‘If not this year, when?’ A surge of candidates seek office in Georgia

A parade of candidates poured through Georgia’s state Capitol this past week to sign up for the upcoming elections.
A parade of candidates poured through Georgia’s state Capitol this past week to sign up for the upcoming elections.

Karin Sandiford rattled off her platform for a Georgia House seat moments after she formally entered the race. She’s a single mother running as a moderate Democrat. She wants to be a voice of “everyday parents.” And she’s tired of sitting on the sidelines.

“I’ve been an independent all my adult life — until 2016. I decided to stop waiting for someone else to run and step up to do it myself,” said Sandiford, who arrived at the Capitol with three of her children to file her official paperwork. “The people have woken up. That’s what’s different about this election.”

She was talking about her campaign against Republican state Rep. John Carson, who hasn't faced a Democratic opponent since he walloped a challenger in 2012. But she might as well have invoked the mood of a bevy of first-time candidates, many of them women, seeking office this year.

Dozens of Democrats signed up to challenge incumbents who had rarely, if ever, faced opponents or to contest seats left vacant by a wave of retirements. And Republican newcomers rushed to fill the void left by GOP colleagues — or challenge incumbents they felt weren’t up to snuff.

Most of the challengers will lose — Sandiford, for one, faces a tough fight in her conservative east Cobb County district — but the surge of candidates who signed up to run for public office this past week put the Democratic enthusiasm on vivid display.

The new class of candidates included business executives and film industry gurus, former journalists and stay-at-home moms, civil rights attorneys and entrepreneurs. They said they were infuriated by Donald Trump’s presidential victory, frustrated with Atlanta politics or simply wanted their voice to be heard.

“We don’t have to be a passenger when it comes to our government,” said Sarah Riggs Amico, a logistics executive running as a Democrat for lieutenant governor. “I want us to address a growing crisis in rural America. I’d like to see fully funded schools. I want us to grow jobs. And I know I can help do that.”

When the dust settled after the weeklong qualifying period, which ended Friday, hundreds of candidates signed up to run for a sweep of races that included every statewide constitutional office, U.S. House seat and Georgia legislative contest.

In the Georgia Senate, the number of women qualifying shot up by 40 percent compared with the 2016 election. There was a 25 percent bump of female candidates in the House. About 20 seats in both chambers are open, virtually all vacated by Republicans seeking higher office or retiring.

Democrats have had little problem finding candidates to run. The party competed in 82 of 180 House races in the last vote. This year, they’ll have candidates in 121 contests – including most of the 14 GOP-held districts that Hillary Clinton carried two years ago in the presidential contest.

It's the most candidates the party has boasted since 2004, and they're launching uphill battles in deep-red districts from Brunswick to Rome. Even House Speaker David Ralston drew a Democratic challenger for the first time in more than a decade.

The biggest shake-up, though, may come in Atlanta’s suburbs. The GOP must defend roughly a dozen open legislative seats in districts ringing the city. And challengers have lined up for seats from Fayetteville to Johns Creek that were once considered safely Republican.

Democrats were already poised to make some gains, if only because the party out of power usually picks up seats in midterm elections. But Kennesaw State University political scientist Kerwin Swint said Democrats are also leveraging the energy from rookie candidates and taking advantage of metro Atlanta’s changing electorate.

“The Democrats are at least fielding a more competitive slate than in recent years,” Swint said. “And they may enjoy their share of wins this fall if present trends hold.”

‘One of the boys’

The surge of involvement echoes a national movement. More than 2,100 people took at least an initial step toward running for Congress this year, the most since the Federal Election Commission began to keep track of those records in the late 1970s.

In Georgia, men hold every statewide elected post and about three-quarters of the seats in the state Legislature, though that could change. Former Democratic state legislators Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans are competing to be the state’s first female governor. Women have signed up to run for most other statewide spots and each competitive U.S. House seat.

Republicans are also benefiting from the wave, and party leaders note candidates such as attorney Leah Aldridge and film industry specialist Taryn Bowman who are running for competitive seats. State Sen. Renee Unterman, who until recently was the only female GOP state senator, said the talk is overblown about a political upheaval powered by women.

“I don’t really think gender matters as much anymore. I’m considered one of the boys in the caucus and have been for quite a while. And I get along with them fine, and I can compete with them fine,” she said, adding: “Women are not biased — they want results.”

And though Democrats were buoyed by flipping three state legislative districts last year in special elections, Republicans claimed the biggest Georgia victory in 2017. That was U.S. Rep. Karen Handel’s win over Democrat Jon Ossoff in the most expensive U.S. House contest ever.

Asked whether she was concerned that a deluge of Democrat enthusiasm could inundate GOP incumbents, Handel summoned up her 4-point victory last summer.

“Well, wasn’t that the talk in June?” she said.

‘High intensity’

With Ossoff deciding to stay on the sidelines, Handel faces a different sort of competition this year.

Three main challengers with diverse backgrounds are running: businessman Kevin Abel, an immigrant from South Africa; former newscaster Bobby Kaple, whose prematurely born kids sharpened his focus on health care; and Lucy McBath, who became an advocate for tougher gun restrictions after her son’s shooting death.

In other races, Democrats who once struggled to recruit one credible contender are now grappling with a glut of candidates.

U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, who coasted to past victories over lightly funded competitors, has drawn seven challengers for his Gwinnett County-based seat. Five people are targeting U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, who faced but one low-profile opponent in 2016. And two Democrats are competing for the right to challenge U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who holds one of the most conservative House districts on the Eastern Seaboard.

“All of us recognize that there’s intensity on both sides — and high intensity around Democrat candidates,” said Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Republican front-runner for governor. “But our message will create momentum around what we are trying to do.”

For Democrats, there’s more than a hint of unfinished business on the line.

Angelika Kausche, a retired professor, got a taste of politics from her work for Ossoff’s campaign. She was hooked. She recruited a host of precinct captains and other veterans from that race to help knock on hundreds of doors in her Johns Creek district.

The territory was seen as so conservative that no Democrat bothered to run for the spot in 2016. It’s open now — the incumbent is running for higher office — and Kausche is all in.

“Why now? Well, we have the energy, the enthusiasm and the candidates to actually challenge,” said Kausche, a naturalized citizen from Germany.

“If not this year, when?”

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