Georgia Democrats face a key test next week as they compete in a sweep of conservative-leaning districts, some for the first time since the lines were redrawn, as they try to claw into the huge Republican advantage in the General Assembly.
All nine seats up for grabs in Tuesday’s state legislative special elections feature a Democratic contender — no small feat for a party that often doesn’t mount even token opposition in GOP strongholds. Party leaders hope the challengers, despite the long odds, are a taste of what’s to come next year.
Democrats are in the running to represent districts covering parts of Athens, Cumming, Dalton and Watkinsville that haven’t seen a Democratic challenger since the maps were redrawn in 2012. And they’re mounting a furious campaign to wrest away an Atlanta-based district that a political newcomer almost won last year.
The fallout is already evident. The mayor of Athens was ousted from the local Democratic Party after she endorsed the GOP candidate in the race. Republican activists in Forsyth County sent a blaring warning to voters that Democrats have staked a 2-to-1 edge in early voting. More than $1 million has been raised by candidates from both parties.
Some of the Democratic candidates acknowledge it’s a long shot to win districts that have long been held by Republicans. But they say they’re eager to offer voters another choice after elections of one-party rule. Besides, they add, anything can happen in low-turnout special elections.
The GOP holds commanding numbers in both the House (118 Republicans to 62 Democrats) and in the Senate (38 Republicans to 18 Democrats).
“When one party becomes dominant and then the folks on the other side don’t speak up — I believe we all suffer for that,” said Jonathan Wallace, a software developer running for the Watkinsville-based seat. “There’s less of a push and pull on ideas. Competition of ideas needs to happen for us to get the best results as a state and as a district.”
Republicans are quick to point to the scoreboard: Namely, Republican Karen Handel’s June victory over Democrat Jon Ossoff in the costliest U.S. House race ever.
"If the 6th Congressional District showed us anything, it's that the candidate who most closely represents the beliefs and values of their district is the candidate that wins," Georgia GOP Chairman John Watson said. "And the Georgia Republican Party is confident that's going to be the Republican candidate in these conservative districts."
Democrats are still smarting from last year’s election. In the 2016 vote, Donald Trump’s struggles in metro Atlanta hobbled down-ticket Republicans, giving Democrats an unexpected shot to flip more seats. But few of the suddenly competitive districts had credible challengers.
The numbers paint the picture: Only 31 of the 180 state House seats in Georgia featured candidates from both parties. An Associated Press analysis found that uncontested rate of 83 percent was the highest in the nation.
That meant incumbents with checkered histories, including one who pleaded guilty to charges of drunken driving in the middle of the day and another who defended the Ku Klux Klan, easily coasted to another term.
Some were infuriated by Trump’s victory. Others were inspired by Ossoff, a 30-year-old newcomer who shattered fundraising records in an unsuccessful bid for Congress. And many just wanted a bigger stake in their communities.
"I am horrified by the Trump presidency," said Teri Anulewicz, a Smyrna councilwoman who is running unopposed for a seat Stacey Evans vacated so she could run for governor. "But there are so many issues that I recognize and saw on the City Council that are better addressed through the Legislature."
Several of the districts up for grabs are, like the Smyrna seat, Democratic strongholds. But House Minority Leader Bob Trammell said the Democratic challenges in more hostile territory make Tuesday’s vote a watershed moment for a party ready to scrap with the GOP.
“Our candidates are making the Democratic case from Watkinsville to Whitfield County,” he said, “and voters are excited to have competitive campaigns presenting important policy contrasts on the issues.”
‘We must stop them’
Republicans are bracing for the challenge, mindful that it's likely a prelude to next year's contests. That's when Democrats will be gunning for more than a dozen Republican-held legislative seats that Hillary Clinton carried. Democrats also hope strong down-ticket candidates can help candidates for governor and other statewide office.
In Athens, Republican Houston Gaines hopes to fend off a challenge for a seat vacated by Regina Quick after she was tapped for a judgeship. Gaines, a 22-year-old who last year was the student body president at the University of Georgia, quickly scared off GOP opponents and consolidated his party’s support.
But his candidacy has galvanized local Democrats, who recruited attorney Deborah Gonzalez to run. At a testy September meeting, the local party ousted Mayor Nancy Denson after she endorsed Gaines, her former campaign manager, instead of backing her party's candidate.
Conservatives are also aiming to fortify a swing district that stretches through parts of Buckhead and east Cobb County that Republican Hunter Hill narrowly won last year. At a recent forum, Republican activists implored attendees to back whichever GOP candidate emerges from the crowded field, and they distributed flyers about the vote to give to Halloween trick-or-treaters.
And in Forsyth County, Republicans have raised alarms about Democrat Steve Smith, a retail manager running to upend the status quo in territory Trump carried by nearly 50 percentage points. Forsyth GOP Chairman Justin Hawkins recently announced a wave of robo-calls and phone bank sessions to support the two Republican contenders.
“We must stop them with our ideas combined with an effective plan of action,” Hawkins wrote to supporters.
Smith, a newcomer who brings his wife and daughter to campaign events, said he’s unfazed. At a recent campaign stop in a Cumming strip mall, he told a few dozen supporters he’s running because there are “no typical people like us” in the state Legislature anymore.
“I’ve lived in Forsyth County for 10 years and I’ve never had anyone to vote for,” Smith said. “Some people think we are leftist Commies, but we need to represent.”
SPECIAL LEGISLATIVE ELECTIONS
Senate District 6
Leah Aldridge, Republican
Matt Bentley, Republican
Kathy Eichenblatt, Republican
Charlie Fiveash, Republican
Jaha Howard, Democrat
Jen Jordan, Democrat
Leo Smith, Republican
Taos Wynn, Democrat
Senate District 39
Nick Carlson, Republican
Marckeith DeJesus, Democrat
Linda Pritchett, Democrat
Elijah Tutt, Democrat
Nikema Williams, Democrat
House District 4
Eddie Caldwell, Republican
Kasey Carpenter, Republican
Beau Patton, Republican
Peter Pociask, Democrat
House District 26
Marc Morris, Republican
Steve Smith, Democrat
Tina Trent, Republican
House District 42
Teri Anulewicz, Democrat
House District 60
Sparkle Adams, Democrat
De’Andre Pickett, Democrat
Kim Schofield, Democrat
House District 89
David Abbott, Democrat
Monique Keane, Democrat
Bee Nguyen, Democrat
Sachin Varghese, Democrat
House District 117
Houston Gaines, Republican
Deborah Gonzalez, Democrat
House District 119
Lawton Lord, Republican
Steven Strickland, Republican
Marcus Wiedower, Republican
Jonathan Wallace, Democrat
Credit: DeKalb County District Attorney's Office