Capitol Recap: 18 months to go, and Georgia 7th race is already heated

Georgia’s state Capitol
Georgia’s state Capitol

As home to the nation’s closest U.S. House race in 2018, Georgia’s 7th Congressional District was bound to be a key political battleground in 2020.

That only became more certain once Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, having survived last year’s midterm by 433 votes, announced he would not seek re-election in the district that covers parts of Forsyth and Gwinnett counties.

Now, with the election still 18 months away, the race is on. It’s drawn a bevy of candidates, with more likely coming, and campaign cash is pouring in.

As battlegrounds go, it’s one with shifting terrain. In Gwinnett, especially, the demographics have undergone immense change, becoming a minority-majority county. Once a Republican stronghold, Gwinnett sided with Democrat Stacey Abrams in last year’s race for governor, giving her 57% of the vote.

That, as much as anything, could explain why five Democrats are already running.

State Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero became the latest Democrat to join the field this past week. The others are Carolyn Bourdeaux, who pushed Woodall to the limit last year; attorney Marqus Cole; former Fulton County Commissioner John Eaves, last seen making an unsuccessful bid for Atlanta mayor; and party activist Nabilah Islam.

Republicans are just as determined to hold onto the 7th.

The newest Republican officially in the race is former Home Depot executive Lynne Homrich, who announced her candidacy late last month. Already in the GOP race was former Atlanta Falcons running back Joe Profit, who lost last year’s midterm race in the 4th Congressional District.

State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, is taking swings at Homrich, although she has not formally joined the competition.

Unterman has gone to Twitter — because that’s how it’s done now — to hit Homrich as a newcomer to the district who is out of touch with its residents.

The most recent barbs came in response to a tweet Homrich sent out discussing her economic platform, saying, “When businesses are over-taxed and regulated, Atlanta families lose.”

Unterman — who in the past has referred to Homrich as “that Buckhead lady” who might need directions to Cumming and Lawrenceville — quickly responded with a geography lesson.

“Clue #1, your DC consultant’s mistake, Gwinnett/Forsyth counties are suburbs … we are not ATLANTA!” Unterman tweeted. “Maybe you all should come out & visit families to find out where you are suppose to campaign in #7thdistrict; you might even like it, big contrast from #Buckhead #fakecampaign.”

You have to wonder what she’ll say once she’s running.

Unterman adviser Todd Rehm, during an appearance on GPB’s “Political Rewind,” said she will probably announce her candidacy by June 30.

Back on the Democratic side, Bourdeaux may be in prime position at the moment. She raised $370,000 in seven weeks, more than just about any other congressional challenger in the nation. Islam, however, was no slouch, pulling in $100,000. Cole, the only other candidate to report for the first quarter of the year, brought in $32,000.

But Lopez Romero isn’t entering the fight unarmed. An attorney who was born in Mexico, she became the first Latina elected to the state Legislature with her victory in 2016. She has been a Democratic leader on issues such as immigration and voting rights, and she also strongly opposes restrictions on abortion and expansion of gun rights.

Backing Lopez Romero are state House Minority Leader Bob Trammell and state Rep. Pedro Marin, one of the first Latinos elected to the state House. Bourdeaux has kept a grip on most of the endorsements she received from leading Democrats when she challenged Woodall in 2018.

Lopez Romero said she will focus on first-time voters who often skip primaries.

“The district should have already flipped — it’s trended Democratic for years,” Lopez Romero said. “We didn’t do well in 2018 to reach out to those potential first-time voters. We need Democrats that have been disenchanted or haven’t been reached, and if we do, we can flip the 7th.”

Pressure builds: Another call came this past week for state House Speaker David Ralstonto step down. This time, it came from an old friend.

The Gainesville Times, which once bragged that Ralston had been an employee in its newsroom when he first got out of college, published an editorial seeking his resignation following an Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News investigation into the speaker's use of legislative leave privileges to delay criminal cases he was handling in his private legal practice.

“(Ralston) does not understand that the issue exists because he is speaker, not in spite of it,” the paper stated. “He does not understand that by intermingling his state position with his private personal practice, he has irretrievably woven the two together. He does not understand that it is his position as the speaker that allows him to take liberties with the courts that others could not take.

“He does not understand that he has squandered the trust of those who selected him to fill the position many feel to be the second most powerful in state government. And because he does not understand, he should no longer be in that position.”

Suite talking: Georgia Democrats used the end of this year's legislative session to declare themselves the party of business.

That turned a few heads since Republicans have the reputation for hobnobbing with the captains of industry.

But Democrats — hoping to build on alliances they forged with major companies over issues such as "religious liberty" legislation advanced by socially conservative Republicans — are staying on message, even in birthday greetings.

"Today is David Shafer's Birthday," state Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, said in a tweet. "He is running for GOP chair and shared this with us: 'Executive Suites of Fortune 500 are dominated by leftists, who have bought into the whole diversity culture.' I gather if he wins the GOP will remain anti-business and diversity."

Henson's tweet apparently referred to comments Shafer made to the Bartow County GOP that were reported by The Daily Tribune News. The former state Senate president pro tem, who lost a bid to become lieutenant governor in last year's Republican primary runoff, was discussing the tough environment the GOP was facing in next year's elections.

“We’ve lost academia, higher education, we’re starting to lose primary and high school as well, and the executive suites of the Fortune 500 companies are dominated by leftists, who have bought into the whole diversity culture that breeds the identity politics that I think is ripping the whole country apart,” he said. “It’s so clearly obvious that we’re in trouble that we’re going to have to do everything possible to stem the tide.”

Far from over: Gov. Brian Kemp has given every indication that he will sign into law House Bill 481, the anti-abortion "heartbeat" measure. He vowed during last year's campaign to sign the toughest abortion restrictions in the country, and has until May 12 to fulfill that pledge.

That, however, won’t end the campaign talk.

Abortion rights groups have said that during next year's elections they intend to target Republican lawmakers who voted for the bill, which would outlaw most abortions once a heartbeat has been detected in the womb. They also plan to go after legislators who skipped votes on the measure, which would effectively halt abortions at six weeks into a pregnancy, or before many women even know they are pregnant.

Now one of the state's leading anti-abortion groups has responded: Bring it on.

Joshua Edmonds of the Georgia Life Alliance says his group plans to “recruit 1,000 leaders across the state to help raise $1 million dollars and knock on 1 million doors in support of our pro-life elected officials.”

The veto pen comes out: In slapping down his first piece of legislation, Kemp came up against one of the more influential GOP members of the House, state Rep. Barry Fleming.

Fleming's biggest accomplishment this past legislative session was successfully steering House Bill 316 through the General Assembly. It's the bill that clears the way for the state to spend up to $150 million to replace its voting machines.

The measure Kemp vetoed would have incorporated portions of Columbia County into the town of Harlem, where Fleming lives. Both the county and the city opposed it.

Columbia County officials said they didn’t even know about the bill until the House had already passed it.

Capitol Recap

Here's a look at some of the political and government stories that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's staff broke online during the past week. To see more of them, go to www.ajc.com/politics.