The Atlanta suburbs have been the cornerstone of Republican politics in Georgia for decades, a place so comfortably conservative that Democrats across the Northern Arc rarely even bothered to challenge incumbents.
Until President Donald Trump, that is.
Even as rural areas in Georgia grow more reliably Republican, the suburbs north of I-285 have become the state’s most competitive political battleground. That’s due, in large part, to the women who live there.
If Republicans face a reckoning in Georgia in 2020, it’ll likely be because of suburban women who are fed up with Trump and his allies, a large cast that includes U.S. Sen. David Perdue and Gov. Brian Kemp.
And if Republicans make a comeback here in 2020, it’ll likely be because of suburban women who see his challenger as an extremist and buy into the president’s views on the economy, illegal immigration and other pivotal issues.
A massive demographic shift and a double-digit gender gap explain why suburban women are in the political cross-hairs.
Polls show women in bedroom communities circling the city helped Stacey Abrams nearly win the governor's race last year. She captured 51% of the suburban vote – 5 points more than Hillary Clinton in 2016. Democrats believe they have room to expand that margin in the 'burbs next year.
Four prominent Democratic women jumped into the race for a Gwinnett-based U.S. House seat shortly after Republican Rob Woodall decided not to seek another term. Next door, Democrat Lucy McBath is defending her seat after an upset victory in the 6th District. And Democrats are targeting more suburban Republicans after flipping about a dozen state legislative seats in 2018.
Some Republicans are trying to reframe the narrative away from Trump and toward pocketbook issues – tax cuts, economic growth, education initiatives. They hope that Democrats’ impeachment efforts will be seen as purely partisan, driving more women into their camp.
State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Cobb Republican who is one of a handful of suburban GOP women in the state Legislature, makes the case that her party needs to “find the middle.”
“Most of my neighbors want to be left alone and raise their kids. They’re not at the Capitol waving signs,” said Kirkpatrick, a surgeon. “Our party sometimes gets a little off when we let a few people make loud noises and hijack the whole thing.”
While the political turmoil has energized a new wave of Democrats in the suburbs, it also has forced some Republican women to reassess - or reaffirm - their political priorities.
For Karla Jacobs, a conservative writer with a devoted following, Trump’s rise has forced her to rethink her Republican orthodoxy.
Sunita Theiss, a rising star in grassroots activism, can’t support Trump – but has grown more committed to conservative movements.
And Ginger Howard has set aside her initial concerns about Trump to become one of the president’s most prominent supporters in Georgia. A member of Trump’s coalition of women, she travels the state – and the nation – to promote his re-election.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spent hours with each of these women over the last few months to explore their views on a 2020 election that will test the nation – and Georgia’s track record as a conservative state.
The wavering Republican
Karla Jacobs is exacting – with her politics, with her family, and with her dog.
“OK, baby, Jackson – come on.”
The 49-year-old is training the Boykin Spaniel at an obedience program in Marietta. When she accidentally drops a treat, she snatches it before the dog can.
Her goal is to take him off the leash in the woods during the long back-country hiking trips in the mountains with her husband and two children. It’s easier said than done: Jackson is easily excitable. But, by the third run, he’s getting the hang of it.
Jackson’s journey might just get a spot in Jacobs’ next column. A former college athlete who now lives in Cobb County, she often pens long essays to hone her personal philosophy.
She grew up a political agnostic in Hall County, a fixture in the home of her local state senator – then-Democrat Nathan Deal, whose children were among her close friends. During sleepover parties at their home she’d wake up to the smell of his wife Sandra’s breakfast.
There were pancakes for early-risers, eggs for the next wave and plain-old cereal for late sleepers. (Jacobs was definitely in the third round.)
She credits the Deals with inspiring her to get involved in local government, starting with stuffing envelopes for the politician’s first run for Congress back in 1992. Over the years, she helped him and other Republicans win elections as she became a reliable conservative voice in state political matters.
But the 2016 election sparked an internal conflict she’s still coming to grips with. For the first time in her life, Jacobs didn’t vote for a Republican for president – and instead wrote in third-party candidate Evan McMullin. Her husband voted for Hillary Clinton – and dialed her right after to say, partly in jest, he needed to shower.
“It was entirely Trump related,” she says. “I just don’t feel like he is qualified for the job. I don’t like his style. He is not conservative and he’s a jerk. He’s a misogynist, a racist – all of those things.
“And it was horrifying to watch him run.”
Jacobs doesn’t feel she’s betrayed her party; in fact, she believes she has grown more faithful to her values. The silver lining to his presidency, she adds with a grimace, is that it’s led to teachable moments with her teenage daughter about how men treat women.
And she’s having a hard time coming to terms with the rightward shift of Georgia Republicans like Kemp, who has unequivocally backed Trump and embraced conservative positions that Deal, his predecessor in the governor’s office, did not.
