Five Georgia congressmen draw primary challengers

U.S. Rep. David Scott faces three challengers in the 2020 Democratic primary for his 13th Congressional District seat. He is pictured here during a visit to the Atlanta VA Medical Center in 2013. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Five sitting members of Congress from Georgia have primary challengers this year, most of them political unknowns who have struggled to raise money or gain traction ahead of the June 9 election.

The COVID-19 pandemic has likely handicapped these challengers even more, pausing the neighborhood canvassing and small-group meetings that are the foundation of grassroots campaigns.

The incumbents — U.S. Reps. Buddy Carter, Hank Johnson, John Lewis, Austin Scott and David Scott — still say they are not taking the upcoming election for granted and campaigning with the hopes that voters will agree to keep them around for another two-year term.

Of the five, David Scott appears to be the one whose race has drawn the most attention. Candidates for five congressional seats were invited to participate in televised debates hosted by the Atlanta Press Club, but the other four races were open seats with no incumbent.

Scott declined to participate in the debate, and his opponents said it was more evidence that he is an absent leader who is out of touch with the constituents in a seat he has held for 17 years.

“It’s unfortunate that he is not here today to answer these questions, but I think it’s important as an elected official to be accessible and accountable to people in your district,” former Cobb County Democratic Party Chairman Michael Owens said during the event.

The three challengers are running on the same general platform: that they can do better than Scott. His race reflects the changing demographics of the party. Younger, more progressive candidates have begun challenging established incumbents with moderate records that provide room for criticism.

Former East Point Mayor Jannquell Peters said Scott’s voting history shows his priorities do not align with his constituents in the 13th District. Scott is among the most conservative Democrats in Congress.

“His committee votes that have paved the way to deregulate banks, his votes that roll back consumer protections, that keep us involved in wars — it shows us that he has made his choice to support special interests that have little interest in showing up for hardworking families,” Peters said.

Still, Scott has much more money to spend on robocalls, mailers and campaign videos. None of his challengers come anywhere close to the $281,877 he had in cash on hand at the end of the first quarter.

Owens had $14,529 in his account, Peters had a negative balance and former state Rep. Keisha Sean Waites, the third challenger, didn’t report anything to the Federal Election Commission.

Scott told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his decision to sit out the APC debate does not mean he has been absent. He has held virtual town halls, participated in conference calls and responded to individual constituents and small businesses in need of assistance, he said.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing that we live in a country where a public servant like myself can seek public office and run their campaign the way they feel is best to reach the voters I have been so honored to represent over the years,” Scott said.

In the 1st District, Carter also has a sizable fundraising lead over his competition in the Republican primary. He had $1.8 million in cash on hand, compared with challenger Danny Merritt’s $6,500.

A third candidate, Ken Yasger, qualified to place his name on the ballot but has not submitted any materials to the FEC. Yasger is deployed with the National Guard, helping sanitize nursing homes and conduct testing during the COVID-19 pandemic. He says the campaign, which he launched with little money in the bank, has taken a back seat.

“If you want a true outsider to vote for, vote for the guy that they’re not even talking about,” he likes to tell constituents.

Carter said he is still campaigning as if he could lose the seat; “running scared,” he calls it.

He tries to meet people face to face when he can, he said, often while volunteering at local food banks during the pandemic. His staff keeps his social media accounts active. He doesn’t plan on losing.

“This is where I was born and raised and where I’ve lived all my life and I intend to live the rest of my life,” Carter said about his southeast Georgia seat. “And this is an important job, and I take it very seriously.”

Johnson’s Democratic challengers in the 4th District are William Haston and Elaine Amankwah Nietmann. Austin Scott will face Vance Dean and Danny Ellyson in the GOP primary for the 8th District.

Johnson was also among five members of the state’s congressional delegation who faced primaries in 2018, although he had a different opponent then. Of the four other incumbents who also had primaries two years ago, U.S. Reps. Rob Woodall and Tom Graves decided not to run again this year. Reps. Jody Hice and Drew Ferguson did not draw primary challengers this year.

Lewis’ opponent in the primary says he doesn’t disagree with anything the longtime Democratic congressman and civil rights leader says or stands for. Barrington Martin II even sent letters to Lewis’ home and office praising his decades of advocacy.

In those same letters, the 32-year-old former paralegal asked Lewis to endorse him and mentor him as a successor. He said it’s time for Lewis, 80, to let a new generation take the lead.

“Why not get behind a young man such as myself who just wants to continue his work but revolutionize it and do things for the city that have never been done before,” Martin said later.

Lewis, who continues receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer, said he still has much more to accomplish in his own life and for the people in the 5th District.

“I am fighting the same fight I have been for 33 years in Congress — the fight for opportunity for all people, not just in my district, but throughout the country,” he said in a statement. “Now is no time to rest. I am not tired, I am not weary, and I will continue to be available to every constituent who needs me.”

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