National, Georgia GOP spending big to unseat Democratic House leader

By: and - October 22, 2020 5:00 am

A voter signs in to cast a ballot at Meriwether County’s lone early voting location in downtown Greenville. The top Democrat in the Georgia House is defending his seat representing a district about an hour south of Atlanta against a big-spending campaign waged by state and national Republicans. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

GREENVILLE–Voters in Meriwether County likely walk into the local election office in downtown Greenville – the county’s lone early voting location – with the hotly contested presidential matchup on their mind as they cast their ballot.

But national and state Republicans have this rural west Georgia community in their sights for other reasons. A national GOP group says it plans to spend $1 million in this district straddling Meriwether, Troup and Coweta counties and sits just 60 miles southwest of Atlanta.

Their objective: Knock off the state House’s top Democrat.

State Rep. Bob Trammell – who works and lives in the small town of Luthersville – has only held the seat for five years but quickly ascended to House minority leader after Stacey Abrams stepped down to run for governor three years ago. He’s the only rural white male Democrat in the chamber.

House Minority Leader Bob Trammell is running for reelection in a race where state and national Republicans are spending heavily to flip the seat. Here he poses for a photo outside of his law office in Luthersville. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

And he’s the No. 1 target nationally for the Republican State Leadership Committee, which is spending heavily in Georgia to keep the state House of Representatives in GOP hands after Democrats gained 11 seats in the chamber two years ago. Overall, the committee has spent $2.5 million on more than a dozen legislative races in Georgia, said Austin Chambers, the group’s president.

The group sees an opportunity to shake things up in a district that has long been in Democrats’ hands but backed President Donald Trump in 2016 and Gov. Brian Kemp in 2018, and it is banking on there being enough Republicans in the district today to snag the seat. By mid-October, the committee had spent more than $700,000 on TV, radio and digital ads and mailers.

“Taking him out helps us not only keep the majority in the state House because it flips the seat from Democrat to Republican,” Chambers said. “But it also creates chaos on the Democratic side because the leader of their caucus – the person who’s supposed to be out there raising money for them every single day, the person who is supposed to be out there leading their efforts to take back the statehouse – is instead tied up in a fight for himself.”

This is playing out as Democrats hope to build on their success from two years ago and work to peel away the 16 seats needed to wrest away control of the chamber for the first time in 15 years.

State Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, said the GOP’s heavy spending in Trammell’s district is a desperate move.

“Republicans in this state are scared and they should be,” she said Tuesday.

State Rep. James Beverly, a Macon Democrat who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said Trammell will prevail in November despite the money spent trying to oust him. “I think they’ve wasted a million dollars because he’s going to win,” Beverly said.

But Jay Walker, who is the chairman of the Georgia Republican House Trust, which is the campaign arm for the majority caucus, said the spending in this election is all about an ideological battle between what he sees as extreme left-wing politics and conservatism.

“You really can’t put a price tag on that,” Walker said. “Bob Trammell has had to invest himself in the left wing of his caucus and for that he’s paying a price back home.”

West Georgia’s ‘golden boy’

Trammell, who said the barrage of attack ads started immediately after the June primary, says he isn’t sweating it.

The top House Democrat reported raising nearly $393,000 as of earlier this month. That includes $2,800 from Fair Fight, the political action committee tied to the voting rights organization Abrams founded after the 2018 election. Fair Fight, which has become a major political fundraiser, has also given more than $1.4 million to the Democratic Party of Georgia in the last two years and donated more than $220,000 to state and local candidates, according to an analysis from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Trammell has uploaded one of the GOP’s photoshopped images of him – one showing his smiling face inside a gilded frame that is meant to highlight his “golden boy” status in the Democratic Party – as his Twitter profile photo. He dismissed the commercials as hyperbolic Washington attack ads.

State and national Republicans have zeroed in on a rural west Georgia state House district that has long been in Democratic hands but voted for President Donald Trump and Gov. Brian Kemp. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

A recent RSLC-funded ad features Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and his endorsement of Trammell’s opponent, David Jenkins, who is a military veteran, an air ambulance pilot and a goat farmer in Meriwether County. As a candidate, Jenkins had raised about $64,000 as of earlier this month.

“When you spend a million dollars people begin to ask why they’re spending a million dollars,” Trammell said. “And I think that we’ve done a good job communicating what people already understood, which was that when special interests spend something like that, they want something in return. And what they want is a ‘yes’ person, and I haven’t been a ‘yes’ person in the General Assembly.”

