McCormick, Bourdeaux face off in battleground 7th Congressional District

Republican Rich McCormick and Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux are vying to succeed U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall in Georgia's 7th Congressional District.

Republican Rich McCormick and Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux are vying to succeed U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall in Georgia's 7th Congressional District.

For the second election cycle in a row, Georgia’s 7th Congressional District contest is one of the nation’s battleground races.

This year’s contest pits Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, who lost narrowly to the incumbent in 2018, against Republican Rich McCormick, a political newcomer.

Bourdeaux is capitalizing on regionwide name recognition and a campaign operation that barely slowed down after the last cycle. She also benefits from running in a metro Atlanta district that has grown more diverse and more Democratic in recent years.

When U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall beat Bourdeaux by fewer than 500 votes out of roughly 280,000 cast two years ago, it was the closest race nationwide where the GOP candidate managed to hold on. He decided not to seek another term.

Still, GOP leaders think they found the right candidate to retain control of this seat and motivate the base. In McCormick, they have a military veteran and emergency room doctor with a Morehouse School of Medicine degree.

McCormick’s campaign draws heavily on his work on the pandemic’s front lines and is designed to appeal to a broad coalition. Although he was endorsed by and is supportive of President Donald Trump, McCormick markets himself as more of a “compassionate conservative” than a “law and order" candidate.

“I’m trying to come across as a guy who cares about everybody,” he said during a recent interview.

Bourdeaux’s campaign has complained that McCormick’s pitch to voters hides controversial views that are too far right for the district that includes most of Gwinnett County and part of Forsyth County.

Her supporters say she is better prepared to get to work in Washington, especially since her resume includes a stint as the Republican-controlled state Senate’s budget chief during the last economic recession. When she left that job and became a professor at Georgia State University, members of both parties honored her for her service.

“My broader goal was to try to protect public services — critical services — but also leave the state in a stronger position or as strong of a position as possible coming out of that,” she said.

Nominees emerge from crowded primaries

McCormick became active in politics while working with other doctors to lobby state lawmakers to pass a bill addressing surprise medical bills. The process left him frustrated by how partisanship and personalities sometimes got in the way of what he perceived as good policy.

First, he considered running for the General Assembly. When Woodall announced his retirement, Republican leaders recruited McCormick to run for Congress instead.

Being a Republican on the ballot in metro Atlanta and with Trump at the top of the ticket makes McCormick’s prospects even tougher, Georgia State University political science professor Amy Steigerwalt said.

She noted the close contest in 2018, Democratic enthusiasm this year, and the increase in Black, Asian and college-educated voters, who tend to vote Democratic.

“If I’m Carolyn Bourdeaux, I’m loving those numbers," Steigerwalt said. "They certainly point to a very different electorate than we have seen.”

Race became a factor during the six-way Democratic primary. Bourdeaux, who is white, faced criticism from competitors who said she should have yielded to candidates who reflect the diversity of the district.

She maintained that her razor-thin loss two years ago left her in the best position to help flip the seat, and a majority of voters agreed. Bourdeaux and McCormick, who both live in Suwanee, each won crowded June primaries without the need for a runoff.

Bourdeaux led McCormick in fundraising through the first half of the year, although an outside group backing the Republican, the conservative Club for Growth, has spent millions on advertising in hopes of filling in gaps.

The campaign arm of the Democratic Party has also invested heavily in ads to back Bourdeaux and U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath in the neighboring 6th District.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has not yet gone on the airwaves on McCormick’s behalf. However, he joined Karen Handel, his counterpart in the 6th, in gaining acceptance to the GOP Young Guns program that supports candidates in the most competitive races nationwide.

The leading election forecast websites say this contest appears to favor Bourdeaux — labeling it “leans Democratic” or “tilts Democratic.” The main exception is the election data site FiveThirtyEight, which classified the race as a toss-up.

Bourdeaux said she worked hard to build a coalition of supporters from all walks of life.

“I was spending time in the very diverse communities of this district prior to COVID,” she said. “I used to spend many Fridays in a mosque and Saturdays in the synagogue and Sundays in church.”

McCormick often reminds voters that he attended a historically black college for medical school and that roughly 70 classmates voted to make him their student body president. The political leanings of most of them differed from his own, McCormick said, and that taught him the importance of leadership and compromise.

“Diversity is what makes us great,” he said at a recent debate.

McCormick says he believes that there may be some officers who treat Black or brown people unfairly but characterizing an entire agency or profession that way is unhelpful. He reached out to the sheriffs of both Gwinnett and Forsyth counties to find out whether either agency had identified systemic issues such as the ones raised by protesters. He walked away satisfied that each had a culture of de-escalating situations and training officers properly.

By contrast, Bourdeaux has said there’s a need for improvement in addressing racial disparities in law enforcement, although she has not embraced “defunding the police.”

She supports the creation of a National Registry of Police Misconduct and stopping the practice of transferring military-grade weapons and equipment to local agencies. She also said she would put an end to qualified immunity laws that shield officers from lawsuits and criminal charges after they are accused of abuses or misconduct.

Bourdeaux also supports a repeal of the Gwinnett sheriff’s 287(g) program that allows deputies at the jail to question arrestees about their immigration status and have them detained for federal agents. Critics say the program has caused fear and distrust in immigrant communities.

McCormick said the program has helped keep dangerous people off Gwinnett’s streets and should continue.

Candidate disagree on how to respond to the coronavirus

McCormick has said his views on the coronavirus pandemic are informed by what he has seen with his own eyes as a doctor treating ER patients stricken by the virus.

But he has also echoed conservatives, including the president, in promoting hydroxychloroquine as a treatment and underestimating the timeline to develop a vaccine. He has also advocated for reopening the economy, saying families and businesses should make their own decisions about how to protect themselves against COVID-19.

Bourdeaux and her supporters have accused him of using his credibility as a physician to mislead the public. A letter signed by 120 health care providers this week asked the Medical Association of Georgia, the state’s most prominent advocacy arm for doctors, to rescind its endorsement of McCormick.

“We take issue with Dr. McCormick because the misinformation he is promoting is not only scientifically incorrect, it also undermines policies that are evidence-based and serves to further polarize our citizens along ideological lines rather than reaffirming the basic public health principles that have been proven effective in pandemic response,” the letter said.

Prior to the letter’s release, McCormick told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he has always spoken about the coronavirus in good faith, basing his comments on his own experiences in the hospital environment. His team also points out that medical knowledge of the virus and its severity has evolved over time.

McCormick believes that efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus should consider that the disease has a relatively low mortality rate among younger people who should be allowed to decide for themselves which behaviors are worth the risk.

“The question is, what cost are we willing to take to keep young healthy people away from reviving our country and protecting the income that ultimately affects our health care and everything else we do,” he said.

McCormick’s says he opposes government mandates but believes businesses should be allowed to set their own rules for wearing masks. Last month, he sat on the front row at an outdoor Trump rally where 6-foot social distancing was not enforced. McCormick did not wear a mask.

Bourdeaux called him irresponsible. She has pushed for wider use of masks and believes cities should be allowed to impose mandates. She also said statewide mask orders should follow recommendations of doctors.