AJC: With qualifying set to begin, Georgia can expect more contested races

By Greg Bluestein – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The room of chattering Democrats quieted when Valerie Habif strode to the podium with an announcement. After ticking off the names of politicians and political contenders in the room, she had an admonition for the crowd.

“Let me tell you who’s not here tonight: a Democratic candidate for this House seat,” said Habif, a psychologist deeply involved in Democratic causes. “This is keeping me up at night. Those days need to end.”

The hunt for a Democratic candidate for Habif’s Sandy Springs-based district was something of an anomaly. While Democrats won’t recruit challengers for every legislative seat during this week’s qualifying period, they are poised to contest a slew of now competitive seats that went ignored in the past.

That’s an improvement from 2016, when many Republicans in the Legislature faced little – or no – opposition. That meant potentially vulnerable incumbents, including a Dunwoody Republican who pleaded guilty to charges of drunken driving in the middle of the day, easily coasted to another term.

Now, a wave of retirements — particularly in the suburbs — is set to reshape the Legislature. About a dozen Republicans are leaving the Legislature, some who would have faced potentially tight races, others seeking higher office. More seats could become vacant as politicians have until noon Friday to decide whether to run for office.

At the top of the ticket, changes to state government are already assured. Crowded fields of candidates have already formed to run in open races for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and insurance commissioner.

Democrats are hoping to capitalize on outrage over President Donald Trump and upset victories in last year’s special elections to chip away at GOP control of the state Legislature and every statewide office.

The GOP is fast trying to fortify vulnerable seats — Vice President Mike Pence is raising cash for the state party this month in Atlanta — though even party stalwarts concede that won’t come easy.

“When you win a race like you did in Alabama, it makes candidate recruitment really easy for Democrats,” said Chip Lake, a Republican strategist, referring to Doug Jones’ U.S. Senate victory last year. “When you have momentum and you feel like you can benefit from a wave, a lot more people are going to run.”

He added: “They’re going to make us earn everything we get this election.”

Suburban battlegrounds

Democrats don’t have to look far for signs of encouragement. The party put up candidates in all nine legislative districts up for grabs during special elections in November — including several that had rarely drawn Democratic challengers — and flipped three of them.

Republicans have their own reason to be confident. Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff last year in the most expensive U.S. House contest ever, and the GOP held a competitive Stockbridge-based state House seat in a special election in January.

Still, the map is daunting for Republicans — particularly in suburban areas where conservatives have long thrived.

In Cobb County, which Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, Democrats are targeting diverse districts around Smyrna and Marietta. One of the highest-profile contests pits Democrat Lucy McBath, a gun control activist whose son was shot to death in 2012, against state Rep. Sam Teasley, a Republican with an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.

Across town in Gwinnett County, which like Cobb also flipped blue in the presidential race for the first time in decades, at least five Republican-held legislative seats will be open this year.

Retiring incumbents include state Rep. Joyce Chandler of Grayson, who narrowly kept her seat in 2016, and state Rep. David Casas of Lilburn, the state’s first Republican Hispanic legislator. State Sen. David Shafer’s bid for lieutenant governor leaves Democrats another pickup opportunity for a Duluth-based seat.

“Gwinnett may be a battleground,” said Gabe Okoye, the county’s Democratic chairman, “and we are ready for it.”

Republicans plan to go on the offensive, too, starting with the three legislative seats they lost last year.

Houston Gaines, a few months removed from his stint as the University of Georgia’s student body president, was defeated by Democrat Deborah Gonzalez in a conservative-leaning Athens-based House district in 2017. He’s making another bid this year, hoping that heavier turnout will help.

“Special elections are — as evidenced by their name — unique,” Gaines said. “The dynamics in 2018 will be inherently different, as will our campaign.”

And Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan, who won a 2017 race to represent an Atlanta-based swing district, will have to fend off a challenge by Republican Leah Aldridge, who was the top GOP vote-getter in that special election.

“The more I hear the Democrats who are challenging our Republican incumbents talk and spout rhetoric that is extremely far to the left of most Cobb County voters,” said Jason Shepherd, the county’s GOP chairman, “the more confident I am that we will easily be able to defend those seats.”

A rush to qualify

The parade of candidates qualifying for office this week at the Georgia Capitol will be headlined by the seven leading candidates for governor.

The Republican race was jolted last week by the state GOP’s feud with Delta Air Lines after the air carrier ended its marketing ties with the National Rifle Association. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the GOP front-runner, catapulted into the national spotlight after he maneuvered to strip a lucrative exemption on sales taxes for jet fuel from a measure to cut the state’s top income tax rate.

Each of his GOP opponents — former state Sen. Hunter Hill, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, businessman Clay Tippins and state Sen. Michael Williams — has a seven-figure war chest and is racing for what could be a second spot in a potential July runoff.

A pair of Democrats — former state legislators Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans — aim to retake party control of the governor’s office for the first time since 2002, and the Democrats are also fielding viable contenders for every statewide post down the rest of the ballot.

There are already crowded competitions from both sides of the aisle for many of those posts. At least six candidates are in the race for lieutenant governor, seven are running for insurance commissioner and nine have filed paperwork to run for secretary of state. Some could drop out, and more could rush in: The week of qualifying always holds potential for surprises.

As for the Sandy Springs district without a Democratic candidate, it appears Habif got her wish.

A few days after she pleaded for a contender to stand up, attorney Shea Roberts filed paperwork to challenge the incumbent Republican.

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