Why Democrats have new hope to win suburban seats in Georgia

U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath could benefit from another round of redistricting if a federal judge rules in favor of plaintiffs challenging Georgia's Republican-drawn political maps.

U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath could benefit from another round of redistricting if a federal judge rules in favor of plaintiffs challenging Georgia's Republican-drawn political maps.

Republican Rich McCormick breezed to a 24-point victory to secure a north Atlanta U.S. House seat last year. State Rep. Jan Jones, the No. 2 Republican in the Georgia House, lives in such a GOP stronghold that no Democrat even bothered to challenge her in 2022.

But the two incumbents have already drawn Democratic opponents in next year’s race. And they could be the start of a wave of new candidates competing in races across metro Atlanta’s suburbs for districts once seen as Republican locks.

The challengers aren’t jumping in the races simply because they believe that Donald Trump’s comeback bid or GOP-backed measures to expand gun rights or limit abortion will motivate supporters to the polls.

They are also wagering that a pending federal lawsuit will trigger a reordering of Georgia’s political maps that could give Democrats a foothold in territory that would once require a miracle to flip.

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones will soon decide whether the Republican-controlled General Assembly illegally diluted the power of Black voters when legislators redrew the map in 2021 to enable the GOP to take a U.S. House seat and safeguard their legislative majorities.

An overhaul of the political lines would give Georgia, already one of just a few competitive states in next year’s presidential race, key down-ticket races that could help determine control of the U.S. House and the extent of the GOP’s grip on the Legislature.

Democrats expect a ruling to focus on Atlanta’s northern suburbs, where some local party leaders are already maneuvering to line up endorsements, appeal to activists and, in some cases, formally launch campaigns — even though the political boundaries remain unsettled.

While U.S. House candidates don’t have to live in the districts they hope to represent, contenders for state legislative seats are required to live within their districts for at least a year. That complicates the decision-making for legislative candidates who might need to move to run.

“It’s really unique,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist who has written extensively on the messy feuding over redistricting — or what he calls “the most political activity in America.”

“There’s no guarantee that the judge will throw out the map, though I suspect he will,” Bullock added. “And nobody has any idea what the new districts look like. We usually don’t see these types of moves this early.”

‘New generation of candidates’

GOP lawmakers redrew the political boundaries two years ago to protect their majorities, just as Democrats did for decades when they controlled the gears of power at the Statehouse.

The biggest revamp involved the 6th Congressional District, which once spanned the close-in suburbs north of Atlanta and now stitches together heavily Republican and less diverse parts of Cherokee, Dawson and Forsyth counties.

The new territory was drawn so conservatively that Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, who is Black, bolted for the neighboring Gwinnett-based 7th Congressional District, where she defeated a fellow Democrat to keep a seat in Congress. McCormick went on to capture 62% of the vote in McBath’s old district after fending off a Trump-backed rival in the GOP primary.

Republican state Sen. John Kennedy answers a question from a Democratic lawmaker in November 2021 as lawmakers debated a new version of the state's political maps. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

Civil rights groups immediately challenged the maps, saying that Republicans violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by creating too many heavily-white districts. The law allows redistricting for partisan advantage but is designed to protect minority voters from racial gerrymandering.

Even some Democratic elders were privately skeptical of the lawsuit’s chances until the U.S. Supreme Court unexpectedly sided with plaintiffs in Alabama who argued that new maps there illegally diluted the voting power of Black residents.

Now, GOP officials are making quiet preparations for a special legislative session later this year if a judge throws out the maps, and some lawmakers say that they arranged for travel insurance in case their holiday trips are canceled. Democrats expect another round of maneuvering if the lawsuit goes their way.

“Early challenges like these are a testament to the energy that gerrymandering is holding back,” said Democratic state Sen. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs lawyer who is seen as a potential candidate for a revamped U.S. House seat.

“If we actually had fair maps,” he added, “we would see a whole new generation of candidates and Democratic-controlled chambers within one or two cycles.”

‘Nothing for granted’

Cobb Commissioner Jerica Richardson is no stranger to the politics of mapmaking.

First elected in 2020 to the County Commission to represent an east Cobb district, Richardson quickly became a target of Republican state lawmakers who changed the political boundaries to preserve the two GOP seats on the board by drawing Richardson out.

The Democratic-controlled commission then sought to overrule the Legislature by amending its own map to protect Richardson. State officials challenged the new commission boundaries, and the legal case is still pending.

Democrat Jerica Richardson announces her campaign for U.S. House in September 2023. (File photo)

Credit: AJC file photo

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Credit: AJC file photo

But Richardson isn’t waiting for its resolution. She launched her campaign for Congress earlier this month, saying she’s in the race no matter what Jones decides.

“I made the decision based upon the lines where they are today. We’re watching the court case, but I’m still running regardless,” she said shortly after her first campaign event in Alpharetta.

And if the district isn’t revamped?

“We’ll have to win over those Republican voters one vote at a time,” Richardson said. “There is no shortcut to real community, or to building those bonds.”

The pending court case also gave new hope to Democrats in north Fulton County who have long tried to oust Jones, the first-ever female speaker of the House and one of the most powerful lawmakers under the Gold Dome.

State Rep. Jan Jones is one of the chamber's most powerful Republicans.  (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Among Jones’ newly announced opponents is Debra Shigley, who has practiced law, worked as a journalist and helped found a technology startup for hairstyling for women of color. She cited the Republican-led efforts to expand school vouchers as one of the reasons for running.

“As the daughter of two public school educators, I want our kids to go to the best schools in the nation,” said Shigley. “I am running because I don’t hear our district’s voice represented at the Capitol. I’m ready to change that.”

More will join the fray if the district lines are recast. State Rep. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek physician and former state senator, is among those who could seek higher office. And McBath’s allies say she hasn’t ruled out a return to her former district, a swap that would open another suburban seat.

McCormick, a military veteran and emergency room physician, is bracing for what could be one of the most-watched races in the South. He recently accused Democrats of “pulling out all the stops” to defeat him.

“As we look to next year’s election, our team is taking nothing for granted,” McCormick said in a fundraising appeal to Republican voters. “We are preparing for the battles to come and hope we can count on your support again.”

In 2020, Georgia’s 6th and 7th districts were two of the most competitive 
races in the nation. Democrats narrowly won both. After redistricting, their 
boundaries shifted to make Republicans strong favorites in the 6th and 
Democrats strong favorites in the 7th.

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

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Credit: Isaac Sabetai