A Cobb legislative race is an early skirmish in battleground 2022

Georgia’s State Capitol.
Caption
Georgia’s State Capitol.

The race for a Marietta-based legislative seat might attract just a few thousand votes, and so few people know there’s even an election that neither party is aggressively trying to frame it as a fresh litmus test of suburbia in the post-Donald Trump era.

But the election Tuesday stands as a training ground for both parties — and their well-resourced allies — as they test tactics and strategies ahead of elections in 2022, when every statewide constitutional office will be up for grabs and Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock will face voters again.

Voting groups founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Kelly Loeffler are going head-to-head as each pours money and resources into the race to mobilize supporters. And both political parties are testing messages about new election restrictions and the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The low-turnout contest will decide who replaces state Rep. Bert Reeves, a Republican known for his knack of working across party lines to champion measures to streamline adoption and foster care rules. Reeves stepped down to take a job at his alma mater, Georgia Tech.

Even as other suburban districts around his fell to Democrats, Reeves held his seat with narrowing margins. In 2020, he fended off Democrat Priscilla Smith with 56% of the vote, and Republicans are favored again to win this special election.

Five candidates have lined up to compete for the seat, including Smith, who is known to many under the Gold Dome for her parody of Trump. Other contenders are Republican David Blinkhorn, a former Kennesaw councilman; Democrat Sam Hensley Jr., a Marietta attorney; Libertarian Chris Neill, an education consultant; and Republican Devan Seabaugh, an executive with an ambulance company.

The special election pits all five on the same ballot, raising the possibility of a July13 runoff between the two top finishers if none captures a majority of the vote.

ExploreFollow the election results from AJC

‘Exhausted’

The winner will represent the district during this year’s redistricting proceedings and next year’s legislative session before facing the voters again — possibly with dramatically changed boundaries.

State Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, held onto his seat in the Legislature even while Democrats were winning recent elections in other suburban districts. He stepped down earlier this year to take a job at Georgia Tech, setting up Tuesday's special election. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
State Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, held onto his seat in the Legislature even while Democrats were winning recent elections in other suburban districts. He stepped down earlier this year to take a job at Georgia Tech, setting up Tuesday's special election. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

But the race is also considered a tuneup for Georgia politicos fresh off a nationally watched election cycle that helped decide Joe Biden’s presidential victory and swung control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats.

“It’s a very important election, especially for the Cobb County delegation, said state Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna. “But it also will offer us a good idea of how exhausted we all are.”

The Fair Fight voting rights group that Abrams started after her narrow loss to Republican Brian Kemp in the 2018 governor’s race has sent out social media messages, emails, texts, mail pieces and targeted digital ads to likely supporters in the district.

The group, which endorsed Smith, is also posting observers outside polling sites to talk to voters about their experience in one of the first elections since Kemp signed into law an elections rewrite that includes ID requirements for absentee ballots and new restrictions on ballot drop boxes.

For the first time in a Georgia election, Fair Fight will go toe-to-toe with the Greater Georgia group that Loeffler founded to register GOP voters and motivate them to cast their ballots.

The organization has launched a digital ad campaign to boost voter turnout that highlights Major League Baseball’s decision to yank its All-Star game from Atlanta in protest of the new election law. And it’s beefed up its door-knocking, text-messaging and phone-banking efforts, including an early June “day of action” that reached hundreds of residents.

“One of the biggest motivating factors there is making sure that there’s election integrity,” said Loeffler, who lost her seat in the U.S. Senate in January. “Early voting is going on right now, so we have poll watchers and canvassers working to make sure that their vote counts. And that work has to go on continuously.”

Both parties are also heavily engaged. State and local Democrats logged at least 10,000 texts, calls and door knocks to voters in the district. The Cobb GOP is coordinating with Greater Georgia to reach out to likely Republicans to make sure they’re aware of the vote.

The contenders, meanwhile, are teasing messages that seem likely to dominate through the 2022 cycle.

Blinkhorn calls himself the “authentic conservative” who opposes critical race theory, the educational concept that seeks to highlight how historical inequities and racism still shape public policy and cultural conditions. Seabaugh, his GOP rival, has vowed to oppose Abrams and the agenda of the “far left” while fighting what he sees as socialist ideals.

Across the aisle, Hensley says the pandemic showed the need for broader transportation infrastructure improvements, and he wields the endorsement of former Gov. Roy Barnes, a former longtime Marietta state lawmaker. Smith has advocated for the expansion of Medicaid, the repeal of the new election rewrite and lowering the voting age to 16.

Local partisans expect a relatively meager turnout for the contest, particularly given the onslaught of ads and attention focused on Georgia last year. Some see it as the calm before the storm.

“It’s been tricky because people from both parties are worn out,” Anulewicz said. “And that’s the challenge these candidates are facing.”