Georgia Republicans move to middle to win votes in tight districts

The Georgia Capitol in Atlanta. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

With some state Republican lawmakers facing stiff Democratic competition and demographic shifts in their districts, GOP incumbents are taking strides toward the middle this election year.

Republicans — who have touted their conservative credentials when supporting gun rights and anti-abortion legislation — in the past two years have also passed laws penalizing hate crimes and allowing Georgians to strike certain low-level convictions from their records.

Some — particularly in metro Atlanta — have done so at a time when their districts have slowly changed from hard-line GOP to more middle-of-the-road, or even leans Democratic.

Republicans in those races say they’ve long been willing to work with Democrats to pass meaningful legislation.

“My record and bipartisan work is something I’m very proud to campaign on, and I’m very proud to talk to any resident of the district I represent about,” said state Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican.

Republican Rep. Chuck Efstration of Dacula, left, and Democratic Rep Calvin Smyre of Columbus shake hands as they wait for a press conference after the hate crime bill passed in the Georgia House. Efstration sponsored the hate-crimes bill that the Georgia General Assembly passed this year with bipartisan support. “My record and bipartisan work is something I’m very proud to campaign on," he said. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

But challengers say the lawmakers have taken sharp turns to embrace more moderate issues in an effort to save their seats.

“Make no mistake, Efstration is a very savvy politician,” said Nikita Hemingway, his challenger, a first-time candidate and Dacula Democrat. “In an election year, he plays to the (ignorance) of the community and says, ‘Hey, I’m your guy. I’m fighting for you. This is what I did.' ”

It’s an especially important year for Georgia General Assembly elections.

Democrats are fighting to break the 15-year hold Republicans have had on the state’s three branches of government by winning at least 16 seats in the House. Republicans are battling back to hold onto the power they’ve had since 2005.

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

Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political science professor, said a combination of Democratic challengers and changing district demographics typically pushes Republican lawmakers to the center of the political spectrum. But it’s unclear whether it sways voters.

Nakita Hemingway is a Democrat running this year against state Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula. She calls him a "savvy politician" but questions the motivation behind his efforts on bipartisan efforts, such as the state's new hate-crimes law. “In an election year," she said, "he plays to the (ignorance) of the community and says, ‘Hey, I’m your guy. I’m fighting for you. This is what I did.' ” (Handout)

Credit: Savage Tale LLC

Credit: Savage Tale LLC

“If challengers succeed in their field operations, Democrats, even those who like these Republican incumbents, would still be more inclined to support Democratic candidates," she said.

It’s not a new strategy, said Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University.

“It’s almost always the case that candidates (in tight races), when they get closer to a general election, they tend to tack toward the center,” Swint said.

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.

Charles McClendon of Snellville votes in May at the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections Office in Lawrenceville. As the number of Black, Asian-American and Hispanic residents has grown in Gwinnett County, the white population dropped to nearly 54% in 2019 census estimates. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Changing Gwinnett

Demographics in Gwinnett County have driven some of the political changes.

According to the 2000 U.S. census, Gwinnett’s population was two-thirds white. As the number of Black, Asian-American and Hispanic residents has grown, the white population dropped to nearly 54% in 2019 census estimates.

Efstration pushed back on the notion that having more people of color in the district means it leans more Democratic.

"Presuming a voter will vote a certain way because of who he or she is, is unfair and is wrong,” he said.

But recent elections show Gwinnett’s political identity has changed, too. A county that supported Republican George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Nikki Merritt, a Democrat running against Republican state Sen. P.K. Martin, says the race "is about a demographic shift" in Gwinnett County. In 2000, the census found about two-thirds of the county was white. The most recent estimates now put that at 54%. (Handout).

Republican state Sen. P.K. Martin, who is running for reelection, said he has focused on finding bipartisan ways to address problems that kids face, such as a mandate for dyslexia screening in public schools. (Handout)

Nikki Merritt, a first-time candidate and Grayson Democrat who is challenging state Sen. P.K. Martin, said her race "is about a demographic shift that has happened. That’s something they’re going to have to combat.”

Martin agreed that the demographics have changed, but he said he’s been focused on finding bipartisan ways to address problems that kids face. He’s passed legislation that mandates dyslexia screening in public schools and requires insurance companies to cover the cost of children’s hearing aids.

State Rep. Brett Harrell, a Republican from Snellville who’s represented his district since 2011, said he’s often taken more moderate stances on social issues. Harrell is facing his first Democratic nominee since winning election.

“I’m fiscally conservative,” said Harrell, chairman of the House tax panel. “But when it comes to things like the death penalty, it would make people call me a social moderate.”

Harrell filed legislation last year to abolish capital punishment in Georgia.

On more controversial social issues — ones that typically send elected officials to their partisan corners — Harrell has been more unpredictable. He “walked” on last year’s anti-abortion legislation, choosing not to vote on a bill he said he had concerns with.

