Georgia Democratic House leader campaigns with national target on his back

Republican David Jenkins, left, is challenging House Minority Leader Bob Trammell for a Luthersville-based seat. (Handouts)

Republican David Jenkins, left, is challenging House Minority Leader Bob Trammell for a Luthersville-based seat. (Handouts)

While Republicans fight to stave off any potential legislative losses this year, they have their eye on taking the last seat held by a rural white Democrat in Georgia’s General Assembly.

Georgia House Minority Leader Bob Trammell of Luthersville is playing defense after becoming the No. 1 target of the Republican State Leadership Committee in the country — a national group that works to elect Republicans. Trammell is facing Republican David Jenkins, a first-time candidate who lives in Grantville.

Trammell said it made sense for Republicans who are trying to stop the bleed of legislative seats they lost in 2018 to single him out. Democrats flipped 11 House seats in 2018 and are hoping to pick up 16 more this year to gain control of the chamber for the first time in 15 years.

“The reality is that they’re in the uncomfortable position of having to acknowledge that the seats they lost in 2018, they’re not going to win back in 2020,” he said. "But I question the wisdom in communicating as openly and as often as they have that this is the No. 1 target.

“Because generally, you would think that you want to choose a target that you have a good prospect to win. And if this is the best target that they have on election night in November, they’re in for a long night.”

Austin Chambers, president of the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee, said he is confident Republicans will oust Trammell next month.

“As the Democrat leader in the state House, he would be the apparent speaker if the Democrats took the majority,” Chambers said. “But instead, what I think’s going to happen is Republicans will not only hold the majority, but Bob Trammell will lose his seat.”

The Georgia Legislature was long ruled by rural white conservative Democrats from places like Luthersville. That has shifted in the past few decades as some conservative rural white Democrats opted to switch parties when it became clear that Republicans would take control of the Statehouse and small-town voters began to consistently vote in GOP candidates.

A hometown boy, Trammell practices law in what was his grandparents' home. He lives less than a mile away from the house where he grew up — where his mother still lives.

Emmitt Clark said he was the one who first persuaded Trammell to move back to Luthersville in 2003, after Trammell had been practicing law for a few years in Atlanta, to run for a state Senate seat. Trammell lost that race.

Clark, a former county commissioner who had been lifelong friends with Trammell’s father, said he knew the caliber of man Trammell was and thought he was a perfect fit to serve the district. Trammell’s father served as mayor of Luthersville from 1999 until his death in 2016.

“He’s always respected people, and he’s just always done what was right for people before he was even in politics,” Clark said. “So I just thought he would have been a good fit. And he is a good fit.”

But Jenkins, a U.S. Army combat veteran who owns a goat farm with his wife and is an air ambulance pilot, said the district that is about 50 miles south of Atlanta is more conservative than Trammell. Since becoming leader of the House Democrats in 2017, Trammell has been one of the faces of the party — organizing opposition, for instance, to last year’s anti-abortion legislation in the chamber.

Dubbed the “heartbeat bill,” the law would ban the procedure in most cases once fetal cardiac activity is detected. A federal judge ruled the law was unconstitutional and stopped it from taking effect. Gov. Brian Kemp is appealing the decision.

“He just doesn’t represent the values of the district I know,” Jenkins said. “Bob has portrayed himself as the old-fashioned, conservative Southern Democrat. But that heartbeat bill a few years ago required him to cast a vote, and that was probably one of the first opportunities for people here to see that he’s not a moderate. Because this is a very pro-life area for the most part.”

When it comes to local issues, Jenkins said, Trammell is the “invisible man.” Ronnie Heard, an Alvaton resident who retired from the airline industry, agreed, saying he backs Jenkins because he never saw Trammell in the district.

“As far as I’m concerned, Bob Trammell is our representative in name only,” Heard said. “I see nothing tangible that he’s really ever done for our district.”

