Georgia’s longest-serving congressman hopes to fight off GOP challenger

Voters in southwest Georgia have a choice to make this election year: whether they are going to keep long-term Congressman Sanford Bishop in office or turn the seat over to a Republican newcomer.

The Democrat’s closing argument has focused on the decades he spent gaining the seniority, experience and bipartisan support that makes him best positioned to deliver for his constituents another two years.

“I have used the legislative process in Congress to bring billions of our tax dollars back home to middle and southwest Georgia to improve our schools, build roads, expand broadband, improve housing, boost our local economy, make health care more accessible, support law enforcement and strengthen our national defense,” Bishop said during a debate Tuesday night hosted by WTVM-TV.

Bishop was first elected to Congress in 1992, and this has been his toughest reelection campaign in years.

The state’s GOP leaders made it easier for a Republican to win the seat by drawing it in a way that reduced the percentage of Democratic and Black voters. Then national Republican figures recruited a candidate they felt would give them the best chance of beating Bishop in November.

Only that candidate — Jeremy Hunt — didn’t win the primary; Thomasville native Chris West did.

West hasn’t been able to keep up with Bishop in fundraising, and some election prognosticators no longer consider the race as competitive as they once did. New polling indicates the incumbent is ahead.

Still, West says he is circling the district and speaking to audiences outside of traditional GOP enclaves in hopes of pulling an upset.

He says that Bishop supports policies under President Joe Biden’s administration that have harmed families in the 2nd Congressional District. West said his business knowledge as an attorney and commercial developer, as well as his lack of political experience, would give him a fresh take in Washington.

“Our district, it’s time to move forward after 30 years of being under Sanford Bishop, it’s time that we rotate the crop,” West said at Tuesday’s debate.

Columbus resident Spence Sealy voted early on Wednesday. A Democrat, Sealy cast his vote for Bishop, happy with “his experience and track record for supporting southwest Georgia.”

Annemarie Albaugh, who also lives in Columbus, said she is still undecided. Although she no longer votes a straight Republican ticket like she once did, she said she will be researching to see which candidate has a better platform when it comes to addressing climate change and animal rights.

A recent poll conducted by the Trafalgar Group shows Bishop in the lead with 50% of voters’ support compared with West’s 46%. The poll of 515 likely voters showed the difference between the two candidates slightly within the margin of error of 4.2 percentage points. About 3% of voters were undecided in the survey conducted Oct. 14-16.

Bishop leads in fundraising, collecting $2.7 million this campaign cycle, compared with West’s $812,615. At the end of September, Bishop had roughly $1 million in cash on hand, compared with West’s $424,059. That’s not surprising considering Bishop is a longtime incumbent who can pull money from traditional congressional donors.

The Democratic Party’s campaign arm for House races has spent more than $2 million on TV and radio ads in the 2nd District.

“Bishop is incredibly important — not just because he’s the dean of the Georgia delegation, but because he’s a public servant for farmers, veterans and working families in the district,” said Monica Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The Republican Party added West to its Young Gun program for candidates who it thinks have a good chance of winning a competitive race, qualifying him for additional resources. U.S. House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy held a fundraiser for him at a Buckhead firm on Monday, and several current and incoming Georgia lawmakers were in attendance.

Bishop has had to answer not only for his votes in Washington but also an ethics investigation that has been pending for two years. He was accused of using campaign funds for membership, green fees and meals at two exclusive golf courses, and the same campaign committee also paid for virtually all the gas that Bishop and his wife put into their vehicles.

A separate taxpayer-funded account paid for holiday parties for Bishop’s staff over four years. The House Committee on Ethics announced in July 2020 that it was reviewing the case to determine whether the congressman violated congressional rules or federal laws.

Bishop said in recent debates that he paid back the money in dispute, hired new advisers and updated his office policies to address the issues raised in the ethics investigations. But he admitted no wrongdoing.

As chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture and the only Georgia member to serve on the Appropriations Committee, he is an important figure in the state delegation. As a result, GOP officials at the state, local and federal levels have been more muted in their criticism of the incumbent.

Republican U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, who represents a different South Georgia district, said he supports West and all the other Republicans on the ballot. While Carter also had praise for Bishop, he said winning control of the House is his main priority.

“It is important to note that Sanford is on the Appropriations Committee, and he’s been a go-to guy for us, but it’s about policy,” Carter said. “And the policies of the Republican Party, I think, are the policies right now that we should be adhering to and that will work best for our country. That’s why I’m supporting Chris West.”