When state Sen. Brandon Beach announced he tested positive for the novel coronavirus two days after attending a special legislative session last month at the Capitol, some colleagues openly aired their frustration.
The Alpharetta lawmaker’s admission has become an undercurrent of his re-election campaign, as he faces state Rep. Michael Caldwell in the Republican primary.
Beach has said, in hindsight, he shouldn’t have come to the Capitol on March 16.
“I have apologized,” Beach said. “I’ve owned it. I haven’t tried to make excuses. I would never have gone to the Capitol knowing that I had the coronavirus. I was as shocked as anybody when I got my results.”
And Caldwell said he has stayed away from using Beach’s illness as a campaign tool.
“We decided early on our focus with regard to that issue was to call for prayer for Brandon, to make sure he was healthy and focus on our campaign,” he said.
But Caldwell supporter and House colleague state Rep. Scot Turner was one of the first to call Beach out, saying on social media that he was “shaking with rage” upon learning the news and signing an online petition calling for the senator to resign.
“Michael has made sure it’s not a focus on his campaign, but it’s a focus of mine because he put my family at risk,” said Turner, who is not running for re-election and whose mother-in-law is in hospice care in his home.
Since Beach’s admission, four other state senators and one representative have also tested positive for COVID-19. A second state representative said she believed she had the virus but had not been tested. None of them have publicly accused Beach of giving them the virus.
Beach said he doesn’t believe his error will make him lose votes.
“I don’t think anybody is going to blame me for getting the coronavirus,” he said. “If they don’t want to vote for me because I got sick, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get sick.”
While the impact of Beach’s COVID-19 diagnosis remains to be seen, the virus has dramatically shifted several factors of the campaign for all candidates.
“For me, it’s been a much more broadcast campaign since we can’t get on doorsteps,” Caldwell said. “COVID has limited the person-to-person interaction.”
Caldwell announced his intent to run for the Senate’s 21st District shortly after Beach began a now-suspended campaign for Congress. Caldwell, the owner of a Woodstock software development company, said he never considered stepping aside once he learned Beach would instead run for re-election.
Beach has spent the past several years pushing to expand gambling, focusing on horse racing but also supporting casinos and sports betting. Caldwell has pushed to limit the time lawmakers can spend in the General Assembly to four terms in each chamber. Neither effort has gained much traction.
The candidates’ campaign stashes are about even, with Beach reporting about $71,200 in his campaign bank account as of Jan. 31, the last filing deadline, and Caldwell $81,400. Neither can legally raise money while the 2020 session is suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Caldwell said his goal is to bring stronger conservative values to the Senate than he believes Beach has shown.
Turner said Caldwell is “more accessible” and “much more of a servant” than Beach.
“I just think that Michael Caldwell is the better choice,” Turner said of his House colleague.
But Buzz Ahrens, the former chairman of the Cherokee County Commission, said he’s supporting Beach because he’s been more active in the county than almost any other state elected official. That’s not surprising, since Beach is executive director of the North Fulton Community Improvement District.
“Brandon and his wife, Shuntel, they’re here all the time,” Ahrens said. “I swear they spend more time in our county than they do in Fulton. He’s good, he’s accessible, he shows up and he communicates.”
Caldwell said some of the things that set him apart from Beach are his push for term limits and refusal of campaign contributions from political action committees and donors that aren’t in the state.
“I don’t believe that non-Georgians should have influence on Georgia’s Legislature,” he said.
Beach’s donors have come from across the country, but he said what’s more important than where the money came from is what he does in the district.
“The difference in this race is results,” Beach said, pointing to infrastructure projects he’s guided though the Legislature as the Senate Transportation Committee chairman. “I have produced results for the district. And I think people of District 21 recognize that.”
And with both candidates having served at least portions of the district since 2013, each is going into the election with name recognition that many more casual voters rely on when casting their ballots.
“It’s a unique race because it’s almost like you have two incumbents,” Caldwell said. “I never think incumbency advantage is irrelevant. But it’s less effective in this race.”
Beach stressed that he is the one running for re-election.
“He’s not the incumbent. I’m the incumbent,” Beach said. “He wanted to run on term limits. Term limits means you go home. It doesn’t mean you go from one side (of the Capitol) to the other.”
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