GOP primary challenger Shane Hazel, left, shakes hands with U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall before a recent debate at the Forsyth County Administration Building in Cumming. Hazel said he thinks special counsel Robert Mueller “should probably be terminated at the president’s discretion. “Collusion like they have talked about is not a crime in the first place,” Hazel said. Woodall said he supports the probe “getting to the bottom so that folks don’t have any questions at all about who did what to whom and when did they do it.” But he also said: “We have had the best lawyers in the business trying to catch him on it. And they failed. We finished our investigation in the House — terminated it with no finding of wrongdoing. And it is coming time for Mr. Mueller to do the same.” STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Georgia’s congressional candidates split over President Donald Trump

When U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall was asked during a recent debate about Robert Mueller’s investigation, the Lawrenceville Republican said he was offended by the way President Donald Trump “has been maligned for what folks have shown absolutely no proof of whatsoever.”

Moments later, Woodall applauded Trump’s international negotiating tactics, the same ones that have prompted anxiety across swaths of rural America as farmers sweat the prospect of a trade war with China.

Trump’s divisiveness, paired with Democrats’ aggressive efforts to flip GOP seats in suburbs such as Atlanta’s, has caused some Republicans in increasingly competitive congressional districts to think twice about so closely embracing the president.

But Woodall is fully and unapologetically backing the commander in chief as he runs for a fifth term in Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, which includes a large chunk of Gwinnett County, a majority-minority immigrant hub that narrowly voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Meanwhile, several of Woodall’s six Democratic challengers are running on explicitly anti-Trump platforms ahead of their May 22 primary.

That comes even as the head of House Democrats’ campaign arm is insisting the party should focus more on local issues and less on Trump in order to win independents in this year’s midterm elections.

House Democrats have listed Georgia’s 7th as one of 104 House districts they are working hardest to flip this year. Republicans have controlled the seat for more than 20 years.

Trump may have record low approval ratings among all voters compared with his predecessors, but his support remains high among Republicans and particularly GOP primary voters. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll of likely voters in the GOP primary that was released Friday shows the president with an approval rating of 80 percent. In addition, 53 percent said support for Trump was “very important” in determining who will get their vote.

So it would be risky for Woodall to oppose the president during their party’s nominating contest, said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University.

But Democratic congressional candidates, he said, should zero in on Republican voters who dislike Trump.

“If you are a Republican, you are probably not going to have that much success in reaching out to Democrats right now anyway,” Abramowitz said. “For a Democrat to win in that district, you would have to be able to appeal to some of these Republicans who are turned off by Trump.”

‘He is who he said he was going to be’

Woodall speaks about Trump and his agenda in emphatic, enthusiastic terms.

The four-term incumbent has an agenda he wants to pursue in Washington, including paying down the national debt and replacing federal incomes taxes with a national consumption tax, and he said having an ally in the White House willing to sign his legislation is invaluable. Of his own relationship with Trump, Woodall describes things as “transactional.”

“There’s not a single idea that the district and I can put together that I couldn’t, if moved to the president’s desk, get him to sign,” Woodall said. “He’s on board with where we are in terms of problem-solving.”

Woodall also says the news media has not given Trump enough credit for his work on the economy, cutting regulatory red tape and restarting North Korean nuclear disarmament talks. America would be a far less divided place, the congressman said, if there were more focus on the president’s successes rather than on his scandals.

“I’m pretty sure when the president ran he ran as a coarse candidate, he ran as a candid candidate,” Woodall said. “You might be surprised America voted for him, but he is who he said he was going to be.

“So to continue to litigate that as if that is news … hasn’t that happened once a month since he entered the national stage and hasn’t he still been getting things done that put more money in working families’ pockets, that are helping kids get to college, that are making a difference for entrepreneurs who want to start jobs? When are we going to have that conversation?”

While all 12 of the state’s Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill endorsed Trump ahead of the 2016 elections, Woodall has been one of the president’s more vocal defenders in the delegation.

Next door in the 6th District, U.S. Rep. Karen Handel kept her distance from Trump when she first entered the special election to replace Tom Price last year. But she later embraced the president, sharing a stage with him and accepting his fundraising help after securing the GOP nomination.

Both Woodall and Handel have voted with the White House and its legislative priorities roughly 97 percent of the time, according to the political analysis blog FiveThirtyEight. That’s slightly higher than average for the state’s GOP lawmakers, even though all have backed his priorities at least 89 percent of the time, according to the blog.

