Depth of candidates ensures Georgia races will go beyond May primary

Henry Mathis waits Monday morning to qualify as a Democrat to run for Georgia House District 153. BenGray.com / Special
Henry Mathis waits Monday morning to qualify as a Democrat to run for Georgia House District 153. BenGray.com / Special

Voters in more than half of the state’s legislative districts will get a choice in the November election in Georgia, where for years the bulk of the contests were decided during party primaries.

By the time candidate qualifying ended at the Capitol on Friday both parties were contesting 120 of the state’s 236 legislative seats.

That’s up from about 100 two-party races in 2018 and a marked jump from 2016, when voters in only about 50 districts had a choice after the May primary.

Republicans have controlled both legislative chambers since 2005, but Democrats are battling to flip at least 16 of the House’s 180 seats to gain control of the chamber for the first time since 2004. It’s a tougher fight for Democrats in the Senate, where they would need to pick up eight of the chamber’s 56 seats to become the majority party.

And failing to control at least one chamber could have decade-long ramifications for Democrats if they want to have a strong say as lawmakers draw new voting districts after the 2020 census. If Republicans succeed in maintaining control of both chambers, Democrats could face another decade struggling to gain power in the Legislature.

State Sen. Elena Parent of Atlanta, the vice chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, is pushing lawmakers to create an independent commission that would oversee redistricting.

“But if that does not happen, then, of course, the next best thing is that both parties actually have a seat at the table,” she said.

Democrats picked up 11 seats in the House and two in the Senate in 2018 — the biggest gains by the party in about 20 years — mostly in Atlanta’s northern suburbs. In 2016, Democrats won both Cobb and Gwinnett counties in the presidential election for the first time since Jimmy Carter was on the ballot.

This year, Democrats are competing against 76 incumbent Republican lawmakers, with 26 Democratic incumbents facing Republican challenges in November.

“Georgia Democrats are ready to fight in every corner of our state,” Georgia Democratic Party Chairwoman Nikema Williams said. “We are shattering records for candidate recruitment and building our movement because we have refused to take a single seat for granted, from the reddest red to the bluest blue.”

But Republicans have said they are confident they’ll hold on to majorities in both chambers — and say they will point to their records since taking control of the House and Senate in the 2000s as evidence that their policies are best for Georgia.

“Our goal is not to simply stem the losses in the suburbs, but to reverse them,” Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer said.

And Republicans say they aren’t taking for granted the majorities they currently hold in each chamber.

To stave off any Democratic gains in the House, state Republicans last year announced a GOP Majority Outreach plan — known as GOPMojo — to spend $10 million on 30 of the state's most competitive seats in the chamber.

Republicans in the Senate are also zeroing in on defending seats in Atlanta’s northern suburbs.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who serves as president of the Senate, established an independent fund last year to funnel money to protect the chamber's Republicans and target seats that were recently won by Democrats.

“It’s tough to predict how much and exactly how the national political climate will impact state legislative races, but I’m confident we’ll hold our majority in the Senate,” said John Porter, Duncan’s chief of staff.

Some of the Legislature’s leadership will face opponents from within their party and in the general election.

After narrowly holding on to his seat in 2018, House Minority Leader Bob Trammell will face entrepreneur Frederick Manley in the Democratic primary. Two Republicans also have filed for the rural Georgia seat based in Luthersville.

No Republicans signed up to challenge House Speaker David Ralston, who last year faced calls from within his party to step down from the top position in the chamber. An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News last year found Ralston, a defense attorney and Blue Ridge Republican, frequently delayed criminal cases by claiming court dates interfered with his legislative duties when lawmakers weren't in session.

But Ralston will have opposition in November, when he faces off in a rematch of the 2018 contest against entrepreneur Rick Day, a Democrat, whom he beat convincingly two years ago.

Many of the races up for grabs are due to turnover — eight state senators and 18 House members are either retiring from public service or seeking higher office.

For example, state Sens. Zahra Karinsha, D-DuluthRenee Unterman, R-Buford; and John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa; and state Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, all are vacating their seats to run for Congress.

And first-term Trenton Republican state Rep. Colton Moore is seeking higher office as well.

Earlier this week he said he would not seek re-election and had "concluded my time, resources and treasure are not best suited" for the Georgia House. Three Republicans have filed in that race. But on Friday, Moore filed paperwork for a seat across the hall — to challenge Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, a Chickamauga Republican.

Democrats are competing in 187 legislative races overall, party officials said. Republicans are running in 168 contests.

"I am so proud to have a slate of candidates that truly represents Georgia, and I know that these Democrats will turn out the strong, diverse coalition we need to win," said Williams, who also is a state senator from Atlanta.

Democratic newcomers offered an array of reasons they’re competing. In interviews over the past week, they spoke of a desire to expand Georgia’s Medicaid program and combat President Donald Trump’s agenda. And many invoked the 2019 law that sought to restrict abortions as early as six weeks.

Kelly Rose, who works in the film industry, said she was miffed by state Sen. Brian Strickland's "dismissive demeanor" when she urged the McDonough Republican to vote against the measure. A staunch conservative and one of Gov. Brian Kemp's allies, Strickland was a prominent supporter of the bill.

“I soon was presented with my own choice: be upset with the status quo and do nothing, or take action and fight back,” she said. “That is when I made the decision to run for office, to be the person that can stand up for the entire community.”

But Shafer said Republicans are ready for the battle.

“You know, during the 16 years of a Republican ‘super majority’ (where Republicans held more than two-thirds of state Senate seats), most elections were decided in primaries,” Shafer said. “We’re rising, now, to meet the Democratic challenge by focusing on general election races.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

By the numbers

236 legislative seats: 180 House, 56 Senate

120 two-party races

76 Democrats challenging Republican incumbents

26 Republicans challenging Democratic incumbents

50 Democratic primary contests

30 Republican primary contests