Two congressional races in the northern Atlanta suburbs this November could determine whether Democrats can solidify their majority in the U.S. House — or even add to it.
In their efforts to win Georgia’s 6th and 7th congressional districts, Democrats are taking the fight to traditionally Republican territory. Both districts supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.
But disenchantment with Trump’s presidency and shifting demographics in the region make the area much more competitive.
“The Atlanta suburbs are ground zero for this suburban shift leftward, and there’s nowhere it’s more evident than in the Georgia 6th and 7th,” said Jacob Rubashkin, a reporter and analyst with Inside Elections, a political forecasting firm.
Mitt Romney won the districts easily in 2012 as the Republican presidential nominee, and former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich once represented the area in Congress, he noted. “These are places that are traditionally conservative, but they just really do not like Trump. That has been the engine that has powered Democratic success there.”
But the margins were so tight in those races in 2018 that Republicans contend they have a good chance at winning the two contests, especially if GOP candidates perform well in the presidential and senatorial races at the top of the ticket.
Voters in the marquee House races will choose among several familiar names. The 6th District race is a rematch from 2018, when Democratic gun control activist Lucy McBath ousted Republican Karen Handel by little more than 3,000 votes.
The 7th District features a return of Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, a public policy professor who nearly toppled U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall in 2018, losing by the smallest margin (419 votes) of any U.S. House race in the country. Bourdeaux confirmed she would run again in 2020, just minutes after Woodall announced he would retire at the end of his term. The new Republican standard bearer is Rich McCormick, a former Marine pilot and current emergency room doctor.
Voters can hear the candidates side by side during the Atlanta Press Club debates Tuesday evening. The Handel-McBath matchup is set for 7 p.m.; Bourdeaux and McCormick will face each other at 7:30. You can watch the debates on the club’s Facebook page, GPB.org or on GPB-TV.
Democrats have a clear fundraising advantage in both races, and national political handicappers give Democrats the slight edge in both.
“Joe Biden is running stronger than any Democrat [presidential candidate] in Georgia has in decades, and no matter who you are, that’s just a tough environment to be running in as a Republican,” said Rubashkin, the Inside Elections analyst.
Georgia, of course, is drawing lots of outside attention as a potential presidential swing state where two U.S. Senate seats could be in play. On top of that, interest groups are advertising to encourage Georgia’s current senators to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court.
That means the House races will be “nationalized” in the issues they debate, and ticket splitting among voters will likely be rare, Rubashkin said.
“Democrats are laser focused on health care, and obviously, that can encompass COVID,” he said. “We’ve gone from [Democrats saying] ‘Republicans want to strip away protections for people with preexisting conditions’ as the old message to ‘Republicans want to strip away protections for people with preexisting conditions in the middle of a pandemic’ as the new message.”
Rematch for McBath’s seat
McBath became a prominent gun control activist after her son was killed at a Florida gas station by a man who complained he and his friends were playing their music too loudly in their car. She decided to run for Congress in 2018, after a shooter killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
McBath became the first Black House member to represent the district, where the majority of residents are white but Black, Hispanic and Asian residents all make up more than a tenth of the population.
In knocking off Handel, McBath gave Democrats the victory in the district that they had hoped for in a 2017 special election that drew national attention. The 2017 race pitted Handel against Democrat Jon Ossoff (now running for a U.S. Senate seat) in what became the most expensive House race in the country.
Handel is a well-known Republican official, who has served as Georgia secretary of state and ran unsuccessfully for governor and U.S. senator as well.
Now that McBath is campaigning as the incumbent, she touts the passage of legislation she sponsored that helps veterans receiving disability benefits when they declare bankruptcy, and offers it as evidence of her ability to work across the aisle. U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, a Florida Republican, co-sponsored the measure.
McBath’s campaign also highlights the four town hall meetings she held with her constituents last year — before COVID-19 hit — something that Handel promised as a member of Congress but never did.
As in most competitive House districts, health care is a flashpoint between the two candidates as well. McBath, who had breast cancer twice, supports the Affordable Care Act and its prohibition against insurers denying people coverage for preexisting conditions.
Handel voted for a Republican tax cut package that included a provision to undermine the legal basis of the ACA, which led to a legal battle that will come before the Supreme Court a week after the election.
But Handel, whose sister was born without an esophagus, also was one of 81 cosponsors of legislation that would also prevent insurance companies from denying people coverage for preexisting conditions.
“She stood up courageously when [Republicans] were doing a repeal to say: ‘We can’t do a repeal without a replace, and I’m not OK with a repeal that leaves people with preexisting conditions stranded,’” said Brian Robinson, a spokesman for the Handel campaign.