‘A tweet away’

Democratic Party leaders, meanwhile, are urging their candidates to focus on local issues rather than Trump. Many remember all too well how poorly the anti-Trump message played on the campaign trail in 2016.

“People out there are tired about talking about the president,” U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, recently told regional newspaper reporters. “And the president is going to talk about himself more than anyone else will, so we don’t need to do it as Democrats.”

“Republicans,” he added, “are going to have to be out there having to explain for him, and we’re going to be talking about the real issues that families are facing every day.”

The party has taken a similar approach to calls in some liberal circles to seriously consider impeaching the president. Most local Democratic candidates have steered clear of that impeachment debate, which recently made a stop in Atlanta, but that hasn’t stopped many 7th District challengers to take shots at Trump on the campaign trail.

Still, a recent AJC/Channel 2 poll of likely voters in the upcoming Democratic primary shows the president with an approval rating of 7 percent. In the same poll, 60 percent said opposition to Trump would be a “very important” factor in determining which candidate they would back.

Outrage over Trump’s election is what drove many first-time candidates into politics, and it energized many potential political supporters. That includes Carolyn Bourdeaux, a Georgia State University professor who outraised Woodall in campaign contributions during the first quarter of this year.

“I am running for office because I woke up on Nov. 9 of 2016 and found out that Donald Trump had been elected president,” the Suwanee resident said at a recent Forsyth County Democratic Party forum. “And I recognized that I needed to step up for my values and what I believe this country is about.

“I believe this country is about being inclusive, it is about diversity, it is about being global, it is about being cosmopolitan. It is not about being sexist, about being racist or being isolationist.”

In an interview at her campaign office, Bourdeaux criticized Trump for questioning President Barack Obama’s U.S. citizenship and for presiding over campaign rallies where his supporters vented their anger over Clinton by chanting “Lock her up!”

Bourdeaux also took aim at Trump’s repeated efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and for his decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

“Our country is on the wrong path,” she said. “He has hijacked the Republican Party. And someone like Rob Woodall is going right along with that.”

Bourdeaux is not the only Democratic candidate in the 7th to frequently slam Trump.

Ethan Pham, a lawyer from Duluth who is sharply critical of Trump’s immigration policies, has called the president a “wannabe dictator.” David Kim, an entrepreneur who also lives in Duluth, addressed Trump’s cutting Twitter feed during a campaign luncheon in March, saying, “We are quite frankly a tweet away from a catastrophe every minute.”

But there are other Democrats who are intentionally steering clear of Trump.

Kathleen Allen, a Norcross resident who is aiming for Woodall’s congressional seat, is among them. She is campaigning on overhauling the nation’s health care system, cutting the unemployment rate and raising the minimum wage.

“I don’t want the Democratic Party to be the ‘no’ of the left, whereas the tea partyers were the ‘no’ of the right,” said Allen, who works for a nonprofit health care provider. “We have got to go back to being the progressive Democrats that did great things for this country and not be the neoliberals who were what I understood Republicans to be when I grew up and studied government.”

Though Allen doesn’t dwell on Trump, her position on the president is clear: “My values start with honesty and empathy, and I don’t see those values coming from him. And that’s about all I’ll say.”

The Mueller probe

Democrats may see Gwinnett as fertile political territory, but the 7th also includes a swath of deeply conservative Forsyth County, which voted for Trump by more than 47 percentage points in 2016.

Woodall’s approach to Trump was on full display there in March, when he clashed with primary challenger Shane Hazel at a packed debate in the Forsyth County Administration Building.

The two were asked about Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Woodall said he supports “getting to the bottom so that folks don’t have any questions at all about who did what to whom and when did they do it.” He then turned to the allegations swirling around Trump’s presidential campaign.

“It offends me the way the president has been maligned for what folks have shown absolutely no proof of whatsoever,” he said. “We have had the best lawyers in the business trying to catch him on it. And they failed. We finished our investigation in the House — terminated it with no finding of wrongdoing. And it is coming time for Mr. Mueller to do the same.”

Hazel, a Marine Corps veteran who is campaigning to the right of Woodall on many issues, went a step further in Trump’s direction.

“Collusion like they have talked about is not a crime in the first place, and so it should be dismissed and Mueller should probably be terminated at the president’s discretion,” Hazel said. “He is the boss indeed.”

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