OPINION: Republicans finally figure out how to beat Lucy McBath

Democrat Lucy McBath speaks to supporters during her watch party Tuesday night as they waited for results in her campaign against U.S. Rep. Karen Handel. The Roswell Republican conceded the race to McBath on Thursday. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

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Democrat Lucy McBath speaks to supporters during her watch party Tuesday night as they waited for results in her campaign against U.S. Rep. Karen Handel. The Roswell Republican conceded the race to McBath on Thursday. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

DAWSONVILLE — Republicans have lost the last two elections in the 6th Congressional District to U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath.

But on Wednesday of this past week, they absolutely clobbered her in the redistricting process, carving out the most liberal portions of her Democratic-leaning suburban Atlanta district and replacing them with some of the most conservative voters in the state.

With the stroke of a pen and a keystroke on a computer mapping model, the 6th District flipped from a Biden +12 district to what will become Trump +15. In the process, McBath’s chances for reelection there essentially flipped from “slam dunk” to “why bother.”

Just how different are the new portions of the 6th District from McBath’s current territory ? To find out, I drove north from the swath of DeKalb that she will soon lose toward her new territory in Dawson County.

ExploreRepublicans clear path for final vote on new Georgia congressional map

The short answer: It’s very different.

About 15 minutes outside of the Perimeter, you start to see a lot more F-150s than Teslas.

While the current 6th is one of the wealthiest and best-educated districts in the country, with a median income north of $100,000, you’re far more likely in Dawson County to meet school teachers, nurses and police officers, all living in the area for the low home prices and rural-for-now lifestyle.

The further north you go, the crush of development along GA-400 begins to thin. By the time you turn west onto Highway 53, forests and fields line the highway instead of overpasses and high-rises.

Once in Dawsonville, home to NASCAR’s “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” Elliott, you’ll see City Hall, which also houses the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame and a moonshine tasting room.

It’s 45 minutes outside of Atlanta, but you know you’re not in McBath country anymore.

As different as the landscape is, the political change is starker still. While Joe Biden won the 6th District by more than 10 points, he only got 15% of the total vote in Dawson County. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock did even worse.

U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde is the current congressman and there are no elected Democrats in the entire county.

“Dawson County is very, very, very, very, very red,” Bette Holland told me. Holland is the good-natured chairwoman of the Dawson County Democrats, which seems a little like being the chairwoman of the mice in a cat colony — outsized, outpowered, and literally outgunned (I’ll get to guns later).

Holland moved to the rural foothills of North Georgia after retiring as a teacher in DeKalb County, so she knows a thing or two about bringing Atlanta politics to Trump Country. While Holland said she and her fellow Democrats would fight like mad to get McBath elected in the new 6th, she’s not confident at the prospect.

“Things are happening here,” she said, referring to the development and new residents coming up from the Atlanta exurbs. “But it’s not going to happen fast enough for McBath to be able to win.”

As it is now, Dawson County, like the portions of Cherokee and Forsyth Counties that the 6th will also absorb, is the good news story for Republicans in a state trending toward the Democrats.

Both growing in population and still a conservative stronghold, Republicans have reconfigured the areas north of Atlanta to push the reliable Democrats into the once-Republican 7th District and take back the prized 6th District, once home to Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution.

Once Gov. Brian Kemp signs legislation to make the new maps official, the result for the state will be an additional Republican-favored seat in Congress, for a 9-5 split, just one year after Democrats and Republicans split the popular vote roughly 50-50.

But Lucy McBath is a nice lady, you might be thinking. Maybe she could go meet her new voters and get elected anyway?

If there’s a single issue that makes McBath’s election a near impossibility with Dawson County and the like-minded areas in the new district, it’s guns.

The former flight attendant became a gun safety activist after her only son, Jordan, was shot at a Florida gas station. She ran unapologetically on the issue in her first run for Congress in 2018 and continues to center her legislative agenda on restricting access to weapons for the dangerous and mentally ill.

There are a half dozen gun stores in and around Dawsonville alone, where McBath’s gun safety agenda and legislative checklist simply would not fly.

“We love our Second Amendment and we love the Constitution,” G.P. Pirkle told me.

Pirkle’s family owns and operates the Dawsonville Pool Room, a burger-and-grill institution in downtown Dawsonville. It’s been in business for 55 years, with the exception of the COVID shutdown, and is the sort of spot old-timers and shift workers sit down to talk about everything, including politics.

“I’m old school,” Pirkle said. He misses Trump, does not like Biden, and offered that he does not believe the COVID vaccine works. “I may die of it tomorrow, but at least I’ve got my beliefs,” he said.

How would Lucy McBath do in Dawson County? I asked.

“She wouldn’t make it,” he said. “No.”

While Republicans may have made it difficult for the congresswoman to win in her current district, nothing will make it impossible for her to run elsewhere. In fact, she seems determined to do so.

McBath allies describe her as single-mindedly focused on working on gun safety legislation at the federal level. If you’ve ever lost a child or met someone like McBath who has, you know the look in their eyes that says they’ve been through worse than a tough election.

In a Tweet hours after the new maps were released, she wrote, “Next week marks 9 years since my son was murdered. Today, Republicans released another draft map to draw me out of congress. This only strengthens my resolve to stay in Congress and fight for my son & those lost too soon.”

The most likely scenario at this point is that McBath will run for election in the neighboring, and soon to be more hospitable, 7th District. That would put her on a collision course with her Democratic House colleague, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, who flipped the district from Republican to Democrat just one year ago.

But for the first time in three long years, Lucy McBath’s congressional ambitions won’t be the Republicans’ problem to solve.