Why you should pay attention to Georgia’s primaries

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution roundup of the biggest races in Georgia ahead of Tuesday’s vote
Former Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow, left, has focused his campaign to unseat state Supreme Court Justice Andrew Pinson on a pledge to protect abortion rights.

Credit: AJC, AP

Credit: AJC, AP

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow, left, has focused his campaign to unseat state Supreme Court Justice Andrew Pinson on a pledge to protect abortion rights.

For some of Georgia’s most competitive contests, Tuesday’s primaries will set the stage for a November race. But for others, the outcome will effectively render a final verdict.

That’s because so many legislative districts — and every U.S. House seat — were drawn to favor one party or another, giving low-turnout primary contests outsized importance.

Voters will also elect winners on Tuesday for key nonpartisan races, including several contests for the state’s top judicial posts.

Here’s a closer look at some of the most intriguing races:

A Supreme contest

It may be the closest Georgia gets to a referendum on abortion rights this election cycle. That’s at least how former Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow frames his campaign for a seat on the Georgia Supreme Court bench.

He’s making a pledge to “protect” abortion rights the pillar of his challenge to Justice Andrew Pinson, a conservative who is facing his first election after Gov. Brian Kemp appointed him to the bench two years ago.

Barrow’s vows to oppose abortion restrictions defy conventional campaigning for judicial posts. Most candidates for the bench take the approach favored by Pinson by avoiding public statements on issues that could come before the court.

And Barrow could face legal hot water after the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission warned he could be removed from the bench if he wins. A federal judge dismissed a complaint Barrow filed last week against the agency; he plans to appeal.

Still, Barrow said it’s worth the risk. He says his free speech rights empower him to stake positions publicly — and that voters deserve the right to know where contenders stand on pivotal issues.

Pinson has drawn support from a range of conservative groups and on Monday appeared with Kemp and Insurance Commissioner John King to tout his GOP backing. He casts Barrow as a threat to the judiciary’s independence.

“We can preserve this independent judiciary being set up by our constitution. We can keep a justice system that’s fair and impartial,” Pinson said. “Or we can have a system of partisan politics.”

In the end, the race might be more of a test of Barrow’s name recognition — and the power of Pinson’s incumbency — than any policy approach in the nonpartisan race.

Over five terms in the U.S. House, Barrow’s district shifted three times, allowing him to represent a vast chunk of the state. In 2018, he spent more than $3 million promoting his bid for secretary of state, losing to Republican Brad Raffensperger in a runoff.

No challenger has ousted a Georgia Supreme Court challenger in more than a century, but in 2020 former state Rep. Beth Beskin came within 4 percentage points of unseating an incumbent.

The outcome won’t transform the makeup of the nine-member court, which is dominated by Republican appointees. But Barrow said his victory could begin a shift — and send an unmistakable message to GOP leaders about abortion laws.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is expected to win her primary contest on Tuesday. The margin could matter, though, because a close race against fellow Democrat Christian Wise Smith could encourage Republicans to step up their efforts to undermine her over her prosecution of an election-interference case against former President Donald Trump. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

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Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Trump trial stars

It’s decision day for two of the biggest figures in Fulton County’s election-interference trial against former President Donald Trump and his allies. District Attorney Fani Willis and Judge Scott McAfee both face the voters.

The question Willis’ supporters are posing ahead of Tuesday is not whether she’ll defeat Christian Wise Smith in the Democratic primary. It’s what margin will she win.

She’s looking to run up the score against Wise Smith ahead of a November race against Republican Courtney Kramer, another contest Willis is expected to dominate.

Her allies hope a sweeping victory would put a stamp of approval on the way she runs the office — and her strategy for pursuing the closely watched Trump trial, which could be delayed until 2025 as an appeals court considers a challenge.

Any weakness at the ballot box could inspire new efforts to undermine Willis, who is already facing several probes in the Georgia Senate sanctioned by Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who could face charges himself.

McAfee, meanwhile, is facing the voters for the first time since he was appointed by Kemp to the bench in 2022. But to many in Fulton County, he’s already a household name thanks to wall-to-wall coverage of the trial he’s overseeing.

He’s facing a challenge from civil rights attorney Robert Patillo. Another candidate, Tiffani Johnson, a former assistant solicitor, was disqualified by an administrative law judge and is fighting to return to the ballot.

Democratic candidates for Georgia 13th District (from top left) Marcus Flowers, incumbent David Scott, Karen Rene, Uloma Kama, Brian Johnson and Rashid Malik.

Credit: AP, AJC

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Credit: AP, AJC

Congressional clashes

The race for Georgia’s 3rd Congressional District is the most competitive U.S. House race. It’s also under the radar for many voters even in the west Georgia-based district.

The nominal front-runner is Brian Jack, a former Trump aide with a long history in Washington who is now campaigning for the vacant seat with the former president’s blessing.

So far, the candidates have avoided the nastiness that has characterized other close races, as each camp competes for a spot in a June runoff between the two top finishers.

But Jack’s campaign has flooded the airwaves with ads featuring Trump and holds out hope he can eclipse 50% and secure an outright win.

On the Democratic ledger, U.S. Reps. Lucy McBath and David Scott are both competing in vastly new House districts after a court-ordered overhaul of political maps.

Both are favored to win, though Scott faces challenges from a half-dozen Democrats who have raised concerns about the 78-year-old’s age, enthusiasm for the job and health problems.

State Reps. Saira Draper, left, and Becky Evans, were drawn into the same district during last year's redistricting process. They face each other in Tuesday's primary in the only race that features two incumbents. Submitted photos.

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

Legislative showdowns

The overhaul of the political maps shifted boundaries for many Georgia lawmakers, and the retirements of others triggered a flurry of open seats.

One of the most closely watched races is the Atlanta contest between Democratic state Reps. Saira Draper and Becky Evans. It is the only race in the state with two incumbent lawmakers facing off for reelection.

Democratic state Sen. Sally Harrell drew opposition from David Lubin after she abstained from voting on a measure to combat antisemitism.

Lubin’s daughter was killed in November while serving as a police officer in the Israeli army, and he has tapped into the Jewish community as he competes for the Dunwoody-based district.

State Sen. Elena Parent is in a heated race to keep her DeKalb County-based seat, which has been redrawn into a majority-Black district. Parent, who is white, has leaned heavily on prominent Black Democrats to back her in the contest against former state Sen. Nadine Thomas.

Then there’s the bizarre contest to succeed Republican state Sen. Shelly Echols in Gainesville. Her husband, Drew Echols, and former state Rep. Josh Clark are in a bruising fight that has led one contender to accuse the other of “Watergate 2.0.”