First-term Georgia Democrats fight to hold seats they flipped two years ago

The Georgia Capitol. (AJC file/Brant Sanderlin)

The Georgia Capitol. (AJC file/Brant Sanderlin)

Georgia Democrats who flipped Republican legislative districts two years ago are working to prove that the gains made by the party can be sustained in November.

More than a dozen Democrats flipped seats previously held by Republicans — several defeating incumbents — to shrink the GOP majority in the House by 11 and the Senate by two.

But Georgia Republicans say 2018 was an aberration, with Democrats energized by what turned into a very close Georgia governor’s race and feeling a call to action after the election of President Donald Trump.

Gerry Guan, a Republican running for a DeKalb County-based state Senate seat, said the 2018 results were part of what he called the Stacey Abrams effect. Voters turned out in record numbers when Abrams, a Democrat, narrowly lost to Brian Kemp in the governor’s race.

Gerry Guan is a Republican running for a DeKalb County-based Senate seat. (Handout)

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He said Republicans were complacent in 2018 after Trump’s victory two years earlier.

“This year, they’ll be back because of the (presidential race) and because of the loss they suffered in 2018," he said.

The Peachtree Corners resident and interpreter is challenging state Sen. Sally Harrell, an Atlanta Democrat and social worker who defeated a 16-year Republican incumbent in 2018. Harrell, who previously served in the House from 1999 to 2005, said more Georgians are supporting Democratic stances on issues these days.

That could be what happened in 2018, when Democrats saw their biggest gains in about 20 years — mostly in Atlanta’s northern suburbs. And in 2016, even though Trump won Georgia, Republicans narrowly lost both Cobb and Gwinnett counties in the presidential election for the first time since Jimmy Carter was on the ballot.

Democratic state Sen. Sally Harrell is running for reelection. (Handout)

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Dan Franklin, a retired Georgia State University political scientist, said the pendulum may be swinging back toward Democrats, who until 2003 held control of state government.

“I’m old enough to remember when the Republicans took over the state,” he said. “But now, the state is demographically changing. The suburbs are becoming more cosmopolitan, particularly in Gwinnett County.”

Democrats are fighting to break the hold Republicans have had on the state’s three branches of government by winning at least 16 seats in the House.

Whoever holds a majority next year will control the redrawing of district lines based on results from the 2020 census.

To stave off Democratic gains in the House, Republicans pledged to spend $10 million on 30 of the state’s most competitive seats.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who serves as president of the Senate, established an independent fund to funnel money to protect the chamber’s Republicans and target seats that recently were won by Democrats.

Former state Rep. Betty Price, a Republican of Roswell, is running to regain the seat she lost to a Democratic challenger two years ago. PHOTO / AJC

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Democratic State Rep. Mary Robichaux is running for reelection for the Roswell-based House seat she won two years ago. (Handout)

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Former state Rep. Betty Price — the wife of Tom Price, a former Georgia Senate leader, congressman and secretary of Health and Human Services in the Trump administration — is vying to reclaim the seat she lost two years ago to Democratic state Rep. Mary Robichaux.

Price, who was first elected in 2015, lost in the state’s closest legislative race — Robixhaux won by only 150 votes, or less than 1 percentage point.

Robichaux said many of the state Democrats' positions — such as expanding Medicaid, the public health program that provides care to the poor and disabled, and not allowing those who have been involuntarily committed for psychiatric care to own guns — have the support of most Georgians.

“Most of our positions are not as radical as people portray them to be,” Robichaux said. “When I look at my campaign contributions, about one-third of my donors are people that I know are Republicans.”

But Price said she believes the 2018 voters have “buyer’s remorse” after electing Robichaux.

“I am working hard to promote the conservative values of freedom, opportunity, lower taxes, less government intrusion in our lives, private solutions to our challenges, faith, and basic constitutional rights,” Price said in an email. “The American spirit, when unleashed, provides stronger communities than dependency on and interference from the government.”

