will help power candidates such as Bourdeaux into office. Her fundraising totals have dwarfed Woodall’s — she outraised him by a 3-to-1 margin in the last fiscal quarter, topping $1 million — boosting Democrats’ already high hopes.
As Election Day nears, Bourdeaux feels confident. She’s not sure whether that new college graduate on the train to D.C. would have expected this, but she knows she’s stayed true to the mission her parents gave her.
“It hasn’t necessarily taken the shape I anticipated,” Bourdeaux said, “but it’s always been about service.”