Located in diversifying Gwinnett County, Georgia’s 7th Congressional District was not seen as a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats in the 2018 midterms. The Republican incumbent, Rob Woodall, won re-election with 60% of the vote two years earlier. But it ended up being the closest House race in 2018. Woodall is now retiring, and his 2018 Democratic opponent is now running for the open seat.
Woodall, an attorney, was first elected to Congress in 2010. Prior to his election, he worked for his predecessor, Republican John Linder, and eventually became his chief of staff. Linder did not run for re-election in 2010. His retirement triggered a crowded Republican primary for what was, at the time, a solidly red district. Woodall’s opponents in the primary included conservative radio show host Jody Hice, State Rep. Clay Cox, flight attendant Jef Fincher and assistant district attorney Chuck Efstration. Woodall finished first in the primary with nearly 35% of the vote. Hice finished second with 26% and Cox came in third with 20%. The others got less than 10% of the vote. Because no candidate earned more than 50% of the vote, the top two candidates advanced to a runoff election. Woodall won the runoff with 56% to Hice’s 44% and went on to easily win the general election. (Hice now represents the neighboring 10th District.)
Until 2018, Woodall never faced serious opposition in general elections. Republicans have dominated Gwinnett County politics for decades. But President Trump’s unpopularity in the county has led to some seismic political shifts. In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first Democrat to win Gwinnett County in a presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1976. A crowded field of Democrats emerged to challenge the four-term Woodall in 2018. None of the candidates had ever held elected office before, and the district was not seen as one that could decide control of the House. No candidate won the primary outright. The top two finishers were Georgia State University professor Carolyn Bourdeaux and businessman David Kim. The political newcomers made healthcare a key issue in their campaigns. In debates, Bourdeaux criticized Kim for not voting in the 2016 presidential election. Kim attacked Bourdeaux in TV ads for helping craft Republican-backed legislation that cut funding for schools and healthcare. She narrowly won the runoff 52%-48% but she started the general election campaign with less than $100,000 in her campaign bank account. Neither party gave this race much attention but some noted that it was worth watching given the recent political trends in Gwinnett County.
All of the major election forecasters agreed that Woodall was the favorite: the Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball all rated the race as “Leans Republican” by election day. Pundits and analysts were shocked by how close the race was on election night. When all of the votes were counted, Woodall led Bourdeaux by less than 500 votes. She did not concede on the night of the election and requested a recount because the race was so close. The recount reaffirmed Woodall’s victory and she ultimately conceded.
After the new Congress was sworn in, rumors began swirling around Capitol Hill and in Georgia’s political circles that Woodall would not run for re-election in 2020. He announced his retirement in February 2019, citing political reasons as well as the recent passing of his father. “Doing what you love requires things of you, and having had that family transition made me start to think about those things that I have invested less in because I’ve been investing more here,” Woodall told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Woodall’s early announcement paved the way for several candidates to enter the race for this competitive district. Almost immediately following his announcement, Bourdeaux announced that she would run for the seat again. But she did not have the field all to herself. State Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, State Sen. Zahra Karinshak, progressive activist Nabilah Islam and former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves all joined the Democratic primary. Many candidates ran on the Republican side, but the top two candidates were emergency room physician Rich McCormick and State Sen. Renee Unterman. McCormick, a former Marine veteran, was seen as the more conservative candidate, having been endorsed by the House Freedom Caucus and the conservative Club for Growth SuperPAC. Unterman is a longtime state lawmaker who had recently spearheaded anti-abortion legislation. She had the endorsement of former Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and the NRA. To the surprise of many national observers and even some local analysts, neither primary went to a runoff. Both Bourdeaux and McCormick won their primaries outright with more than 50% of the vote. This had to have been a relief to both of the nominees, as a runoff election would have depleted their financial resources and would have shortened their general election campaigns by two months.
Now that both parties have a nominee, the race for this diversifying suburban district is starting to heat up. Both Bourdeaux and McCormick are now on the air with campaign ads. Outside groups, who have taken notice of the district’s competitiveness, have wasted no time filling the Atlanta airwaves with commercials. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the campaign arm of the House Democratic caucus, has reserved $2.7 million in ads for the Atlanta area. Their first ad in GA-07 attacks McCormick for “downplaying the threat of the coronavirus.” Club for Growth, a conservative SuperPAC based in Washington that fights for lower taxes, chastised Bourdeaux as a “career bureaucrat” and a “political insider.” The two candidates are set to meet for a debate on October 13. It will be hosted by the Atlanta Press Club, a committee of journalists and reporters in the Atlanta area.
GA-07 is shaping up to be one of the most competitive House races in the country. After being a Republican stronghold for decades, it’s diversifying population and high education rates have vaulted it to the top of the list of the nation’s most competitive congressional districts. Donald Trump won this district by 6% in 2016. Four years earlier, Mitt Romney won the district by over 20%. Despite Bourdeaux’s 2018 loss, Democrat Stacey Abrams narrowly carried the district in the 2018 Governor race. Dave Wasserman, who covers House races for the Cook Political Report, has noted that Biden is likely to carry this district substantially. But he also reminded readers that a Democratic victory here in November will likely be short-lived: Republicans are favored to remain in control of the Georgia Legislature, which means they will have control over how congressional maps are redrawn in redistricting next year. Republican legislators will likely merge the 7th District and the neighboring 6th District, held by Democrat Lucy McBath, into a Democratic “vote-sink,” which would make room for another Republican-leaning district in the Atlanta suburbs. This is something to keep in mind as we head into redistricting, which can be a very unpredictable process.