Trammell, who practices law out of what was once his grandparents’ home, last won reelection two years ago by less than 5 percentage points. During the legislative session, he is a frequent speaker at the well of the House, where he has passionately argued the opposing view on many GOP bills.

He has argued relentlessly for expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and he has criticized the state’s response to the pandemic, particularly the governor’s resistance to a state-level mask mandate.

He also made waves this legislative session with a bill – which he signed from his hospital bed after having emergency surgery – that would have required toxic coal ash to be excavated and moved to lined landfills. Residents from Juliette, home to one of the country’s largest coal plants and a conservative area of the state, came to the Capitol and piled into the governor’s office to advocate for the Democrat’s bill. The bill never received a hearing.

Jenkins said he is challenging Trammell because he thinks the incumbent does not represent the values of the district. The first-time candidate, who once worked in law enforcement, points to two controversial measures that Trammell opposed: this year’s measure that protects police from bias crimes, which was narrowly passed as part of a compromise that made way for a hate crimes bill, and last year’s so-called heartbeat bill.

“Trammell is a very pleasant gentleman and I would say, locally, he was perceived as a traditional conservative Democrat, and that bill required him to cast a vote,” Jenkins said Wednesday, referring to the anti-abortion measure that bans the procedure in most cases once fetal cardiac activity is detected. “And, locally, I think that was one of the first things that started to wake people up to the fact that he was not the guy that they thought he was.”

Trammell said he doubts the election will come down to his vote on Georgia’s anti-abortion bill. He thinks other issues – access to quality health care, education and jobs, and the effects of COVID-19 – are weighing on voters.

“I think that if that’s an issue for voters, it was probably already an issue before the heartbeat bill,” Trammell said. “It was a bill that was literally so restrictive and unconstitutional that the district court judge invalidated the law before it ever went into effect.”

Jenkins said the GOP’s $1 million pledge to boost his campaign was appreciated but not necessary, though he noted the challenge of taking on an incumbent in a leadership role. He attributed the outside interest in the district to the narrowing Republican majority in the House.

“I think the fact that there was a seat down here that was ready to flip that hasn’t wasn’t really an issue in the past but I think with (redistricting) and just the overall threat to the Republican majority, it makes it matter,” Jenkins said.

But as Republicans try to offset their losses elsewhere, Trammell said Democrats are “in the hunt” in as many as 20 state House races. And those mostly suburban Atlanta districts that turned blue two years ago?

“In order to think that Republicans have a chance in any of those seats, you have to believe that they would have more success in those districts in 2020 on the ballot overall than they did in 2018, and I just don’t see it,” Trammell said.

“Twenty-twenty is the year that Republicans finally figure out that their politics don’t work in the suburbs anymore.”

Presidential buzz

Even with the intense focus on Trammell’s district, many of the voters leaving the Meriwether County Board of Elections Office during last Thursday’s lunch rush were more eager to talk about their pick at the top of the ballot.

“Trump all the way. Don’t want no part of Sleepy Joe because what they’re going to do – they’re going to get him in there and then Camilla, Kamala – whatever the heck her name is – will be our president,” said Luthersville resident Joyce Harbin, who said Jimmy Carter was the last Democrat she backed for president and she only did that once. “We’ve been listening. We know what they’re planning.”

She and her husband, Aaron Harbin, did not vote for Trammell. Aaron Harbin said Trammell just rubbed him the wrong way.

Sandra Tigner, who lives in Meriwether County, said she voted for Trammell. She called the money flowing into the district “absurd.”

But more than anything, Tigner said she has been troubled by Trump’s handling of the pandemic and his own positive COVID-19 diagnosis. And she is angered by the sense of entitlement she detects in locals who refuse to wear face masks to help slow the spread of the virus.

“There’s nothing so blatant as I have seen for the disregard for other people’s lives as wearing the mask or not. Whatever your reason behind it is. Because we all know someone – myself included – one or two people removed from your best friend or your best friend’s friend who has died from COVID,” said Tigner, who wore a colorful Marvel Comics-themed mask to vote.

Josephine Stargell, who is mayor pro tem in the city of Greenville, said she thinks the GOP push in the district is as much about driving up turnout for Trump as anything.

“Bob is the man,” Stargell said after casting her ballot. “I’m not worried. I believe he will still win.”

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo.