Bright sign from Georgia: Democrats flip House seat in Atlanta's long-Republican suburbs

Bright sign from Georgia: Democrats flip House seat in Atlanta's long-Republican suburbs
Image via Screengrab.

The Associated Press called the open seat race for Georgia's 7th District for Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux on Friday, which gives House Democrats a welcome pickup after an unexpectedly rough cycle. Bourdeaux flipped this longtime Republican-held constituency in the northwest Atlanta suburbs by beating Rich McCormick 51-49 in a contest that attracted millions in outside spending from both sides. Bourdeaux's win comes two years after she lost a surprisingly tight race to Republican incumbent Rob Woodall, a showing that helped prove that Georgia's 7th was no longer safely red turf.

Gwinnett County, which dominates this seat (82% of the district is located here, with the balance in Forsyth County), spent decades as a GOP stronghold up and down the ballot. The suburb decisively voted for Ronald Reagan even as he was losing statewide in 1980 to Georgia's former governor, President Jimmy Carter; Gwinnett County also backed Mack Mattingly 68-32 that year in his narrow victory over Democratic Sen. Herman Talmadge, a contest that made Mattingly the Peach State's first Republican senator since Reconstruction.

Gwinnett County would continue to overwhelmingly support every Republican presidential nominee well into the first decade of the 21st Century, and the rapidly growing community was also a major source of strength for Team Red's gubernatorial and Senate candidates during this time. The county also soon became very friendly turf for Republican congressmen. Woodall spent years working as an aide to local Rep. John Linder, who never had any trouble winning reelection during his nearly two decades in Congress, and Woodall himself faced no serious general election opposition when he ran to succeed his boss in 2010.

Gwinnett County became more competitive during the 2000s, with John McCain carrying it just 55-45 four years after George W. Bush overwhelmingly won it 66-33, but that didn't seem to matter much for Woodall. Republican mapmakers did all they could to make sure the 7th District remained safely red when they redrew the maps in 2011, and he was left with a redrawn seat that included just over 70% of Gwinnett County as well as the same portion of Forsyth County, a smaller but far more conservative area. (About 22% of Gwinnett County, including its more Democratic areas, was assigned to the safely blue 4th District, while the balance went to the dark red 10th District.)

For a time, the GOP gerrymander worked exactly as intended. The new 7th District backed Mitt Romney by a strong 60-38 margin even as he was carrying all of Gwinnett County only 54-45, which was Team Red's weakest showing in a presidential race since Carter won it back in 1976. National Democrats also didn't make any serious effort to unseat Woodall, who seemed completely safe.

However, things dramatically changed during the Donald Trump era in this well-educated and diverse suburb. Trump outright lost Gwinnett County 50-44, and while he did win the 7th District, his 51-45 showing in 2016 was a big drop from what the GOP was accustomed to. Woodall himself easily turned back an underfunded Democratic foe that year in a contest that attracted no outside attention, and he seemed ardently convinced that he would remain safe despite Trump's drop. In May of 2017, Woodall even glibly said of his own race, "It's gerrymandering that makes these things noncompetitive, right?"

That obliviousness to his seat's changing politics almost cost him reelection in 2018. Bourdeaux, a Georgia State University public policy professor, won the Democratic nomination after a crowded primary, and she proved to be a strong fundraiser. Woodall, though, didn't run any ads for most of the campaign or even do many advertised campaign events. However, he got something of a wake-up call late in the campaign when Independence USA, a super PAC funded by former New York City Mayor and gun safety advocate Michael Bloomberg, dropped $913,000 on him in the final days of the race. Finally, on the Friday before Election Day, Woodall finally went up with his first TV spot.

Bourdeaux ended up losing to Woodall by just 433 votes in a performance that shocked both parties. It wasn't an outlier, though: Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, despite the taint of Republican voter suppression that marred her election, performed well in Gwinnett County and other Atlanta suburbs, and she even won the gerrymandered 7th District by a 50-49 margin.

Bourdeaux quickly made it clear that she'd be running again, and this time, both parties were aware that they'd have a fight in the 7th. Republicans reportedly weren't keen on having Woodall stick around after he almost sleepwalked to victory, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in early February of 2019 that some unnamed GOP officials were pressuring him to "consider his options" for the cycle. Woodall seems to have gotten the message, and he announced his retirement days later.

A number of candidates from both parties soon entered the race to succeed Woodall, but neither primary ended up going to a runoff. Bourdeaux's opponent this time was Rich McCormick, an emergency room physician who received serious support from the far-right anti-tax Club for Growth. The general election also proved to be a very expensive affair, with the DCCC and House Majority PAC spending a total of $6.5 million on the Democratic side compared to $5 million from the NRCC and Congressional Leadership Fund.

Ultimately, while House Democrats didn't make the gains in the suburbs they were hoping for, Bourdeaux pulled off a victory. This pickup came as once solidly Gwinnett County continued to move hard to the left: Joe Biden has dramatically improved on Hillary Clinton's showing from just four years ago, and Democrats will also be looking for a strong performance here in January as they try to win as many as two U.S. Senate runoffs.

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