Voters in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District could hardly turn on the TV during the 2017 special election without seeing a barrage of ads mocking Jon Ossoff for living outside the suburban Atlanta district.
Two years later, a glut of candidates competing for U.S. House seats in metro Atlanta are trying to succeed where Ossoff failed, aiming to pull off victories in districts where they don’t live.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found that at least six candidates running for the two most competitive U.S. House seats in Georgia don’t live in the districts they’re running to represent. Two others moved into the districts shortly before announcing their bids.
The numbers come as a surprise given the blowback against Ossoff for not being able to vote for himself in his 4-point defeat to Republican Karen Handel. And it’s an issue rivals have already highlighted to emphasize their local roots.
In the 7th Congressional District, which covers parts of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, state Sen. Renee Unterman has quickly bestowed a nickname upon GOP primary opponent Lynne Homrich on social media: “that Buckhead lady.” (Homrich, a former Home Depot executive, recently began renting a home in the district.)
And in the neighboring 6th, which spans from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County, Republican hopeful Nicole Rodden wants voters to look past the fact that she lives four miles outside the district so she can unseat U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta.
Rodden and the other out-of-district candidates who responded to the AJC’s inquiries downplayed the distance and highlighted their ties to the districts. Some, such as 7th District contender Mark Gonsalves, pointed to the fact that they live mere yards from the boundary.
“His house is on the market and he’ll be relocating into the 7th upon its sale,” campaign spokesman Garrison Douglas said. “When he does, Mark will be exactly the same person he is right now.”
‘Skin in the game’
It’s not illegal for U.S. House candidates to live outside their districts. The Constitution stipulates only that congressional hopefuls “be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.”
Indeed, nearly two-dozen members of the House, or at least 5% of the body, lived outside their districts in 2017, according to a Washington Post analysis. That includes U.S. Rep. David Scott, a Democrat who has long lived in east Atlanta — a few miles outside his district.
And he’s been elected to nine terms in Congress while rarely facing a credible opponent, though primary challenger Michael Owens is seeking to emphasize Scott’s residency this year.
The issue can be a powerful political tool. Ossoff, a former congressional aide who owns an investigative journalism firm, was constantly forced to answer for his residency just outside the 6th District during the 2017 race.
At the time he was living near Emory University while his then-fiancee was finishing medical school, a fact that GOP groups leveraged to frame him as a carpetbagger even though he grew up in the district. Handel later credited it as one of the main factors that fueled her victory.
It also resonated with some voters. An AJC poll ahead of the special election found that 32% of 6th District voters considered Ossoff’s residency a “major factor” in determining their vote, and an additional 19% determined it to be a minor one.
Not surprisingly, the longtime residents running for office are playing up their ties to the community. Nabilah Islam, a Democrat in the 7th District contest, showcases on her website her diploma from Central Gwinnett High School and previous jobs working at local grocery stores.
“If the 2018 cycle showed us anything with Ossoff’s race, living in the district you’re running to represent is important to Georgia voters,” she said.
It’s also a contrast she’s trying to draw in a packed primary. Marqus Cole and state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, two of her opponents, live outside district lines. In addition to Gonsalves, the same appears to be true for Republican hopefuls Ben Bullock and Joe Profit.
Others candidates made sure their moves were well-documented. John Eaves, a former Fulton County Commission chairman, posted a photo pointing to his new Gwinnett County license plate shortly before filing paperwork to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall.
“I’m excited about where I live,” Eaves said in a recent interview. “I have skin in the game because I actually live here and I’m invested.”
The compact nature of some metro Atlanta’s congressional districts, where sometimes living on the opposite side of a street can put a candidate in another district, has created challenges for some candidates.
Take Lopez Romero, who has represented a Norcross-area district in the Georgia House since 2017 and has lived at various Gwinnett addresses for the past 15 years. Portions of the city fall within the 7th, but her current Norcross apartment is in the 4th District.
Lopez Romero said she and a friend are living there on a month-to-month basis as she house hunts. In the meantime, her current job requires her to live in her Georgia House district. (Her federal paperwork listed a previous Norcross address located in the 7th.)
Cole, a first-time congressional candidate, said he lives outside the district because he’s raising a family in the same Snellville house where his wife grew up. But he said he practices law, attends church and sends his daughter to school in the 7th District.
“I sleep a couple of miles away, but my community is in the Georgia 7th,” he said.
A Homrich spokesman said the Republican has a residence in Duluth but clarified she did not live there full time. The campaign would not speak on the record about how much of Homrich’s time was spent at that 7th District address, and the AJC could not find a record of a property sale in Gwinnett County, suggesting that Homrich is renting. (The address listed in Homrich’s campaign filing is a post office box in Atlanta.)
Two other 7th District candidates who live outside the district did not respond to requests for comment: Bullock, whose federal paperwork indicates he lives in Buckhead, and Profit, whose address was listed in Marietta.
Bullock told the Forsyth News in June that he plans to move inside the district soon. “What’s most important is that my values align with the district,” Bullock said, “and I firmly believe that.”
The raft of GOP candidates from out of district could lead to charges of duplicity from Democrats still stinging from the Ossoff attacks, said Republican Rich McCormick, a Suwanee-based emergency room doctor running in the 7th District.
“The question is are we hypocrites or not,” he said. “At the end of the day, it matters if you’re a part of the community.”
Profit ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson in the 4th Congressional District last year. He is registered to vote at the same Marietta address he used to file to run for the 7th District seat.
Nowhere is the residency issue more head-scratching than in the 6th District.
Rodden, a political newcomer and one of five Republicans seeking to take on McBath, lives in a portion of Cobb County that falls in the neighboring 11th Congressional District. Her campaign said voters shouldn’t let “four miles come between them and the best candidate” to defeat McBath.
Rodden “is passionate about representing the people of Georgia’s 6th District and undoubtedly shares their values,” her campaign said.
Handel has made her home in Roswell a key part of every bid for higher office. And she’s raised repeated questions about McBath’s residency, both before and after Cobb County revoked three years of the Democrat’s homestead deduction earlier this year.
McBath’s husband lives in Tennessee, and the congresswoman said she briefly moved there to help him during a family emergency in 2016 before switching her residency back to Georgia the following year.
That became a source of controversy as Handel and her allies used the homestead deduction and McBath’s 2018 federal financial disclosure that listed her husband’s Tennessee-registered cars as assets to paint the Democrat as an occasional Georgia resident.
The McBath campaign has rejected the attacks as “baseless” and emphasized the congresswoman’s long-standing ties to the 6th District.
McBath said she moved to Georgia in 1990, raised her son in the 6th and has lived in her Marietta home since 2008.
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Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.