This is the fourth “2020 Battlegrounds” post, where I take a deep look at one closely contested 2020 House district. Each post will: 1) Give an overview of the State and District 2) Analyze recent electoral history 3) Give an update on the district’s 2020 race and 4) See what insight the district can give into larger 2020 House race.
District: Georgia 7th
Current Representative: Rob Woodall (Not running for reelection)
Cook 2020 Projection: Toss Up
Sabato 2020 Projection: Toss Up
OVERVIEW OF STATE & DISTRICT
In 2018, Georgia’s 7th congressional district was the closest House election in the entire nation5. Republican Rob Woodall snuck past Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux by just 419 votes out of over 280,000. The closest 2018 district is, unsurprisingly, setting up to be a battleground in 2020. The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rate the district a “Toss Up”, Democrats and Republican candidates are piling into their primaries and the DCCC and RNCC are both poised to shovel money towards their eventual candidate.
In recent presidential elections, Georgia has been solidly Republican. It voted by 5% for McCain in 2008, 8% for Romney in 2012 and 5% for Trump in 2016. It has, however, trended Democratic, relative to the nation, in recent elections. It voted about 7% more Republican than the nation (in the two-party vote) in 2000, but only about 4% more Republican in 2016. Also bolstering Democratic hopes in Georgia are its relatively recent history of voting for Democratic presidential candidates. The state gave its electoral votes to Bill Clinton in 1992. It also voted Democratic to elect Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in 1976 and stuck with him in his brutal 1980 defeat in which he only carried only six states.
This Democratic streak lasted even longer in State election. As recently as 2002, Democrats had a state government trifecta, meaning they held the State House, State Senate and Governorship. By 2005, though, all three had flipped to Republican control and have been red since. Georgia has a Democratic governor from 1872 until 2003. But the state’s conservative character solidified around the turn of the century — the last Democrat elected Governor was Roy Barnes in 1998 and the last Democrat elected to the Senate was Zell Miller in 2000. No Democrat has been elected for statewide office since 2006.
Georgia is a part of the “Sunbelt” — the southern portion of the U.S. stretching from North Carolina to Southern California. Like most sunbelt states, Georgia has seen a boom in population since the 1950s and 60s, largely concentrated around Atlanta, the state’s urban center. Thirty one percent of the state is black, and as the state continues to diversify and grow Democrats think they can flip take back the historically blue state. Their challenge for Democrats will be the overwhelmingly Republican rural parts of the state. Atlanta and Savannah (and a few other liberal pockets) are deep blue, but the majority of the state’s territory is rural, conservative and heavily Republican.
The 2018 Gubernatorial race pitting Democrat Stacey Abrams against Republican Brian Kemp was one of the most closely watched elections in 2018. Abrams lost by about 1.5%, boosting Democratic claims that Georgia is within reach.
Zooming in on GA-07, we see a classic 2018 battleground: a suburban, diverse district with lots of college educated whites that is anchored by a nearby metropolitan center. The district comprises two counties — Gwinnett and Forsyth — in the outer northeast of Atlanta. Gwinnett is the more Democratic of the two counties and makes up about ¾ of the district’s votes. Forsyth, though, with its whiter and wealthier constituency, tilts heavily Republican, helping tug the district rightward into battleground status. Since the 1994 Republican wave election, GA-07 has been in Republicans hands. It was “retooled”, according to the Wall Street Journal, after the 2010 Census. Others consider this “retooling”, which changed the composition of the district to include more of the conservative Forsyth County, a nefarious gerrymander to keep the district red.
Data: Daily Kos
The district is more diverse, educated and wealthy than the nation as a whole. The core Republican demographic — non-college whites — make up only 31% of the district relative to 45% of the nation. The district is also heavily Black (21%) and Asian (11%) relative to the nation, which is 12% black and 4% Asian. The district is slightly under representative of Latinos, however, which make up 9% of the district compared to 11% of the country.
Again, the district is well educated and affluent, with 40% of the population over 25 holding a bachelor’s degree and the median household bringing in $70,000 per year. Gwinnett County accounts for most of this diversity. According to the 2010 Census, Forsyth is about 81% white, while Gwinnett is 55% white. Keep in mind that Gwinnett County makes up 82% of the district’s population while Forsyth only accounts for 18%.
RECENT ELECTORAL HISTORY
Data: Daily Kos
The District has been reliably Republican in recent presidential elections, voting for McCain, Romney and Trump. However, the 21% margin of 2008 and 22% margin of 2012 fell to 6% in 2016: a 15% swing from 2008 to 2016. This shift is even more clear if you look at the Republican margin relative to the national popular vote. The national popular vote was led by the Democrat in all three years. Relative to the national popular vote, the Republican presidential candidate in GA-07 led by 28% in 2008, 26% in 2012 and 8% in 2018. This is a 20-point shift — only 2% of which occurred between 2008 and 2012. The other 18% happened between 2012 and 2016, indicating heavy shift away from Trump and the modern republican party.
