Georgia Democrats are off to a strong start in their bid to build on the electoral gains they made in congressional and legislative races two years ago.
But Republicans say they will have the enthusiasm and resources to retain majorities in both the General Assembly and the state’s congressional delegation they have held for most of this century.
As the deadline for candidate qualifying fell at the state Capitol Friday, Democrats had fielded a candidate in all 14 of Georgia’s congressional districts for the first time since 2008. Democrats also were running for about three-fourths of the 236 seats in the state House of Representatives and Senate.
The influx of candidates angling to unseat Republicans gives Democrats a better shot at flipping the 16 seats needed to win control of the Georgia House for the first time since the 2004 election, said state Sen. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, who doubles as the state’s Democratic chair.
“I am very optimistic about what that means for our prospects in November because we are laser focused about taking the House back,” she said. “I see that the future of Georgia is blue.”
But Democrats face an uphill battle to reclaim a majority in either Georgia’s congressional delegation or the General Assembly.
Although Democrat Lucy McBath of Roswell pulled an upset in 2018 by capturing a congressional seat in Atlanta’s northern suburbs held by Republicans for decades, Republicans still control the congressional delegation 9-5.
The GOP must defend three vacant congressional seats this year, but only one of those – the 7th District primarily in Democrat-trending Gwinnett County – is in serious play.
Meanwhile, Republicans currently hold a 35-21 majority in the Georgia Senate and 105 of the 180 House seats.
More than 1,500 Republican candidates signed up to run for federal, state and local office during the qualifying period compared to just 880 Democrats. Many will be going up against members of their own party in the May 19 primaries.
“Republicans are better organized and more enthusiastic than at any time I can remember,” Georgia Republican Chairman David Shafer said Friday. “We will be campaigning everywhere to everyone.”
McBath, who ran former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel out of office two years ago, has drawn five Republican challengers for the 6th Congressional District seat, including Handel. The Democrat edged Handel by a razor-thin margin in the 2018 general election to claim the traditionally Republican district previously held by influential former Georgia officeholders Newt Gingrich and Tom Price.
Four other Republicans who Handel bested in the 2018 GOP primary have jumped back into the race this year including Joe Profit, Blake Harbin, Paulette Smith and Mykel Lynn Barthelemy.
The neighboring 7th Congressional District is also poised for a brawling contest following current seat holder U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall’s decision not to seek re-election.
In 2018, Republican Woodall won a fourth term to the suburban Atlanta district by less than 500 votes over Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, who is making a second run at the seat this year and already has amassed nearly $1.3 million in campaign contributions.
Two state senators and top competitors for the district – Zahra Karinshak, D-Duluth, and Renee Unterman, R-Buford – have already squared off several times over bills on the Georgia Senate floor during the legislative session now underway.
Other 7th District candidates include businessman Mark Gonsalves, businesswoman Lynne Homrich, physician Dr. Rich McCormick, activist Nabilah Islam and state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero.
The 9th District, which Rep. Doug Collins is vacating to run for the U.S. Senate, has also drawn a swarm of candidates including a trio of Republican state lawmakers: Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa; Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville; and Rep. Matt Gurtler, R-Tiger. Another Republican hopeful is former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, launching a comeback bid after representing Georgia’s 10th Congressional District from 2007 through 2015.
A fourth congressional seat up for grabs is the 14th District, held by U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, who announced late last year that he will not seek re-election. Ten candidates qualified to run for the Northwest Georgia seat including former state School Superintendent John Barge, state Rep. Kevin Cooke, R-Carrollton, and businesswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene.
In a unique development, both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats are up for grabs this year following the recent retirement of longtime U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who stepped down due to health issues.
Nearly two dozen candidates have jumped into the race to challenge Isakson’s successor, U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who Gov. Brian Kemp appointed late last year.
It will be a free-for-all special election set for Nov. 3, with all 21 candidates from parties of all stripes – Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Independent and Green – competing at the same time.
Loeffler’s campaign has stepped up an advertising war with Collins, a staunch ally of President Donald Trump who was passed over by Kemp for the Senate appointment.
On the Democratic side, several prominent candidates qualified for the Senate seat last week, including the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church; former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver of Augusta; and Matt Lieberman, the son of former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.
U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., on the other hand, is seeking re-election through the normal primary process. Seven Democrats are vying in the May primary for the nomination to challenge Perdue’s bid for a second six-year term, while the incumbent drew no GOP opposition during qualifying week.
The Democrats hoping to take on Perdue include former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson; Sarah Riggs Amico, who lost a close statewide race for lieutenant governor in 2018; and filmmaker Jon Ossoff, who lost a tight and expensive special-election race to Handel for the 6th Congressional District in 2017.
Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said the immensely crowded contest for Loeffler’s U.S. Senate seat could help generate a record turnout in the November election.
“It looks like a tremendous amount of money will be spent on that seat, including money coming in from independent groups,” he said. “All that money should capture people’s interest.”
Democrats believe they have a good opportunity to capture Loeffler’s Senate seat because of the unique nature of an election with no May primary.
But Bullock said the most important contests to Democrats are in the Georgia House, where capturing a majority would guarantee them a role in redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative district maps next year based on the 2020 Census.
“That’s why Democrats are concentrating on controlling the state House,” he said. “If they actually do that, it gets them a seat at the table.”
But if Republicans retain control of both legislative chambers, they will be in the driver’s seat to control district boundaries that will govern Georgia elections until 2032.