U.S. Rep. John Lewis stands with Lucy McBath, then a national spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, as they greet rally attendees at Woodruff Park in Atlanta in 2017. Tuesday, McBath won the Democratic nominatin in the 6th Congressional District. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)
Photo: David Barnes
Photo: David Barnes

Runoff wins boost female presence on Georgia’s ballot in November

Two first-time candidates secured nomination in a pair of suburban Atlanta U.S. House districts late Tuesday, adding to the record number of women who will be on congressional ballots in Georgia this fall.

Georgia State University professor Carolyn Bourdeaux won the Democratic nod in the 7th Congressional District, edging out businessman David Kim. She will take on Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall in November as she aims to become the first female member of Congress from the district rooted in Forsyth and Gwinnett counties.

Next door in the 6th District — which encompasses portions of Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties — gun control advocate Lucy McBath defeated business owner Kevin Abel in the Democratic runoff. She’ll face off against U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, the only woman currently serving in Georgia’s congressional delegation, in the general election.

McBath and Bourdeaux both framed themselves as unabashed supporters of women’s and abortion rights, campaigning on instituting equal pay and paid family leave laws, as well as maintaining federal support for Obamacare and Planned Parenthood. They each talked on the trail about their experiences as mothers and worked to harness female-powered political groups to get their names out ahead of the party contests.

Bourdeaux said the strategy paid off.

“A lot of the energy is with women right now,” the Suwanee resident said late Tuesday. “Women are particularly offended by Donald Trump and are very deeply concerned that issues they care about are on the chopping block.”

Record-setting year

A record number of nine women ran for Congress in Georgia this year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, mirroring national trends. Five will be on the ballot in the general election following Tuesday’s runoffs. That’s in addition to a handful of mostly Democratic female candidates who are running for statewide positions, including for governor and lieutenant governor.

Republican Tricia Pridemore will also be on the ballot this fall as she seeks to defend her spot on the state’s Public Service Commission.

Many Democratic Party figures saw McBath’s and Bourdeaux’s runoff wins as further evidence of the growing political clout of female voters in Georgia.

“At this point in time it’s undeniable,” said Michael Owens, the chairman of the Cobb County Democratic Party. “Women are actually turning out to vote. We’re trusting women in the Democratic Party to lead. It speaks to where we are.”

Much of the political energy has undoubtedly been on the left, in no small part a reaction to the president’s political rise and the #MeToo movement. But there’s also been a counter-response on the right, where Republican groups have sought to elevate their own female candidates.

The Susan B. Anthony List, which focuses on electing women who will pursue policies that will reduce and end abortion, has spent upwards of $76,000 in favor of Handel over the past two years.

Handel had to overcome a series of major hurdles on her way to cracking the Georgia GOP’s glass ceiling last summer. Like many Republicans, she’s eschewed discussing gender politics in public. But she also lists her status as Georgia’s first Republican congresswoman and the only woman serving in the state’s congressional delegation at the bottom of each of her campaign press releases.

That could make things harder for McBath as she campaigns to become the 6th District’s first Democratic congresswoman.

‘Steep hills to climb’

In addition to Bourdeaux and McBath, Democrats Lisa Ring and Tabitha Johnson-Green are also challenging incumbent GOP congressmen this year in eastern Georgia.

Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor at Rutgers University-Camden, said the surge of female challengers this year does not mean all — or even most — will end up victorious on Election Day.

“Yes, women are winning nominations,” she said, “but many of them still have pretty steep hills to climb when it comes to November.”

Incumbent lawmakers, regardless of gender or party, tend to hold powerful advantages over their challengers, including fundraising capabilities, staff and name recognition.

Handel, for example, has spent the spring and summer raising money. Her campaign announced earlier this month that it had roughly $1 million in the bank, a substantial nest egg that will be hard for opponents to match.

Emory University’s Beth Reingold, who studies the politics of gender, said most traditional political dynamics tend to dominate in general elections.

The female candidates’ “chances of winning are going to largely be contingent on the same kinds of things they’ve always been contingent on: whether you’re running as an incumbent or challenger, whether you’re running in an open seat and whether the district favors your party,” she said.

The University of Virginia’s nonpartisan Center for Politics rates the 6th District as “leans Republican” and the 7th as “likely Republican.”

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