Aided by big money, GOP holds off Democrats in Statehouse races

Georgia's iconic Gold Dome. AJC/Bob Andres.
Georgia's iconic Gold Dome. AJC/Bob Andres.

Democrats went into Tuesday’s election confident they would not only pick up seats in the Georgia House, but flip control of the chamber for the first time since 2005.

That didn’t come close to happening, in part because of a huge gulf between what Democrats and Republicans had to spend to win legislative races.

As votes were being counted Wednesday, it was clear Republicans put a stop to momentum that Democrats built in 2018 when they flipped more than a dozen legislative seats.

As things stood Thursday, Democrats could say they gained two seats in the House and one in the Senate — though they remain confident about a few other races in metro Atlanta where absentee ballots are still being counted.

ExploreGeorgia Election Results

They also lost House Minority Leader Bob Trammell of Luthersville, who was targeted by a Washington-based political action committee that poured about $1 million into the race to defeat him.

“It was an absolutely great night for state Republicans and an absolutely miserable night for state Democrats,” said Austin Chambers, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which spent nearly $3 million overall on Georgia House and Senate races.

Republicans say a combination of the right messaging and well-financed campaigns helped them hold on to their margins.

“We’ve been working for two years finding the best candidates to run and highlighting a message that we thought might resonate with Georgians that might be a little different than what Republicans have done in the past,” said House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican. “And then we worked feverishly to provide people with the resources they needed.”

Democratic House Whip William Boddie of East Point said while Republicans in the state raised more money for their races, a lack of funds didn’t hurt his party’s candidates.

“The money and resources were there,” he said. “We don’t feel like we were outraised to the point of being deficient in getting out our message.”

Still, Democrats faced a distinct disadvantage when it came to buying advertising, putting out mailers and paying for the other things that go into successful campaigns.

Georgia’s Republican Party raised three times more money than the Democratic Party of Georgia — according to state campaign disclosure records — aided by $15.7 million donated by the Republican National Committee.

That money was spread around to many races beyond the General Assembly, but in Statehouse contests, the GOP also had the funds from the Republican State Leadership Committee, as well as about $9.3 million raised by the House and Senate caucus PACs and a fundraising committee that Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, president of the Senate, set up to support his chamber’s Republicans.

Most of that money came from lobby groups, business associations and companies with interest in Capitol legislation and state funding.

Ralston raised almost $2 million, while Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, took in about $1.2 million. Trammell, by contrast, had about $540,000 — a large sum in a state House race — to go up against the Republican State Leadership Committee, House leaders and his opponent, David Jenkins, who held about a 700-vote lead late Wednesday with most votes counted.

Democratic House candidates were aided by the PAC for Fair Fight, the voting rights group Stacey Abrams started after she lost the 2018 governor’s race. The PAC supplied funding, mailers and other support.

Among the Republicans who lost Tuesday was House Way and Means Chairman Brett Harrell of Snellville, one of several Gwinnett County GOP candidates who had difficult races as the county continued to shift to Democrats.

Maggie Chambers, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Georgia, said this year’s Democratic candidates “built a lasting infrastructure” for future hopefuls. Maggie Chambers is not related to Austin Chambers.

“Georgia Democrats set out with a bold plan to flip many longtime Republican-held seats,” she said.

Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, vice president of campaigns and fundraising for the Senate' Democrats, said, “It’s plain to see that our state continues to trend blue.”

But so far that hasn’t resulted in either chamber being close to a majority for Democrats or the party winning a statewide race.

The inability of Democrats to gain control of the House will put them at a disadvantage next year when the Legislature redraws district lines and Republicans can cement in place incumbents who had close calls Tuesday and add seats.

Georgia lawmakers get to draw their own districts — essentially choosing their voters — in a process that occurs every 10 years following a U.S. census.

New voting maps are drawn to reapportion the state’s growing population.

The Republican majority will look at close GOP districts, or those Democrats narrowly won, and tinker with the lines to help their cause in the 2022 elections and beyond.

For instance, Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, narrowly won reelection. So Republican leaders are likely to add white voters from surrounding areas to his district and move some of his minority constituents into other districts. White voters in the exurban and rural areas overwhelmingly vote for Republicans in Georgia. Senators will likely do the same to make reelection easier for colleagues such as Sen. Brian Strickland of McDonough, who had a relatively close call Tuesday.

The same method could be used to turn districts barely held by Democrats — including some in the northern suburbs — into Republican-leaning districts.

“We want fair lines, in line with the most updated census count,” Boddie said. “And we want to make sure that elected officials are not choosing their electorate, that the people are choosing their elected officials.”

Ralston, who presided over redistricting in 2011, recalled that process as being “fair and orderly.” He said he was proud that the plan was approved by the U.S. Justice Department under then-President Barack Obama without any issues.

“We did it last time in a fair and legal way," he said, "and we’ll do it that way again.”

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