Rising GOP star faces runoff Tuesday in coastal Georgia state House race

Rep. Steven Sainz faces former Navy fighter jet pilot Glenn Cook in House District 180 runoff
Former Navy pilot Glenn Cook, left, faces state Rep. Steven Sainz in the Republican primary runoff for state House District 180, based in Camden and Glynn counties.

Credit: Special, AJC

Credit: Special, AJC

Former Navy pilot Glenn Cook, left, faces state Rep. Steven Sainz in the Republican primary runoff for state House District 180, based in Camden and Glynn counties.

KINGSLAND ― At the Blue Bridge Coffeehouse, the barista knows of the upcoming Georgia House primary election runoff between state Rep. Steven Sainz and challenger Glenn Cook. You can’t miss all the campaign signs in yards and along roadsides, she says, and Sainz recently brought a group of visitors into the shop for a cup of joe.

But does she hear customers talk about it? Does she see anyone wearing peach voter stickers? Does she sense an eagerness to get to the polls?

“Not at all,” Genevieve Styger said from behind the coffee bar.

Quiet may surround the House District 180 runoff on the ground, but it’s a noisy contest within state political circles. The race is one of eight legislative runoffs to be decided Tuesday, Three are in Atlanta districts where retiring lawmakers are giving up their seats after serving more than 60 combined years in the Legislature.

The Blue Bridge Coffeehouse on Lee Street in downtown Kingsland is a popular community gathering spot. (Adam Van Brimmer/AJC)

Credit: Adam Van Brimmer

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Credit: Adam Van Brimmer

By contrast, House District 180 is geographically the farthest away from Atlanta. The district covers all of Camden County, which is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Florida to the south, and a sliver of Glynn County, including Jekyll Island.

Yet the threat to Sainz is commanding attention. A rising star in the GOP, the 29-year-old of Hispanic heritage chairs the House Special Rules Committee.

The three-term House member has raised more than $245,000 for his latest reelection bid, with a slew of contributions from political action committees, fellow state lawmakers, and law and lobbying firms. He’s also recruited colleagues, including House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, to visit the district and campaign on his behalf.

Sainz narrowly missed winning the Republican primary outright last month, coming up 20 votes short of a majority in a three-candidate race. Voter turnout for the May 21 primary, with a ballot full of federal, local and judicial races, was a meager 15%. Come Tuesday, the House race will be the only contest on the ballot in Camden and one of only two for Glynn voters.

The winner Tuesday will face Democratic Party nominee Defonsio Daniels in the general election in November.

The potential for even fewer voters to come out to the polls for Tuesday’s runoff is why the race is projected to be tight. The candidate eliminated in the May primary, David Rainer, has endorsed Cook, increasing the likelihood the challenger will pick up support in the runoff. Together, Cook and Rainer received 38 more votes than Sainz in the primary.

“What we’re trying to impress upon voters is their vote in the primary no longer matters unless they cast it again in the runoff,” Sainz said. “The primary showed who District 180 voters want. It’s my job to ensure the will of those voters carries through in this runoff.”

Residents of a residential subdivision along U.S. 17 in southern Glynn County face a Republican election runoff next week. (Adam Van Brimmer/AJC)

Credit: Adam Van Brimmer

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Credit: Adam Van Brimmer

Contrasting candidates

The challenger, Cook, is a tailor-made foil for Sainz.

Where Sainz is young and an experienced politician, Cook is 67 years old, a U.S. Navy veteran, former Delta Air Lines pilot and a lawyer who’s held only one previous public office: district supervisor for the Georgia Soil & Water Conservation Commission, arguably the lowest-profile elected post in the state.

While Sainz has called Camden County home all his life, Cook retired to the district five years ago and lives on Jekyll Island in Glynn County. Cook knew very few Camden County residents before launching his campaign earlier this year but says he’s knocked on 6,000 doors and put 8,000 miles on his Ford F-150 pickup in his canvassing efforts.

Where Sainz is well-funded and his campaign floods mailboxes and text message inboxes with mailers, Cook is mounting a more grassroots effort. He’d raised $45,431 as of his last financial disclosure on May 6.

Cook characterizes the race as a “David versus Goliath” contest but admits he underestimated the advantages that come with incumbency. Campaign mailers have painted him as an “Atlanta liberal transplant,” he said, who is soft on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Other campaign materials have questioned his stance on what has become the ultimate GOP litmus test: admiration for former President Donald Trump.

Cook said the attack ads aren’t resonating with the voters he talks to while canvassing.

“The most amazing thing to them was how someone who has a $23,000 part-time job is spending close to $200,000 on junk mailers attacking me,” Cook said. “If he’s not fiscally responsible in his campaign, how can he be fiscally responsible with their tax money?”

Of even greater concern, Cook said, is Sainz’s lack of communication with constituents. Cook said complaints that Sainz is unresponsive to all but local business leaders and high-ranking members of the local, district and state GOP is what led him to challenge the incumbent.

Sainz scoffs at those claims, pointing to the primary results as evidence that he has connected with voters.

Cook said the divided vote in the May primary was an indictment of Sainz’s leadership. He pointed to other runoffs in recent years where the second-place finishers in primaries won election in a runoff. U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Athens, and former Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan both rallied for runoff victories.

“He’s not a leader; he’s not someone you want to follow,” Cook said of Sainz. “We’ll find out how the voters feel on Tuesday.”