Data: Daily Kos
The district’s House elections shifted similarly leftward in recent years. One important difference, though, is that the district largely continued to support their 2016 Republican House candidate even while they jumped ship in the presidential election. Then, in 2018, the Democratic shift caught up in the House, and the district became much more competitive.
Looking at the GA-07 vs. Nat’l House Popular Vote column, we see that the district was 26% more Republican than the nation in 2012, 25% in 2014, 20% in 2016, and 9% in 2018. The big shift here happened between 2016 and 2018. Contrast this to the presidential election where the shift occurred between 2012 and 2016. This means that in 2016, a number of voters switched R to D in the presidential election but remained loyal to their R House candidate. Then, in 2018, this lingering loyalty collapsed and the Rob Woodall, the Republican House candidate, barely edged out a win. One likely explanation is that voters distinguished their local representative, Rob Woodall, from Trump and the national party in 2016, but by the 2018 this distinction largely disappeared and voters tied Woodall to the more unpopular Trump, dragging his numbers down.
What Happened in 2018
Republican Incumbent Rob Woodall, who was first elected in 2010 faced little competition in his primary. He did have a token challenger in Tea Party Republican and conservative podcaster, Shane Hazel, but he never caught on. Woodall won the primary with 72%.
The Democrats, however, faced a packed 6-way race that culminated in dramatic personal attacks. The three biggest fundraisers were 1) Carolyn Bourdeaux, a Georgia State professor and previous director of the Georgia State Senate and Budget Evaluation Office 2) Ethan Pham, an attorney and Vietnamese immigrant and 3) David Kim, who founded a tutoring company, C2 Education.
These three were relatively moderate candidates. None ran on the new-left platform of Medicare for All, $15 Minimum Wage and Free Public College. And on primary day, no candidate reached the 50% threshold to avoid a runoff. Bourdeaux and Kim, who received 27% and 26% of the vote respectively, proceeded to the runoff. Pham came in third with 18%, and the self-named “MOST Progressive Democrat in the Race!”, Kathleen Allen, came in 5th with 11%. The runoff, though, is when the real drama started.
Kim and Bourdeaux’s policy platforms were near identical: strengthen the ACA, expand Medicaid, pass some form of gun control, pro-choice, etc. etc. etc. They did differ on policy emphasis — Bourdeaux ran on health care, equal pay for men and women, abortion rights and paid family leave while Kim put immigration out front. Neither candidate was vocally supportive of electing Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House — Kim opposed her and Bourdeaux was unsure.
So, while they largely agreed on policy, they attacked each other in more personal ways. Bourdeaux took a swing at Kim for not voting in the 2016 presidential election: “It is a big jump to go from never having voted to running for the U.S. Congress.” Kim responded by saying this attack was anti-immigrant, “When Carolyn Bourdeaux attacks me, she is attacking millions of first-generation immigrants and minorities who have not felt welcome in the process.” For his part, Kim called out Bourdeaux for helping Georgia Republicans cut funding for education and health care during her time in the Georgia Senate’s budget office.
The antipathy culminated during early voting with Kim accusing Bourdeaux and her campaign in voter suppression in a Twitter video: “The vile philosophy of voter suppression reared its ugly head when one of my opponents [Bourdeaux’s] operatives falsely accused Korean translators of illegally campaigning at a polling site.” He said that the translators were there just to help non-English speaking voters and that Democrats should not be “perpetuating the tactics out of the Old South’s Jim Crow playbook.”
Bourdeaux responded, “The Jim Crow era was marked by extreme violence and systemic racism in the form of poll taxes and literacy tests. To compare these tactics to Kim’s volunteers being asked by election officials to move a few feet is disturbing & offensive.” She then went on offense, saying Kim’s video “reflects a complete lack of understanding of the history of Jim Crow, a disrespect for the men & women who gave their lives for expanded voting rights and an ignorance of real modern voter suppression in the form of voter ID laws & challenges to the Voting Rights Act.”
And the inter-Democratic squabbling continued! Kathleen Allen, the “MOST Progressive Democrat in the Race” makes another appearance. In a since deleted Facebook post, Allen criticized both candidates for not being progressive enough.
Here’s a bit of the post that focuses on Kim:
The big takeaway is that Allen refuses to endorse Bordeaux or Kim. She will, however, be voting for Bordeaux because Kim is “simply an oligarch.”
The Democratic brawl ended on election day, July 24. Bourdeaux bested Kim by 4%, exactly 600 votes. Kim carried the more diverse Gwinnett county 6,598 to 6,556 (a 0.4% margin), but Bourdeaux won Forsyth 1,392 to 750 (a 30% margin). The night of his loss, Kim quickly congratulated and pledged to support Bourdeaux in the coming general election.
The catfight, though, left Bourdeaux bruised. Intra-party resentment surely lingered after the contentious primary and as of July 4, Bourdeaux had spent $750,000 — leaving just $98,000 in the bank.
