For many years, Atlanta’s well-to-do northern suburbs were considered so politically safe for Republicans that Democrats often couldn’t recruit serious challengers.
In the 6th Congressional District — covering parts of Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties — U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Roswell, regularly cruised to re-election with upwards of two-thirds of the votes in general elections.
A few miles to the east, U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, hadn’t faced serious challengers in the 7th Congressional District since he emerged from a crowded primary in 2010 to replace his former boss John Linder.
But changing demographics, simmering resentment on the left about President Donald Trump’s election and last year’s surprisingly competitive special election to succeed Price in the 6th have injected the kind of energy into the area’s Democratic circles that would have been unimaginable even two years ago.
“I used to go to people’s houses, kneel down and beg them to come and run, and they were still reluctant,” said Gabe Okoye, the chairman of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party. “This time around, I didn’t need to do much recruiting.”
Seven candidates, including six Democrats, have lined up to challenge Woodall in the 7th, based in Gwinnett and Forsyth County. And next door in the 6th, four Democrats — all first-time candidates — are angling for the chance to take on U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, R-Roswell, who won last year’s record-breaking special election.
The two metro Atlanta races are now among Georgia’s most closely watched primaries this year.
But despite the groundswell of energy on the left that has helped make battlegrounds out of suburban districts such as Atlanta’s, the benefits of incumbency, including districts drawn to favor one party, mean that few if any of the state’s congressmen are expected to lose their seats.
Incumbents “have a money advantage, they have in a lot of cases a big organizational advantage,” said Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist. “Georgia’s moderate voters and independent voters are still voting Republican. I don’t see them switching in big numbers quite yet.”
All 14 of the state’s U.S. House members are vying for re-election in this year’s midterm elections, and 12 are in contested races.
The partisan breakdown of most of Georgia’s districts, however, shows just how hard it is for newcomers to knock off sitting congressmen.
All the state’s Republican-held districts favor the party by at least 8 percentage points above the national average, according to the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan political rating site. And of the districts currently held by Democrats, the most competitive by the same yardstick is Sanford Bishop’s seat in southwest Georgia, where Democrats hold a 6-point advantage compared with the average.
Political scientists point out that voters increasingly tend to live near others who share their political beliefs. Add to that the built-in advantages enjoyed by all incumbents nationally, including name recognition and a leg up on fundraising and potential donors.
“Incumbents will engage in activities like credit claiming — ‘Look at what I did for the district, I got ‘x’ number of federal highway dollars.’ A challenger can’t do that,” said M.V. “Trey” Hood III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “Incumbents can also use their staff at taxpayer expense to help the constituents. Challengers can’t do that.”
In the past, those advantages scared would-be candidates away from challenging Georgia lawmakers.
But the heightened political activism on the left following Trump’s election, paired with an anti-incumbent atmosphere, has prompted many first-time candidates to run, whatever long odds they may face.
In 2016, Republican U.S. Rep. Jody Hice of Monroe didn’t face a single challenger. This year he faces two primary opponents and three Democratic challengers, including a Bernie Sanders-inspired UGA professor who is calling for a federal job guarantee.
There’s also increased energy on the Republican side. Eight-term Democratic U.S. Rep. David Scott didn’t face any opponents in his southwest Atlanta district two years ago, but this year he faces two GOP challengers. And Lithonia-based Democratic U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson is also being challenged by a pair of opponents, including former Falcons running back Joe Profit.
But the races that are attracting the largest share of the attention this year are undoubtedly the 6th and the 7th.
Democrats are counting on such well-off suburban districts to recapture control of the chamber this fall. But unlike last year’s special election, in which both parties flooded the district with money and staffers to aid Handel or Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff, national poohbahs have so far adopted a wait-and-see approach. Further, the Georgia governor’s race and other, more competitive state and federal contests elsewhere have also drawn away the attention of major donors.
That hasn’t stopped a bevy of first-time Democratic challengers from stepping up, motivated by the results of the 2016 election, which saw Cobb and Gwinnett counties back a Democratic candidate for president for the first time in years.
Both contests are expected to spill into runoffs on July 24 because of the sheer number of candidates on the ballot.
In the 7th District, three candidates have emerged as the most financially competitive. Georgia State University professor Carolyn Bourdeaux has bested the field — including Woodall — in fundraising so far this year. Meanwhile, businessman David Kim and lawyer Ethan Pham have shown they are willing to loan their campaigns big money to buoy their efforts.
Woodall faces one GOP challenger to his right, Marine veteran Shane Hazel, in this month’s primary, but he has largely kept a low profile. He kicked off May with more than three times as much money in the bank as the top Democratic fundraiser.
Handel has adopted a similar strategy in the 6th, where she doesn’t face any challengers until November. She’s quietly boosted her fundraising efforts, kicking off May with nearly $800,000 in the bank.
Three of Handel’s Democratic challengers have also considerably ramped up their political operations.
Former newscaster Bobby Kaple has focused his campaign on protecting Obamacare, and he’s cited his own family’s experience with twins born prematurely when calling for maintaining the current health care law.
Both Kaple and businessman Kevin Abel have partially self-funded their campaigns. A South African immigrant who has lived in the district for more than 25 years, Abel has had harsh words for Trump and his handling of an Obama-era program designed to shield young immigrants from deportation.
The surprise, last-minute entry of national gun control advocate Lucy McBath has also shaken up the race. The Democrat has the endorsement and financial backing of several gun control groups and has used her powerful family story — her teenage son Jordan Davis was fatally shot in 2012 following a dispute over his music — to make her case to voters.
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