‘Grassroots rising.’ Behind an upset defeat in North Georgia

Johnny chastain

Johnny chastain

After Johnny Chastain pulled off one of the most surprising victories of this election cycle, the newly minted Republican House member stood atop a cooler and cracked a joke about how he defeated the late Speaker David Ralston’s wife Sheree.

“She had two governors. We got both IGAs,” Chastain said of endorsements from two local grocery store owners. “I’d rather have the IGAs.”

It’s dangerous to divine sweeping lessons from low-turnout affairs like Tuesday’s special election for the mountainous North Georgia district. But the Republican-on-Republcian runoff offered a reminder that Georgia politics can be unforgiving — even for a well-known political brand.

The election was triggered in November after the death of the former speaker, a conservative Republican who had successfully fended off a string of far-right challengers over two decades representing the district.

A few days after the speaker’s funeral, his widow Sheree announced her bid for the seat with a show of force meant to scare off rivals.

The executive director of the local development authority, Sheree Ralston boasted the blessings of both Gov. Brian Kemp and his predecessor, Nathan Deal. Her local supporters included state Rep. Will Wade, the up-and-coming Republican who represents a neighboring district.

And she built a big fundraising edge thanks to support from dozens of current and former legislators, including new House Speaker Jon Burns.

Sheree Ralston, widow of Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, running to succeed him.  (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Courtesy photo

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Credit: Courtesy photo

Still, the first round of voting earlier this month gave a glimpse of the electoral turbulence ahead. She garnered about 45% of the vote in the five-candidate field while Chastain came in a close second-place with 39%. Since no one captured a majority, a runoff was necessary.

‘We beat the governor’

At his victory party at a Crossfit Gym in Blue Ridge, Chastain said there were many times he doubted whether he could defeat such a well-known foe. But he credited Brian Pritchard – the conservative talk show radio host who finished fourth in the voting – for keeping him energized.

“The governor isn’t going to pick this spot. The 7th District people are going to pick this spot,” Chastain recounted Pritchard telling him. “That burned a hole in me.”

He topped Sheree Ralston by about 500 votes out of roughly 8,600 cast. While she narrowly carried Gilmer County and a portion of Dawson County, Chastain won 60% of the vote in Fannin County, where both candidates live.

Chastain’s friends noted he had cultivated his own formidable network of supporters as an executive at United Community Bank. And they said backlash over Sheree Ralston’s powerful Gold Dome supporters factored into her defeat.

Conservative talk show host Brian K. Pritchard, a candidate for the Georgia House, is accused of voting illegally nine times while serving a felony sentence. (Screenshot)

Credit: Screenshot

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Credit: Screenshot

“It was very confusing to many people in this district why so much effort was being made to get her to Atlanta,” Pritchard said. “What happened was the grassroots rising against the establishment. We’re not going to let Atlanta pick our representative.”

As the results poured in, someone in the crowd shouted: “We beat the governor!”

A ‘one-termer?’

Chastain ran a largely positive campaign that emphasized his socially conservative stances, his support for eliminating the income tax and his pledge to be “transparent to all.” But he took a shot at David Ralston once victory was in hand.

“The former speaker got – we all know it, it’s not a hidden thing – but he got too busy, he forgot, he basically couldn’t represent us. He got hard to reach,” Chastain told supporters. “But if you call me, I want to be able to try to get back to you. I want to be accessible.”

Chastain didn’t respond to a request on Wednesday to outline his stances on key issues, such as whether he would join the far-right House Freedom Caucus or back an expansion of the mental health program that was one of David Ralston’s prized legacies.

But Chastain brought up transgender restrictions at his election party, saying “we’re going to make sure that no boys go into girls’ bathrooms.” And he said he’d do his part to fight for “North Georgia values.”

“We might be a one-termer,” Chastain said, “but we’re going to stand up for what’s right, for what we believe in.”

Newly elected state Rep. Johnny Chastain and his wife Stacy celebrate his victory on Jan. 31, 2023.

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