Georgia’s tightest U.S. House race turns the spotlight on the 2nd District

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

DAWSON — After a tour of a cotton gin on the outskirts of Albany, a few dozen of southwest Georgia’s leading farmers piled into a conference room to hear from a somewhat fresh face.

Chris West scanned the room of worried and weathered agriculture industry veterans, some of whom vented their concerns about rising overseas competition and new government regulations.

“I know the critical importance of agriculture,” said West, an attorney whose victory in May over a better-funded opponent made him the Republican nominee for the 2nd Congressional District, the state’s most competitive U.S. House race in November.

National Republicans aiming to retake the U.S. House have pumped extra resources into West’s campaign. But he faces an uphill battle against Rep. Sanford Bishop, a long-serving Democrat who prognosticators say is likely to win even in a tough political climate.

West is crisscrossing the district to try to prove them wrong in November.

“It’s time to rotate the crops,” he told the group of farmers. “You can’t keep doing the same thing in the field again and again and expect to have the same outcome.”

Bishop uses a different analogy when speaking about his opponent. He compares himself to a weathered brain surgeon whose decades of experience dealing with crises makes him the obvious choice.

“You’ve got somebody applying for the job who has the experience doing it,“ he said, “and you have somebody else applying for a job that is just thinking about going to medical school.”

Credit: Brynn Anderson / AP

Credit: Brynn Anderson / AP

West wasn’t expected to make it this far. He was outspent during the primary by an 11-1 margin by Jeremy Hunt, a darling of the Georgia GOP who was pumped up by national Republicans. West, by contrast, ran a shoestring campaign that highlighted his deep roots in southwest Georgia with little of the national attention that Hunt drew.

Now, the Thomasville native is in the middle of what he calls the “only toss-up race” in Georgia facing Bishop, who was first elected three decades ago and now chairs the influential House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee.

Shifting boundaries

What makes this district, which Bishop won by nearly 20 percentage points in 2020, suddenly competitive?

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

The Republican-led Georgia Legislature redrew the political boundaries after the latest U.S. census figures came out, making the district slightly less favorable to Democrats.

While the prior district was about 51% Black in 2020, the new territory is 49% Black. A majority of voters in the new district backed Joe Biden for president, but that percentage is also down slightly compared with the old map.

And conditions favor Republicans overall, with Biden’s low approval ratings and concerns about inflation raising the possibility that closely divided Democratic districts could flip.

Even so, election forecasters say Bishop is favored to win in November based on current trends. Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and the University of Virginia Center for Politics label the seat “likely Democratic,” meaning Bishop has a clear advantage but there is still potential for West to prevail.

Democrats aren’t taking it lightly. Bishop raised about $800,000 in the most recent financial period — the single-biggest fundraising quarter he’s ever reported — and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee regularly blasts West for his positions on issues such as guns and abortion that are out of step with most voters in the district.

And in a sign of renewed Democratic focus on the race, state party officials plan to hold their annual convention in Columbus this weekend with a key speaking slot for the local incumbent.



“It’s the most competitive House race on the ballot, and we’re showing voters we’re not taking anything for granted,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who chairs the state Democratic Party. “We want voters to know how Rep. Bishop has focused on them.”

Her party put it a different way in a recent fundraising appeal: “Will we reelect Sanford Bishop, or will the House be taken over by an insurrectionist GOP that wants to destroy our democracy?”

‘Best interests’

One reason Bishop is still favored is because of his bipartisan support across Georgia. He’s the longest-serving member of the state’s congressional delegation, and he’s eager to highlight his work across the aisle.

An episode a few weeks ago at the Georgia Chamber’s congressional luncheon in Macon helped explain his unique standing even in a changing district.

At the event, Bishop was warmly applauded as he praised work with Republicans on measures to provide coronavirus relief, bolster agriculture and help farmers weather disasters.

“While we may have different ideas on how we can best support communities, businesses, workforce and institutions,” he said, “we’ve come to the table with Georgia’s best interests at heart.”

Minutes later, veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz kicked off his keynote speech by making a beeline to Bishop to single out his work in Congress, calling him one of the most effective members of the U.S. House.

Bishop carries the label of a “Blue Dog” Democrat, a group of lawmakers that represent the more conservative arm of the party. But that belies the fact that he votes in step with fellow Democrats the majority of the time, backing legislation recently to ban assault weapons, decriminalize marijuana, and create federal protections for abortion and same-sex weddings.

His campaign trail message, however, centers on what his decades of experience, starting in the Georgia General Assembly and moving up to top committee assignments in Congress, have produced for the district.

He emphasizes his work to address the needs of the rural and agriculture-dependent areas he represents along with requests from the urban centers in Macon, Columbus and Albany, where the financial services industry and the military are among the largest employers.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

“I am in a position to make sure that those bases have what they need to to prosper,” Bishop said. “And I have a proven record of doing that.”

He has used his position as the only Georgia lawmaker on the powerful Appropriations Committee to funnel millions, if not billions of dollars, and other resources to Georgia by working with state and local officials on both sides of the aisle.

Bishop’s allies expect that work to pay off at the polls.

“There’s going to be some split-ticket voters in the district — Republicans who side with Sanford Bishop because they know his value,” said David Brand, a longtime friend and adviser to the Democrat.

“Sanford is a national treasure, and Georgia cannot afford to lose him,” Brand said. “He has delivered in a way that no Georgia congressman has since Newt Gingrich was speaker.”

‘The math isn’t working’

Part of West’s message on the campaign trail is that he can rescue the district from a career politician who has grown out of touch. He said his travels have introduced him to voters who haven’t seen Bishop in years.

“He is 75 and has been in this seat for 30 years,” West said in an interview. “You can take different communities for granted. So we’re getting out there and we’re letting people know that we want to be their voice.”

West speaks broadly about going to Washington to fight for small businesses and addressing crime and inflation, but he also mentions more traditional conservative talking points such as securing the borders and opposing new gun restrictions.

Like other Republicans, West has sharpened his attacks on Biden and his legislative agenda, such as the newly signed federal climate, tax and health care bill that Bishop and other Democrats narrowly passed. West calls it “full of wasteful spending that will worsen the future of the country.”

He’s also appealing directly to farmers who are concerned with “skyrocketing fuel and fertilizer prices” that are squeezing profits.

Among them is Greg Leger, a Cordele grower who worries about inflation that has hovered around 40-year highs.

“We’re going to survive because that’s what we do,” Leger said. “But the math isn’t working.”

Among West’s supporters is former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who trekked to the rural hamlet of Dawson to join the candidate. She predicted voters will look past Bishop’s bipartisan talk in November.

“When you say one thing and do another,” she said, “the hypocrisy wears thin on Georgians.”