Politics

These Atlanta suburbs present how Georgia has turn into a 2020 battleground state

Carolyn Bourdeaux and Rich McCormick

Carolyn Bourdeaux for Congress and Rich McCormick for Congress.

In a suburban county northeast of Atlanta, Melissa Clink has been pursuing an ambitious goal.

“We’ve been working on normalizing being a Democrat in Forsyth County for quite some time,” she said.

Clink is the chairwoman of the local Democratic Party in a county that has long been a Republican stronghold. Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential race by 71.71% and Republican Brian Kemp won the 2018 gubernatorial race by 70.57%.

Neighboring Gwinnett County tells a different story. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the county with 50.20% — the first time Gwinnett chose a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976. In 2018, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams won Gwinnett County by 14 percentage points.

The reliably Republican Forsyth and increasingly Democratic Gwinnett meet in Georgia’s 7th Congressional District. In 2018, the 7th District was the closest House election in the nation. Incumbent Republican Rep. Rob Woodall narrowly fended off Democratic challenger Carolyn Bourdeaux by 0.2% after a recount.

Now Woodall is retiring, ushering in a fierce battle for the open House seat. Bourdeaux is running again, facing Republican newcomer Rich McCormick in a contest that CNN has identified as the congressional district most likely to flip in 2020. Democrats are looking to consolidate their majority in the House while Republicans are hoping to defend a seat that was once one of their strongest districts.

The competitive race in GA-7 provides a glimpse into Georgia’s shift toward a battleground state and suburban America’s changing political landscape.

“What we’re seeing happen in the 7th Congressional District is a microcosm of what’s happening in a lot of these inner suburbs surrounding major metropolitan areas,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University.

Changing suburban demographics

In the last decade, the 7th District has become more racially diverse, higher educated and wealthier — all characteristics that trend Democratic.

That change has been led by Gwinnett County, which makes up the bulk of the district. Known as a “majority minority” area, Gwinnett’s non-Hispanic white population is only 35.4% and about a quarter of residents are foreign-born, according to 2019 Census estimates.

Gentrification and growing immigrant enclaves in the suburbs have pushed more people of color out of the city and into inner-ring communities like Gwinnett, according to Emory political scientist Andra Gillespie. It’s a phenomenon occurring in suburban areas around Atlanta and across the county, she said.

The growing non-white electorate in the state has contributed to Georgia’s shift toward battleground status. Trump beat Clinton by a 5% margin in 2016, but recent polling averages show that Biden has a chance at winning Georgia.

“Democrats in Georgia see it as a matter of when, and not if, they end up with a statewide election,” Gillespie said.

Bourdeaux is a public policy professor at Georgia State University who directed the state’s Senate Budget and Evaluation Office during the Great Recession. She’s made universal affordable health care a focus of her platform and positioned herself as an experienced leader who can work across the aisle.

McCormick is an emergency room doctor and military veteran running on small government conservatism. “Rich still works the night shift in ER while he’s running for Congress. This is a guy who has a servant’s heart,” said campaign spokesperson John Simpson.

Bourdeaux’s opponents have painted her as an out-of-touch “career bureaucrat” while McCormick’s opponents have criticized his response to the coronavirus pandemic and tried to align him with Trump.

“It’s telling that the worst Rich McCormick can come up with is that Carolyn Bourdeaux has the leadership experience to bring both parties together and get our economy back on track,” Bourdeaux spokesperson Monica Robinson said in a statement

“Far more alarming is that Rich — an ER doctor — refuses to wear a mask at crowded events, aims to take health care away from millions, and routinely downplays a pandemic that has already taken the lives of 220,000 Americans.”

The president endorsed McCormick, a fact that the candidate touts in his campaign’s Twitter bio, but McCormick has increasingly distanced himself from the president in a district where Trump elicits mixed feelings even among some Republicans.

“Rich doesn’t speak with the president on a regular basis by any means,” Simpson said. “Rich’s position is the president can defend himself.”

Throughout his reelection campaign, Trump has claimed he’ll protect America’s suburbs from what he characterizes as “crime and chaos in Democratic-run cities.” Critics say his “law and order” rhetoric is racially charged fear mongering.

McCormick has also embraced a “law and order” approach, which may appeal to some voters in majority-white Forsyth County. “When you see what’s going on in the Democratically controlled cities in this country … we’re reminding voters that’s what the Democratic party is certainly standing for,” said Forsyth Republican chairman Patrick Bell.

But voters who exemplify a changing version of suburbia may be turned off by the GOP’s approach.

“What he’s not thinking about is we live in the suburbs. This is Gwinnett County,” said Lawrenceville resident Pamela Martinez, 68, who identifies as Black and describes her multiracial family as the “United Nations.” “He doesn’t really understand that because he doesn’t really deal with diversity.”

Path to victory

With a presidential race and two Senate races also on the ballot, voter turnout will be high in the 7th District. “The candidate who wins this House race will almost certainly be the candidate whose party wins the presidential election in that district,” Abramowitz said.

For Bourdeaux and McCormick, it’s a matter of which voters show up in greater numbers.

“Democrats are going to try to drive up turnout among voters of color — black, Latino and Asian American — in Gwinnett County. What Republicans are hoping to do is drive up turnout particularly in Forsyth County,” Gillespie said.

While the 7th District has been rated as “tilt Democratic” by Inside Elections and “lean Democratic” by Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball, FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast gives McCormick a slight advantage. Experts say it will be down to the wire.

Early voting data so far has suggested record turnout in Gwinnett County. The county’s first week of in-person early voting exceeded the total ballots cast in three weeks of early voting in 2016, local election officials reported.

“For many Democrats, this Bourdeaux election is about finishing the job that we started in 2018,” Bianca Keaton, Gwinnett County’s local Democratic chairwoman, said.

But high voter enthusiasm is also met with long lines and barriers to voting. The Gwinnett Daily Post reported lines as long as eight hours at polling locations in the county on the first day of in-person early voting. Research shows non-white voters are more likely to face longer lines compared to white counterparts, which voting rights activists say is a form of voter suppression.

In a district where less than 500 votes decided the last congressional race, anything is possible.

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