“Have I made a clean break from Georgia Republicans? Yes and no. I understand why my friends in Georgia stay, but I’m paying more attention to all the candidates now than I did before,” she says. “I am no longer a reliable Republican voter.”
Jacobs sees elections as a market, with a vote as a currency. And every time she withholds her vote, she wants it to send a message.
That’s the reason she didn’t support Kemp – the chainsaw and pickup truck and shotgun ads alienated her – though she acknowledges she’s been pleased with his first months in office and supports the anti-abortion legislation he signed into law.
Even so, she has not made peace with Trump. Not even close. She doesn’t like the “othering” from the White House villainizing outsiders. She thinks he doesn’t care about societal norms, about Constitutional principles, about “how things are supposed to be done.”
And she supports the impeachment inquiry into Trump, saying that, combined with the findings of the Mueller report, they show a pattern of “corrupt behavior” that she can’t stomach. She’s actively seeking to support someone who will push back against him, even if that means backing Democrats.
Her ideal candidate? Someone like Sen. Johnny Isakson, an establishment Republican who has frequently criticized the president and recently announced he would step down at year’s end to cope with medical issues.
Still, the political turmoil hasn’t dimmed her outlook. Her Cobb County home backs up to a Civil War battlefield, which gives her useful context whenever she hears the drumbeat of doomsday premonitions.
“Things have been worse. We’ll survive this,” Jacobs says. “But at some point, he’ll leave the stage.”
The bigger lesson she hopes we take from Trump’s presidency is one of civility – the need to stop seeing the other side of the aisle as enemies. Most people who aren’t involved in politics, she says, just want things to work.
“It feels like things aren’t working right now. But at some point, they will again.”
The grassroots activist
Sunita Theiss came to conservative politics in an unusual way.
Her father was plagued by seizures and epilepsy most of his adult life, and his health worsened when she was in high school. She’d often vote for the candidate who she thought would keep health policies in place to help cover her dad’s care, and they were mostly Democrats.
The Dunwoody native voted for Barack Obama in 2008, hopeful that he would be a catalyst for sweeping change. She believes he changed campaigning with a new approach to engaging younger voters. But she grew disillusioned by his policies.
Soon, she was telling friends she was a moderate even though she privately suspected she was a Republican. It was at a point of flux in her life: She had converted from Hinduism to Christianity in 2010, and was starting to pay attention more to politics.
She met her future husband, John Henry Theiss, on the Tinder dating app in 2014. It was not love at first sight — she almost didn’t go on a second date. But a mutual friend convinced her not to cancel. He was determined in his conservatism, and their daily debates helped her refine her philosophy.
As they batted around ideas over dinner dates, something quickly became clear: She sure didn’t sound like a moderate – particularly when it came to her opposition to abortion rights. He challenged her to do something about it.
“I realized it when we were talking about abortion – if it’s something you care about, then I should stand up and say it,” she says.
Still, as she drifted toward Republican politics, Theiss also made a conscious effort not to retreat to a conservative echo chamber.
She tuned into liberal radio shows and read right-leaning blogs to form her own opinion so she didn’t have to parrot Republican talking points.
That helped shape her mindset in the 2016 election. She voted Republican down the ballot, except at the top. She cast her vote for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson. She didn’t see Trump as a true conservative.
His victory made her determined to get more involved. She saw it as a sign that Republican politics in Georgia needed a wave of change. She joined the board of the Atlanta Young Republicans and made connections with millennials who aren’t happy with the party’s direction.
Sunita’s political stance has taken a toll. She’s lost friends. She’s felt afraid to speak out against abortion. To people who disagree with her on Facebook, or threaten to cut her off, she has a standard response. She invites them to coffee or dinner to talk it over. No one has taken her up on the offer yet.
But she’s also grown comfortable with her shifting outlook. Of the nine tattoos inking her body, one of the most prominent is a Greek letter delta, a symbol for change.
The 31-year-old recently started working as a writer for a faith-based ministry and plunged herself more deeply into grassroots politics, making new connections with people who have also wrestled with their political views.
“I don’t know what our generation’s legacy is going to be, but I know I want to be a part of it,” she says. “My job is to create spaces for women who identify as Republican or conservative.”
They have brunch. They do volunteer work together. They go to Republican meetings at trendy breweries.
“There are a lot of women who don’t have a space like this. My friends are mostly liberal, and I felt afraid to say, ‘I think abortion is bad.’ You can’t be yourself 100%,” Theiss says. “It’s been cool to find community – I don’t have to hide what I think.”
The other day, she shared the stage with two well-known Republican women politicians at a Midtown brewery, but it was Theiss’ comments that helped frame the conversation.
“As young members of the party, we are catalysts for change,” she tells the crowd, as heads nod in agreement. “It’s up to us to decide what we want the party to look like – for the next four and eight years, but also the next 50 years.”
The movement to impeach Trump was just beginning to take off then, and Theiss confessed she struggled with it.
