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Just how big will the 7th District race be in 2020?
Party leaders, expert give their take
Carolyn Bourdeaux 1 021019
Carolyn Bourdeaux, a professor at Georgia State University, catapulted to statewide recognition in 2018 when she came less than 500 votes from defeating incumbent U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall for Georgia's 7th congressional district. Woodall announced that he won't seek re-election in 2020, and Bourdeaux has already announced she'll run again in a race that should gain national attention. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

It’s been about three months since the 2018 election for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District race, which saw Incumbent Rep. Rob Woodall, a Republican, win by a thin margin over Democratic challenger Carolyn Bourdeaux.

With 2018 still fresh in both party’s minds, neither side is wasting time getting ready for the 2020 race for the 7th District, which includes the majority of Forsyth and Gwinnett counties.

“I think the 7th District is symptomatic of the changes taking place across the entire state,” said Carl Cavalli, a professor of political science at the University of North Georgia. “This was an incredibly competitive district in 2018, and I think it is kind of emblematic of I guess you would call it the rebirth of the Democratic Party in Georgia statewide.”

While the race was already expected to be tough, it has gained extra attention after the recent announcement that Woodall would not seek a sixth term for the office, which Cavalli said could be a benefit to Democrats.

“You lose all the advantages of incumbency,” he said. “It makes it a much more interesting race. Again, Republicans have had a statewide advantage for about 15 years now, but we are seeing in the last couple of years that advantage slip away.”

Rob Woodall
U.S. Congressman Rob Woodall. - photo by Micah Green

Some Republicans, however, are looking at the race as an opportunity to get a new face to voters.

“Here's the way I look at it, I think that the 7th District is still a Republican district and still very winnable for a Republican,” Republican National Committeeman for Georgia Jason Thompson said. “And the reason I say that is because the Democrats did everything they could to win the 7th District (in 2018), and Congressman Woodall – I love the guy to death, he is a friend – but he hardly campaigned for it. I don’t think that he thought it was going to be as close as it was.”

Thompson said finding a good candidate will be paramount for the Republican Party while avoiding an ugly primary in the process.

“I think the key for Republicans is finding the right candidate that fits the district, that’s the best messenger and that can actually get down to brass tacks and talk to the folks of the 7th District that you know without generalities to speak to them regarding issues that they care about that,” Thompson said. “That would be the best candidate for Republicans.”

Daniel Blackman, a Forsyth County resident and former Democratic chairman for the 7th District, said he believes Woodall and other Republican leaders “saw the writing on the wall” for 2020 and he sees an opportunity for Democrats.

“I think that you know Republicans here are very aware that Democrats aren't just putting their names on ballots to run somebody but they’re running to be competitive,” he said. “I think that we have a few good people that I've heard some names out there.”

Bourdeaux and Marqus Cole, a lawyer from Snellville, have announced their intentions to run for the seat and Blackman said he was expecting five or six Democratic candidates to join the race.

FCN Marqus Cole 1 012319
Marqus Cole, a Snellville lawyer, announced his candidacy for Georgia's 7th congressional district on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019.

Last year’s race showed the division between Forsyth, considered a Republican stronghold, and Gwinnett, a county that has trended more Democratic in 2016 and 2018.

In the 2018 race between Woodall and Bourdeaux, Woodall won Forsyth by a margin of about 68 percent of the vote to 32 percent. Bourdeaux won Gwinnett, 55 percent to 45 percent, the first time in Woodall’s term he did not win both counties or earn more than 60 percent of the total vote.

Woodall ended up edging Bourdeaux by just 419 votes out of 280,411 cast in the race, a thin enough margin for Bourdeaux to request a recount that ultimately failed.

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For both parties, the 7th District race could be a microcosm of the 2020 presidential election and has attracted attention from the Republican and Democratic national committee.

“It goes kind of hand-in-hand with even the Stacey Abrams race from before for governor [against Gov. Brian Kemp] because it's kind of the same ideology, right?” Thompson said. “It's a progressive to the left, you know might even call it socialism to some extent. So, looking at it that way, I don't think the people of the 7th District is clamoring for more socialism.”

Blackman said Democratic voters would be energized to vote against President Donald Trump.

“Donald Trump is going to be on the ballot, you know, it's going to be the first time in his presidency that he's going to have to run for re-election,” Blackman said. “I think a lot of people – Democrat, Republican, folks that are independent – folks are frustrated … with a broken democratic system.”

Given the circumstances, it’s not surprising the race is getting some comparison to the contentious 2017 6th District special election race between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel.

“If you want to understand the 7th congressional district you go all the way back to Jonathan who had a very good chance of winning,” Blackman said. “Whether people like him or not, you know Jon Ossoff ran a competitive race and you know he had a good opportunity, right?

“So, fast-forward a year to the next race and (Democrat) Lucy McBath takes that seat. If you are not paying attention to what happened to 6th Congressional District, then you’re definitely not aware of what can happen in the 7th.”

When asked if the races were comparable, Cavalli said “yes and no.”

“The only reason I say no is because there's likely to be more races like that. It's going to get lost in the crowd, so to speak. It’s not a single special election that stands out,” Cavalli said. “And it is also not the first of the sort of newly-competitive suburban districts that were districts that formerly were Republican strongholds and now are competitive.”

Cavalli said he expects the race to be as heated as both the 6th and 7th Districts were in 2018.

“I will confess to say that I am not an expert on the statewide numbers, but I do know that in terms of party identification the state of Georgia has from time-to-time been ranked as competitive by places like Gallup, for example,” Cavalli said. “In other words, saying that in terms of identification, Democrats and Republicans are very, very close in the percentage of people, but Republicans have had a much more sort of well-oiled machine over the last decade or so. Democrats seem to be breaking into that.”