Republicans aim to hang onto Georgia’s 7th Congressional District seat

Signs for early voting are displayed in March outside the Gwinnett Voter Registrations and Elections office building in Lawrenceville. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Signs for early voting are displayed in March outside the Gwinnett Voter Registrations and Elections office building in Lawrenceville. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

About Georgia’s 7th Congressional District: It includes most of Gwinnett County and a portion of Forsyth County. It is one of 72 U.S. House seats — and one of two in Georgia — that have been marked as a battleground race by the elections monitoring website Ballotpedia. The Cook Political Report describes the seat as a toss-up, saying either party has a chance on winning based on elections data.

The 7th has been in Republican hands since Bob Barr unseated U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden in 1994. Before 2018, Democrats hadn’t drawn more than one candidate since at least 2010.

A crowded field of Republican candidates is hoping to prevent Georgia’s 7th Congressional District from flipping to blue two years after incumbent U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall barely held on.

With Woodall retiring and seven Republicans campaigning to succeed him, a July runoff is almost certain. As a result, the campaign has become increasingly combative as the candidates jostle for the top two spots.

If attention and attacks are any indication, the front-runners are state Sen. Renee Unterman and emergency room physician Rich McCormick.

>> Related: Where 7th District Republican candidates stand on the issues

>> Related: Where 7th District Democratic candidates stand on the issues

>> Related: Democrats line up to flip Georgia's 7th Congressional District

McCormick has never held office before, but the Marine Corps veteran converted endorsements from conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and the House Freedom Fund into a successful fundraising quarter. He raised more than any other candidate, and only Unterman has more money in the bank — most of it from loans she made to her campaign.

However, McCormick has also been forced to answer questions repeatedly about why he did not cast a vote in the 2016 general election when Donald Trump was on the ballot. He said he was on military duty in Afghanistan and his absentee ballot never was processed, but opponents say it is a sign he wasn’t fully invested in Trump.

Documents that McCormick provided to back up his story have also led to questions about his residency status. McCormick voted in Georgia in 2018, as well as every presidential and midterm election from 2006 to 2012. But his absentee ballot request in 2016 was processed through a county in the Florida Panhandle.

Asked about his voting record during a recent debate, McCormick said his opponents were attempting to distract voters with mudslinging and misinformation about his military service.

“If you want to think that your 15 minutes counts more than my nine months serving the people overseas serving their great nation,” he said, “I don’t need to be armchair-lectured by those kinds of people.”

Unterman, of Buford, is the only candidate in the field with previous elected experience. She has been a member of the General Assembly for more than 20 years, including 17 in her current Senate seat.

She sponsored the controversial “heartbeat bill” banning abortions once cardiac activity is detected in a fetus, which can happen as early as six weeks into gestation, and her campaign has leaned on her conservative credentials and deep ties in Gwinnett County.

Some of her colleagues have questioned whether her anti-abortion rhetoric would make Unterman vulnerable against a Democrat in the general election. She said she won’t avoid defending her positions.

“I will stand up for the value of life and especially children and taking care of vulnerable children, like in sex trafficking,” she said.

The other candidates in the race are educator Lisa Noel Babbage, real estate investor Mark Gonsalves, former Home Depot executive Lynne Homrich, hotel auditor Zachary Kennemore and businessman Eugene Yu.

Alignment with Trump’s policies is key to this race, said Julianne Thompson, a Suwanee-based Republican strategist. Trump’s economic and national security policies are popular with 7th District Republicans, she said, and voters want to know local candidates back him.

“They care about issues that will be friendly to their family and allow opportunities for them and their children and future generations,” said Thompson, who is on the national advisory board of Women for Trump. “The president has delivered on these issues, and that is why it’s important in the 7th Congressional District to have a candidate who is supportive of him.”

Read more: Who’s running in Georgia’s 7th Congressional District

Also: Congressional District 7 candidates face off in primary debate