“I would like to support Trump, but right now he’s not setting himself up where I can do that,” she sighs. “If the man wasn’t on Twitter, maybe I’d have an easier time.”
The distrust and divide can feel depressing. She’s ticked off at the country, the same way a mother is disappointed in her child. She worries America is not living up to its potential, and she knows 2020 could be even worse. It’s going to get messy and ugly. She won’t be surprised if Trump is elected again.
Maybe her frustration is borne out of her background. Theiss’ parents grew up in India, earned graduate degrees and in the 1980s came to the U.S. as consultants for the same company. They fell in love and settled in Dunwoody.
Unlike their relatives back in India, bound by tradition and arranged marriages, her parents chose their own path, their own partners, their own lives.
She thinks of them when she considers her future. She feels privileged to grow up here, but she worries the nation is on a precipice. It will either lead to a redeeming moment, she says, or an outright implosion.
She’s skeptical. Only half-jokingly, she brings up the idea of selling a T-shirt.
It will read: “Just get me through 2020.”
The devoted Trump supporter
On a steamy Saturday morning in August, Ginger Howard awakes early to trek from her Buckhead home down to the state fairgrounds in Perry for hush puppies, watermelon, fried catfish and Republican politics.
Standing on stage draped by an enormous flag, Howard spent the next few hours introducing a cast of Republican stars: Gov. Brian Kemp, U.S. Sen. David Perdue and Kayleigh McEnany, Trump’s chief 2020 spokeswoman.
For much of the last decade, events like these have been Howard’s passion.
The Waycross native moved to Washington on a dare after college, and her friend got her a job to work the phones for the Republican National Committee. She had a knack for it – donors in the Midwest fell in love with her Southern accent, and she was the only staffer allowed to veer off script.
She returned to Georgia and, in 2001, opened a boutique in Buckhead – a few doors down from where Saxby Chambliss had his U.S. Senate campaign headquarters.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
A chance meeting with Chambliss’ wife led Ginger to volunteer for his campaign – she’d scurry back and forth from her clothing store to his office, where she’d answer phones, lick stamps, run errands and, generally, “work like a dog.”
She loved it. Politics is an addiction and working for conservatives was the only way to feed it. She becomes animated when she talks – banging her hands on a table at a restaurant a few doors down from her shop, gesturing enthusiastically at the mention of a candidate.
Her passion is a point of pride. Getting up at 7 a.m. to bus from Atlanta to a Republican rally in Middle Georgia? That’s just part of the appeal. Her friends think she’s crazy, but she tells them it’s like a hobby – that there’s nothing more fun.
She’s never been married and has given much of her free time to the GOP. She spends many weekends and nights attending or speaking at conservative events in all corners of the state. She’s now the state Republican National Committeewoman, a job that required statewide campaigning.
Howard also has another title: She’s one of three Georgians on the Women for Trump coalition working to rev up female support for the president. Her task isn’t easy, and even some of her closest Republican friends are skeptical of Trump.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
She once was, too. Back in 2015, Howard was the state chair for Rick Perry’s campaign for president. When that fizzled out, she backed Marco Rubio. Trump was her third choice.
“Looking back, and I mean this with every fiber of my being, of all the candidates, honestly and truly, the only one that can stand up to the onslaught we’re facing is President Trump,” she says. “I am thankful I didn’t get my way with my two first picks — and I mean that.
Her dedication to Trump is genuine. Her sincerity comes through in the dozens of speeches she gives across the state to support him and the GOP ticket. She tells audiences the impeachment inquiry is “ridiculous” and that Trump’s critics are grasping at anything to stop him.
But she’s quickly learned what riles up conservatives even more than talking about the president: hammering Democrats for “liberal polices,” some of which clearly make Howard catch her breath. To her, abortion rights is a misnomer. “It’s infanticide,” she says.
She has a strong reaction when asked about Trump’s history of sexist remarks, like the “Access Hollywood” tape that nearly ended his presidential campaign.
“You’re kidding right? Honestly, the fact that this question still comes up after it was addressed in the last election proves to me he’s doing such a great job there’s nothing else to criticize,” she said, citing low unemployment rates for women.
Her job through next November, she says, is to peel away the “negative news” and focus on the president’s actions – and not his tweets. She went to a private board meeting with Trump officials a few weeks ago and came away, she says, firmer in her resolve to support him.
“I want to fight for our president because he fights for our country every day. I don’t care – I know it’s going to be difficult. I know it’s going to be a battle,” she says, hammering a table in between bites of tomato for emphasis. “But I’m ready to fight for him – we don’t have another choice.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
That do-or-die mentality helps shape her response to the friends, neighbors, customers who pepper her with questions about her support for Trump.
She tells them to “go past all the noise” and focus on his accomplishments – corporate tax cuts, moving the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, overhauling regulations.
“Bottom line: Is he getting the job done? That’s it,” she says. “And to me, he’s getting the job done with all the odds against him. And he’s still winning.”