A handful of the contests this year, such as one for a Fulton County House seat held by state Rep. Josh McLaurin, are rematches from 2018.

McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat and attorney, said voters support candidates who they can tell have a genuine concern for their well-being.

“One thing that’s frustrating for voters, and I think has inspired more turnout over the years, is the sense that the Republican majority fails to stand for policies that a strong majority (of Georgians) support,” he said.

Democratic state Rep. Josh McLaurin is running for reelection to keep the north Fulton County-based seat he won two years ago. (Handout)

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Republican Alex Kaufman is running for a north Fulton County-based House seat. (Handout)

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McLaurin pointed to the Democrats' support for expanding Medicaid. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll last year found that 71% of Georgia voters surveyed supported expanding Medicaid.

But his opponent, Republican Alex Kaufman, said McLaurin’s stances on issues are far out of line with the majority of the district’s residents. McLaurin beat Kaufman two years ago with almost 52% of the vote.

“He has shown that he is far to the left,” said Kaufman, a Roswell native and attorney. “He’s an unapologetic progressive. This district is really a centrist district. We’re not extreme.”

Kaufman cited McLaurin’s vote against House Bill 838, which increases protections for police and other first responders who are targeted in the line of duty and was introduced by Senate Republicans as part of a compromise to gain GOP support for the state’s new hate-crimes law. Kaufman said the month prior, a Sandy Springs firetruck was damaged by protesters as firefighters tried to respond to a blaze in Atlanta.

McLaurin said he voted against the legislation because it was a “cynical bill.”

“HB 838 had extreme measures in it that the (Senate Republicans) knew were not good policy, including allowing police officers to sue citizens when complaints are made against them,” he said. “(Senate Republicans), and my opponent, apparently, didn’t care about this bad policy. All they wanted to do is signal support for law enforcement.”

Democratic State Rep. Jasmine Clark is running for reelection to keep the Tucker-based seat she won two years ago. (Handout)

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Republican Johnny Crist is running for a Tucker-based House seat.

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State Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Tucker Democrat who defeated Republican state Rep. Clay Cox in 2018, said she is encouraged by the little bit of socially distanced canvassing and phone banking she’s been able to do.

“It’s the same nationally,” said Clark, a microbiologist and Emory University lecturer. “Voter registrations are up. Absentee ballot requests are up. All of it is showing that Democrats are energized. I think that momentum will help to prop me up (in November).”

Her opponent this time, former Lilburn Mayor Johnny Crist, said he didn’t believe the increased diversity of Gwinnett County means fewer people will vote for Republicans. Instead, he said, he’s spent time knocking on more than 5,000 doors and getting to know the people in his district.

“I think that we are greatly influenced by the power of the relationship that occurs when we take time to actually meet and have conversations and discussions with people,” he said.

But Franklin, the retired political science professor, said the demographics of a district often determine the constituents' political leanings.

“The smaller the district, the more likely it is to be one party or the other,” Franklin said. “People tend to live near like-minded people.”

When that’s the case, candidates are best served if they run to the demographics of the district.

“Instead of running as a Democrat or a Republican, you run as a compatriot — someone who matches the demographic profile of the district," he said.

That’s why some Republicans are embracing more moderate stances on issues, said Harrell, the state senator from Atlanta.

“If they’re feeling like they have to go more to the middle, I think that’s our success," she said. "They know that things in Georgia are trending more and more Democratic, so they’re doing that to survive.”

That means Democrats, on the other hand, don’t feel pressure to move to the middle, McLaurin said.

“It might appear, in the arena of partisan talking points, that Democrats are somehow very liberal or very progressive simply because their ideas differ from Republican politicians' ideas," he said, "but the truth is that bold, progressive, Democratic ideas enjoy strong majority support.”

Guan predicted excitement about the presidential election and support for Trump will allow Georgia Republicans to make gains up and down the ballot this year.

“That ‘blue wave’ (of Democratic wins in 2018) was a one-time thing,” he said. “Things have stabilized.”