Republican nominee Rob Woodall ended the second quarter with $529,000. According to the left-leaning elections website The Daily Kos, “Republicans have privately fretted that Rep. Rob Woodall hasn’t taken his race against Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux seriously.” He seemed to think that the district was locked in for the Republican. Take a look at the lede to an Atlanta Journal Constitution article from October 20:
Until the final weeks of the campaign, the only polling had been conducted in early August and had shown Bordeaux with a 46-44 lead over Woodall. This did not seem to shake Woodall, as he didn’t run any television advertisements through September or almost all of October. Woodall’s complacency came from primary vote totals and an internal poll showing him with a 27 point lead over Bordeaux. The pollster, though, has a history of bias in favor of Republicans and in their pollster ratings, elections website FiveThirtyEight gives them a C-. In fact another survey conducted at the same time gave Woodall a much weaker six point lead. It wasn’t until Democratic Super Pac Independence USA, dropped over a million dollars to run an ad in the last week of the campaign that Woodall seemed to lose some of his unwarranted confidence.
He finally put up his first tv spot four days before the election. And this last-minute scramble was enough to keep Woodall in his seat. The final tally had Woodall leading Bourdeaux by just 419 votes. Initially, Bourdeaux refused to concede and requested a recount. In the end, though, the recount added 14 votes to Woodall’s totals, ending the race and pushing Bourdeaux to concede.
Democrats did about 20 points better in Gwinnett and Forsyth counties in 2018 than in 2016. They managed to flip more diverse Gwinnett from 9% Republican to 11% Democratic. In Forsyth, they shrunk the massive 57% Republican gap to 36%.
Perhaps most astounding is that there was only a 3% drop in turnout from the 2016 presidential year. Out of the 290,000 voters in 2016, a net of only about 8,000 stayed home in 2018. This unusually engaged midterm electorate was due to 1) The same political fervor that was present nationwide and 2) A particularly high-profile gubernatorial election at the top of the ticket.
The race for governor between Democrat Stacy Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp was one of the most watched election in 2018. Abrams is one of three 2018 Democratic nominees — along with Beto O’Rourke in Texas and Andrew Gillum in Florida — who became national political celebrities despite their eventual loss.
This popularity brought Abrams with __ points of winning the governorship. She, in fact, won more votes in the Seventh District than her Republican counterpart Brian Kemp. She carried the district by about 1.5%. And the district’s turnout in Abrams’ election was almost identical to the turnout in the House race, meaning that a net of about 2,000 more voters split their ticket Abrams and Woodall than for Kemp and Bourdeaux. This extra 2,000 vote cost Bourdeaux the election and pushed Woodall over the top.
According to data analytics firm, Catalyst, which did an extensive dive into the gubernatorial election, three things in particular helped Abrams get so close to victory. But while each of these factors helped Bourdeaux downticket, it was not enough to win.
- The high turnout election — with more young voters and people of color — made the electorate look more like a presidential year which helps Democrats.
- 2016’s third party voters swung to Abrams.
- Modeled “middle-voters”, who are more likely to swing between parties went to Trump by 12% and Abrams by 1% in 2018.
Below is a map that shows how divided the district is between Republican Forsyth and Democratic Gwinnett county.
Rob Woodall announced early this year that he was not running for re-election in 2020. This decision — probably due to his distaste for campaigning and fundraising, worry about losing in 2020 and nudging from the party who believed he was a liability — put the Republican nomination up for grabs. Renee Unterman, the Georgia State Senator who introduced Georgia’s (in)famous anti-abortion “heartbeat bill” in the State Senate, is running. Home Depot executive, Lynn Homrich, who began her campaign with an add attacking national Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar, is running.
On the Democratic side, Carolyn Bourdeaux is taking another crack at the seat. Her Q1 fundraising haul of $350,000 make her a favorite for the party nomination. However, first time candidate, Nabilah Islam, raised over $100,000, an impressive number for a political neophyte. She is a child of refugees and a woman of color running on a Bernie-esque platform of Medicare for All, Free Public College, etc. etc. etc. (Read my interview with her here!). Also, State Representative Brenda Lopez Romero, who represents a portion of Gwinnett county, is also running.
The animosity that we saw in 2018 between Kim and Bourdeaux has not yet flared between any Democratic candidates. But it is still very early. With such high stakes and such different candidates, fiery rhetoric would be unsurprising.
On the Republican side, things have already gotten heated. Unterman wasted no time in attacking Homrich for recently moving to the district from a rich Atlanta suburb.
The 2020 election will be high-stakes, expensive and exciting. 419 votes out of 280,000 is a small enough margin that almost anything, even some bad weather, could have tipped the district. The national mood, Donald Trump’s popularity, and the presidential election will hang over the race, so it’s impossible to know which party has the advantage this far out. There is still nine months to go and a lot of news cycles until the presumed primary date of March 3, so anything could happen.
LESSON FOR THE 2020 HOUSE
- Contentious primaries can damage candidates to the point of costing them an election. The primary cost Carolyn Bourdeaux over $600,000 and almost certainly left bad blood among Democrats. This drained bank account and dampened enthusiasm could have cost her 419 votes. It’s likely that Bourdeaux would have won the election absent such a bruising primary.