Blue wave across northern Atlanta suburbs claims long-held GOP turf

Democrats are crediting Stacey Abrams for the success of President-elect Joe Biden in Georgia and establishing the state's battleground status by blazing a path through Atlanta's northern suburbs. She took a star turn at a recent presidential campaign event in Atlanta. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Georgia Democrats didn’t get the big blue tsunami they were hoping for on Election Day, but they did plant a flag in the once reliably red northern Atlanta suburbs of Cobb and Gwinnett counties.

These counties elected Democrats to offices up and down the ballot, sending two Democratic Congresswomen to Washington in an otherwise gloomy congressional election for the party. They also played a major role in apparently backing a Democrat for president in Georgia for the first time since 1992.

From 2016 to 2020, President Donald Trump gained about 31,000 votes in Cobb and Gwinnett counties, but President-elect Joe Biden saw his vote totals grow by about 136,000 over 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

As of Sunday evening, Biden was leading in Georgia by about 10,000 votes with few remaining to be counted.

Georgia’s battleground status is vindication for former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, said Gwinnett County Democratic Party Chair Bianca Keaton. Abrams launched her Fair Fight 2020 voter registration initiative at a Gwinnett elementary school gym in August 2019 after her narrow 2018 loss to GOP Gov. Brian Kemp.

“Stacey planted the seeds for voter registration, she did the work all across the country, with a particular emphasis on Cobb and Gwinnett Counties,” she said. “In 2016, we saw evidence that her plan was working, that things were going well. That was when Hillary Clinton won Gwinnett County, the first time any Democratic (presidential) candidate won our county since Jimmy Carter 40 years ago.”

Abrams started an initiative called the New Georgia Project in 2014 aimed at registering Georgians of color to vote. By September of 2019, the effort signed up half a million Georgians, according to the New Georgia Project website.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris gave a special shoutout to Abrams from the stage at a rally in Gwinnett shortly before Election Day.

“I was just saying to Stacey Abrams that I’m so thankful to her for the work that she has been doing for years to fight for Georgians and the right to vote, what she has been doing for years to fight that good fight, often with just thankless energy, but she keeps giving, and all that we are looking to now in terms of Georgia and the prospects of what we might accomplish in this state, in large part, we have to say thank you, Stacey Abrams, for the work you have done.”

The once deep red districts have been trending purple for years now, but 2020 marks a definite turning point, said Jacquelyn Bettadapur, chair of the Cobb County Democratic Party.

“I think ‘sealed the deal’ would be a good way of putting it,” she said. “I think the transformation is complete, although there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Congress

One sign of that transformation came by way of U.S. Rep Lucy McBath’s victory in a rematch against Karen Handel, who won the district in 2017. McBath, a Democrat, will keep control of the district that used to elect staunch conservatives like former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price and House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

McBath rose to national prominence as a gun safety advocate after her son Jordan Davis was murdered in a dispute over loud music.

Handel is a former chair of the Fulton County Commission and previously served as Georgia’s secretary of state.

Handel won the seat, which includes parts of Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties, in 2017 in a special election against Jon Ossoff, who is now in a runoff for a U.S. Senate seat. 

McBath beat Handel in 2018 with just over 3,200 votes.

This time around, she won by more than 35,000 votes, according to incomplete results. She claimed victory in a video message to supporters Wednesday.

“It’s my absolute honor to return to Washington to continue to continue fighting for our families,” she said. “I promise I will never stop fighting for you.”

That loss was a bitter one for local Republicans, said Jason Shepherd, chair of the Cobb County GOP.

“Some of it may be fatigue as a candidate, it also may be that she just got swept up in the anti-Trump blue wave that kind of swept the suburbs, or a little bit of both,” he said. “But I’m disappointed. She was probably the best candidate we could have run, she had such high name ID.”

But the tides were against Handel, and party higher-ups recognized that, Shepherd said.

“We were hearing sort of the back channels that early on, a lot of effort wasn’t going to be put nationally into winning that seat,” he said. “The NRCC kind of thought it was not winnable anyway, and they were going to throw all the efforts into keeping the 7th House District.”

