Sweeping from Cumming to Suwanee and down to Lawrenceville, the 7th District hasn’t elected a Democrat to Congress since the early 1990s. People there had so reliably voted Republican that Democrats struggled for years to recruit strong challengers.
But Gwinnett County’s explosive population growth — particularly among immigrants and minorities — along with simmering opposition to President Donald Trump among many well-educated suburban voters has changed the political calculus.
No fewer than six Democrats lined up this spring for the chance to challenge incumbent Republican Rob Woodall, who has cruised to re-election since winning his first race in 2010.
Georgia State University professor Carolyn Bourdeaux eventually clinched her party’s nomination and has taken on the four-term Woodall with a health care-focused message. Woodall, once the top aide to U.S. Rep. John Linder, has embraced Trump and many of his signature policies, including on health care, trade and tax cuts.
Outside political analysts say Woodall has the advantage in the 7th District, which Trump won by roughly 6 percentage points in 2016. Democrats see hope in Bourdeaux’s relatively strong fundraising numbers and the pull of the state’s nationally watched gubernatorial contest.
Perhaps nowhere in the U.S. Capitol is Rep. Rob Woodall more at home than in the cramped offices of the House Rules Committee.
After he was first elected in 2010, the Lawrenceville Republican was one of the few freshmen to lobby his party leaders for a slot on the panel, which tends to meet late at night and has the powerful yet often tedious task of teeing up legislation for House floor debate.
“This was my top committee choice,” Woodall said in one of his first press releases to constituents. “Serving on the Committee on Rules means that I will touch every single bill that comes to the House Floor for a vote.”
Woodall is an unapologetic policy and procedural wonk. He’s known for spending far more time on the House floor delivering speeches on the intricacies of the federal budget than he is for being in front of cable news cameras.
Woodall’s often loath to play Washington’s political games. He has never been known as a big fundraiser, and he’s not particularly active on social media. While he often aligns with his party leaders, he has occasionally swum against the GOP orthodoxy on issues such as Grover Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge. (The only Georgia House Republican not to sign it, Woodall has promised never to support a tax increase but previously said he was worried the pledge would interfere with his so-called Fair Tax initiative.)
Woodall’s low-key style was shaped during his decade-plus as a top aide to U.S. Rep. John Linder, whom Woodall began working for in his mid-20s. When Linder announced his retirement in 2010, Woodall angled for his boss’ old seat and took up his signature issue.
The Fair Tax Act seeks to eliminate the federal income tax, corporate income taxes and other federal taxes and replace them with a national retail sales tax. Doing so, supporters say, would lower taxes on consumers, reduce government spending and turbocharge the economy.
The four-term Republican, who often sports a Fair Tax pin on his lapel, is unfailingly optimistic about Congress at a time when Washington is deeply divided.
President Donald Trump’s election has unleashed economic and consumer confidence in a way that hasn’t been seen in generations, Woodall says, and he cheerfully sells the benefits of his party’s tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks in the 7th Congressional District, which includes portions of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties.
“Folks want less Washington interference in their life. They want more freedom to do the very best that they can for their communities,” he said in a recent interview. “We don’t just talk about that, we’ve been delivering on that.”
Woodall has unabashedly embraced Trump and sells him as a willing partner who can help advance the district’s priorities, but he’s avoided discussing many of the president’s most polarizing comments.
Democrats have criticized Woodall for not doing more to stand up to the president. They’ve also dinged him for not holding in-person town halls in recent years. Woodall insists that he’s remained accessible to his constituents through his office and events such as telephone town halls.
After winning a crowded GOP primary to replace Linder, Woodall had never faced real opposition for the 7th District seat. He’s regularly won re-election with upwards of 60 percent of the vote against relatively unknown Democratic challengers.
But changing demographics in Gwinnett, along with suburban dissatisfaction with Trump and heightened civic activism on the left, has Democrats convinced they can give Woodall a run for his money in the once deeply conservative district. Seven opponents originally stepped up to challenge Woodall earlier this year.
Georgia State University professor Carolyn Bourdeaux eventually emerged out of the fray, and the Democrat has significantly topped Woodall in fundraising. She says Woodall is out of step with his district on issues such as health care and immigration.
Woodall has all but ignored Bourdeaux on the campaign trail and exuded confidence about his electoral odds this year, pointing to his high name recognition and primary vote totals. In addition to the economy, he often discusses his recent behind-the-scenes work on transportation and water policy legislation, as well as his office’s efforts to help constituents.
“If in your time of need, when you called me and … I partnered with you to solve your family’s problem, it doesn’t matter what sexy front-page article runs in the newspaper the next day, we have a trust relationship,” Woodall said. “I’m in this with you.”