But Montest Cameron, a LaGrange resident who’s supported Trammell since he first ran for the House, said to claim Trammell is never in the district is a “flat-out lie.” Trammell said Jenkins' supporters might not see him in the community because he isn’t a regular at local Republican events.

Cameron said Trammell is a consistent guest at local churches and community events, whether it’s an election year or not, and he always offers help when it’s requested. For example, she said, when the coronavirus pandemic began, community members were concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in the Troup County jail.

“A lot of family members (of inmates) were concerned because they weren’t getting answers about the health guidelines in the jail,” Cameron said. “After talking to Mr. Trammell, he called me back and told me someone from the health department would be calling, and after that we started to get answers.”

Trammell said if Republicans wanted to appear as though they are “playing offense," his district — where voters narrowly selected Republican Brian Kemp in the 2018 governor’s race and the GOP’s Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election — was a logical target.

Trammell won by about 750 votes in 2018, with 52% of the vote, beating a Republican who many locals believed didn’t live in the district.

It was his closest victory since first being elected in 2014, though he has never won by more than 8 percentage points.

Chambers, from the Republican State Leadership Committee, called Georgia a state where “everything is at risk,” leading the group to spend big here. Democrats are fighting to break the 15-year hold Republicans have had on the state’s three branches of government.

“We believe we will defeat him," Chambers said, referring to Trammell. "We’ve committed a million bucks to doing it outside of what we’re doing for and against everyone else in Georgia. And I think we’re going to (flip the seat).”

Jenkins — who has been active in the Meriwether County Republican Party — said the national focus on his race can be overwhelming at times.

“It’s wonderful that we have the support because there are more Republicans than Democrats (in the district) and the district is polling conservative,” he said. “It’s ready to flip, but when the House minority leader is in district, it makes it very difficult because he has an enormous amount of money at his disposal.”

Local Republicans say the population has shifted in the rural district, which stretches from Newnan to LaGrange and includes parts of Coweta, Meriwether and Troup counties.

An internal poll conducted in early October for the Georgia Republican House Caucus showed Trammell trailing Jenkins, 47% to 39%. The reported margin of error was 4.8 percentage points, which means the two candidates could conceivably be tied. In the June 9 primaries, 52% of the district’s voters chose a Democratic ballot.

Trammell reported raising more than $392,000 for his reelection effort as of Sept. 30, the most recent campaign filing deadline. He had nearly $83,000 in cash on hand.

Jenkins reported raising about $64,000 as of Sept. 30, having almost $14,000 in his campaign account. Almost $6,000 of that was from the Republican State Leadership Committee, which reported donating an additional $450,000 to the Georgia House Republican Trust this election cycle as well as to other GOP candidates. And the group has spent its own money on ads directly targeting Trammell, including one in which Kemp endorses the GOP challenger.

The national group said Tuesday that it had spent about $700,000 to defeat Trammell to far.

Trammell will have help from the Democratic Party of Georgia, spokeswoman Maggie Chambers said. Maggie Chambers and Austin Chambers are not related.

“Of course Leader Trammell is one of the seats that we are protecting and targeting with our Legislative Victory Fund initiative," Maggie Chambers said. “But we’re also really confident — thanks to the organizing and fundraising work we’ve been doing — that we’ll be able to not only protect his seat and every one of the incumbents that we need to protect, we’re going to go ahead and take those 16 seats to win a majority in the Statehouse as well.”

Trammell said he’s confident his district will support him, despite the influx of national money helping his opponent.

“Elections are not a race for who raised the most money,” Trammell said. “Elections are about building a coalition to get the most votes. And I’m very confident in that prospect for not only this race, but our Democratic prospects for challengers who were running to win seats.”

But Jenkins, who lives on a 150-acre farm on John Trammell Road — named for one of the lawmaker’s distant cousins — said the number of conservative voters in the district will work in his favor.

“The county, like the district, is more Republican than Democrat,” he said. “So there’s a lot of interest in the county to elect conservative leadership.”