This year he voted against a law, introduced as a compromise to get Republican support on a hate-crimes bill, that created additional protections for police and other first responders targeted because of what they do. The measure narrowly passed with only Republicans supporting it.

State Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, describes himself as fiscally conservative but more of a moderate on social issues. For example, he introduced legislation to abolish capital punishment in the state. (Handout)

He didn’t vote on the hate-crimes legislation last year, but he backed it this year as social justice became a more prominent cause following several killings of Black people, including the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County.

Rebecca Mitchell, a first-time Democratic candidate challenging Harrell in November, said she was glad he ended up supporting the measure.

The Snellville resident said her decision to run had more to do with the political landscape than anything the incumbent hasn’t done for the district.

“We’re pretty ideologically in different directions and, because of that, his votes do not align with what I believe,” she said.

Rebecca Mitchell, a Democrat running against state Rep. Brett Harrell of Snellville, said she was glad he supported hate-crimes legislation this year. But she said her campaign is more about the political shift in Gwinnett County. (Handout)

Passing a hate-crimes law

Efstration sponsored Georgia’s hate-crimes legislation that Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law this summer. The bill, which had been pushed by Democratic lawmakers for more than a decade, increases penalties for those convicted of committing a crime against someone because of their identity.

“In 2019 I introduced the Georgia Hate Crimes Act because it was the right thing to do,” Efstration said. “I was aware of the inability of Democrats or Republicans to get a bill passed over 15 years and I wanted to address it.”

Hemingway, while commending Efstration for getting the legislation passed, said the effort rang hollow.

“The minorities in this community only know Efstration because of the hate-crimes bill,” said Hemingway, who is Black. Efstration is white. “Some people still don’t know who this man is yet. And he’s been elected four times to serve this district.”

June 26, 2020 Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp signs HB 426, hate-crimes legislation, into law on the last day of the legislative session at Georgia State Capitol on Friday, June 26, 2020. Gov. Brian Kemp signed hate-crimes legislation into law on Friday after state lawmakers brokered a compromise over the proposal after 16 years of debate over whether to extend protections to people who are targeted because of biases. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

In an effort to bolster his record of working on bipartisan issues, Efstration used comments from and pictures taken with prominent Democrats and activists on his campaign materials, and they criticized him for doing it.

Democratic state Reps. Calvin Smyre, the chamber’s dean, and Karen Bennett, chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus, released a letter saying they were “disappointed” Efstration used their images on his campaign materials, implying that they endorsed his re-election campaign.

With Efstration, the three were the lead sponsors on the hate-crimes bill.

“These are pure campaign politics in an attempt to attack me only because of my political party, which is unfortunate," Efstration said.

When lawmakers passed the bill in June, many Republican House members changed their votes from March 2019.

State Rep. Houston Gaines of Athens, now running for re-election, was among the Republicans in the Legislature who changed their votes on the hate-crimes bill, opposing it in 2019 but helping it pass this year. "I think that we just recognized that now is the right time to make some changes," he said. (Handout)

First-term state Rep. Houston Gaines of Athens was among them. The difference, he said, was timing.

“I think that we just recognized that now is the right time to make some changes,” he said.

Gaines, who ousted a first-term Democratic incumbent two years ago, has gotten a political boost from Republican House Speaker David Ralston, who held press conferences allowing Gaines to showcase legislation he’d introduced, including a failed effort to extend three weeks of paid family leave benefits to state employees.

“I think he (Ralston) recognizes that we’ve got to have the next generation of leadership be a part of these conversations," Gaines said.

Gaines was also the House sponsor of legislation filed by state Sen. Tonya Anderson, a Lithonia Democrat, that allows some misdemeanor offenses on a criminal record to be restricted and sealed from the public, removing a hurdle facing many who are looking for employment or housing.

Gaines' Democratic opponent, “Mokah” Jasmine Johnson, said it was hypocritical of the Republican lawmaker to advocate for the bill when his supporters have attacked her over a conviction on a misdemeanor marijuana charge decades ago that has been expunged.

"Mokah" Jasmine Johnson is a Democrat running against state Rep. Houston Gaines. She says his recent advocacy for a bill to expunge some convictions runs counter to the attacks his supporters have made against her campaign involving a conviction on a misdemeanor marijuana charge decades ago that has been expunged. (Handout)

Credit: THRASHER

Credit: THRASHER

It remains to be seen whether Republican incumbents playing up their bipartisan work will earn the support of voters.

Mitchell, the Democratic candidate from Snellville, said she believes many of Harrell’s and other Republican incumbents' votes this year were politically strategic.

“If you’re only going to vote in the interest of your people when somebody’s standing right there challenging you, that doesn’t really reflect who we want in office," she said.

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