Democrats have hammered Handel for defending Republican legislation, called the American Health Care Act, that cleared the House in 2017. Handel backed the measure during her 2017 campaign, but the House passed it before she was elected.
“Their message is indefensible. They cannot back it up with a straight face,” Robinson said. “They’re running this cookie-cutter ad message against Karen, the same one they run against every Republican in the country. But Karen is different. Her record is clear on these issues.”
Robinson argued that McBath campaigned as a centrist but, once in office, often sided with the liberal wing of the Democratic caucus. McBath focused on gun control so much, she neglected other issues important to the district, including trade, education, health care and transportation, he said.
Robinson added that McBath was not visible in her district, and local leaders found it hard to contact her.
Finally, one of the rawest arguments between the two campaigns is over ads Handel has run with footage of McBath leading a march, where a participant not far behind her holds a sign that says “Some KKK wear a hood, but most wear a uniform and a badge.”
The Handel campaign says the footage shows McBath supports the broader movement to “defund the police.” “Standing up for law enforcement used to be a bipartisan issue. Sadly, today, it’s not,” Handel says in one of the spots.
“When you’ve run for office over and over again for 20 years while never serving a full term in office or winning a re-election, you make some pretty desperate attacks,” Jake Orvis, McBath’s campaign manager said in an emailed statement to Georgia Recorder.
“From supporting Trump over 98 percent of the time, defending Georgia’s extreme abortion ban, to trying repeatedly to eliminate health care coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, Karen Handel is not fit to serve the people of Georgia’s Sixth,” he said.
Open seat draws spirited contest
In the other prominent House race, Bourdeaux is making another run for the seat that narrowly escaped her two years ago. To do so, she’ll have to get past McCormick, a political newcomer who touts his military and medical experience along with his small-government philosophy.
Bourdeaux, the Democrat, is a public policy professor at Georgia State University who previously worked as the director of the nonpartisan budget agency for the Georgia state Senate. She has campaigned on fixing the Affordable Care Act after years of GOP efforts to undermine it.
“The Republicans have never put forward legislation that makes any sense on (health care). They’ve had four years to address these issues and they have not addressed it, and it is time to get the job done,” Bourdeaux said at a recent virtual debate.
The race has repeatedly come back to health care, but McCormick’s background as an emergency room doctor has added some unique wrinkles.
Bourdeaux’s campaign has slammed McCormick for undermining efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The physician has repeatedly defended Trump and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, another Republican, for their handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
He has touted the benefits of hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID-19 shortly before the FDA banned the use of the drug for that purpose. Recently, McCormick appeared at a large outdoor rally with Eric Trump, the president’s son, while not wearing a mask.
“This race,” said Bourdeaux campaign spokesperson Monica Robinson, “is between a health care champion and a politician whose health care agenda would end protections for patients with preexisting conditions and jeopardize health care coverage for millions of people amid a global pandemic.”
But in an interview with Georgia Recorder conducted before Trump tested positive for COVID-19, McCormick listed many ways that government officials, especially in the federal government and in the New York region, had botched the response to the pandemic. He cited their changing advice on travel bans, mask wearing, use of ventilators and the efficacy of certain medicines.
He said limits on mass gatherings should be consistent, so that if protests to support Black Lives Matter are allowed, so should church services. He said older people, in particular, need to take precautions against contracting the disease, like wearing masks and avoiding large crowds.
“But the fact of the matter is, I’m not going to put somebody in jail who is a World War II veteran and stormed the beaches at Iwo Jima and lived through it,” he said. “I’m not going to say, ‘You’re going to jail because you’re not wearing a mask and you might die.’ How does that make sense to anybody?”
“We need to let this be dominated by medical professionals rather than the government. This is the most politicized disease process of all time. I’ve never seen anything like it in my career,” he added.
McCormick got his first taste of politics when he and other physicians tried to convince Georgia state lawmakers to support a new law to curb surprise billing of patients. He felt legislators of both parties dismissed the doctors’ concerns and grew frustrated. That eventually led him to discussions about running for office. “I didn’t even know a politician 18 months ago. I literally did not know any state or federal legislators,” he said.
Even though he believes in limited government, McCormick said, as a member of Congress, he could help constituents navigate the federal bureaucracy. “That is the most important thing to do, because, let’s face it, as one of 435 members of [the House] in a Congress that has passed zero meaningful legislation over the last few years: What is my purpose?” he asked. “I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, if you have a need, those are issues we can help you with.”
Georgia Recorder reporter Jill Nolin contributed to this report.