In that district, which includes parts of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, Democratic challenger Carolyn Bourdeaux was declared the winner by the Associated Press Friday. 

In 2018, Bourdeaux lost the seat by fewer than 500 votes to Republican Rep. Rob Woodall, who did not seek another term this year.

The shift marks a victory not just for Democrats, but for Georgia women, Keaton said.

“As a woman, I’m looking at the situation we have here, and not just with the 6th and the 7th, but also (Nikema) Williams going in the 5th, and it’s like, we went from not having any women at all representing us in Congress not too long ago to now sending three women to represent Georgia, it’s pretty unheard of.”

Local races

Democrats also won big in local races across Cobb and Gwinnett counties, from county commissions to superior court clerks.

“We still didn’t flip any state House seats – yet, anyway,” Bettadapur of Cobb County said. “So we’ve still got some work to do. But it’s the grassroots of that county government that’s going to change the tone, change the tenor, and basically gives us that foundation to work from, to further affect change in the county. It’s only the beginning, really.”

Cobb County Commissioner Lisa Cupid, a Democrat, won the race for commission chair against Republican Mike Boyce by about 24,000 votes out of 382,000 votes cast.

Democrats will also control two other seats on the five-person board, according to incomplete results, and the board is set to be composed entirely of women for the first time.

The Democratic majority could bring movement on issues such as transit, which have been opposed by Cobb Republicans in years past.

“The hope is that in 2022, we’ll be able to have a transit SPLOST,” said state Rep. Teri Anulewicz, a Democrat from south Cobb. “We need to have a lot of conversations about what that’s going to look like, but I am so excited now that those conversations are something that’s going to happen, and I’m glad that we have a team of folks who I think are really going to be committed to doing that.”

Cobb voters also booted longtime Sheriff Neil Warren, a conservative who embraced a reputation for tough illegal immigration policies such as collaborating with ICE. Warren has faced criticism and public protest after a string of inmate deaths in custody.

Police Maj. Craig Owens bested Warren by about 10% and is set to become the county’s first-ever African American sheriff.

Gwinnett County is also set to install its first African American sheriff, Keybo Taylor, who, like Owens in Cobb, campaigned against the 287-G program by which sheriff’s department employees cooperate with immigration enforcement. Taylor defeated Republican Luis Solis, Jr. by more than 14%.

“We just had a whole bunch of firsts,” Keaton said. “We’ve elected the first Black men to serve on the county commission, we elected the first Black woman to serve as county commission chair, and in that, you also have diversity of age and experience as well.”

The five-member Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners is set to become entirely Democratic, with social worker Nicole Love Hendrickson taking over as county chair over Republican challenger David Post. She’ll replace Republican Charlotte Nash, who held the post for nearly a decade before declining to run for re-election this year.

Two other Democrats, Kirkland Carden and Jasper Watkins III also won seats on the county board with comfortable margins. All three of the winners are Black, and the commission will soon better represent one of Georgia’s most diverse communities, said state Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Lilburn Democrat.

“Ten years ago, we would not be having this conversation,” she said. “But Gwinnett County has changed dramatically in the last decade, and while the leadership has remained kind of stagnant, 2020 is the year that the leadership is reflective of the county itself and the people who live in this county.”

Attorney Patsy Austin-Gaston ousted longtime Gwinnett District District Attorney Danny Porter by 11.6 points and is set to become the county’s first African and first female district attorney.

Republican Joyette Holmes, both Cobb’s first African American and first female district attorney, lost her reelection race to former assistant solicitor general Flynn Broady, an African American man.

Holmes was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to replace the previous DA, Vic Reynolds, who Kemp tapped to lead the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Holmes, who had been endorsed by members of both parties, was considered a safe choice as a moderate Republican in a diversifying county, but Broady won by about 2.7% of the vote.

“For high turnout elections, and you don’t get much higher turnout than this, having voters who are not informed on local issues, never heard of Joyette Holmes, Neil Warren, Craig Owens, Lisa Cupid or Mike Boyce and are just going down for every single Democrat they can find, this is what happens,” Shepherd said.