For The Record

Tuesday special election in Cobb County could offer glimpse of 2022

By: - June 14, 2021 8:03 pm

Rep. Bert Reeves walks the House chamber. Reeves’ retirement means a special election partially under Georgia’s new election law. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

A Tuesday special election for a state House seat in the Atlanta suburbs could offer a small-scale preview of the types of arguments Georgian voters will hear next year when much more is on the line.

Two Republicans, two Democrats and one Libertarian are vying to replace Rep. Bert Reeves, a Marietta Republican who announced his resignation in April. Reeves was reelected last year with 56% of the vote. 

The Democrats are Sam Hensley Jr., a Marietta attorney and son of Sam Hensley Sr., who served in both the state House and Senate, and Priscilla Smith, an educator and artist known for her impersonation of President Donald Trump. Smith ran against Reeves in 2020, falling short with just under 44% of the vote.

On the Republican side are David Blinkhorn, who formerly served on the Kennesaw City Council, and Devan Seabaugh, an executive at Metro Atlanta Ambulance.

Chris Neill, a STEM educator and consultant, is the Libertarian candidate.

Because of Georgia’s so-called “jungle primary” system, if no candidate earns more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face off again in a July 13 runoff.

Heading into Election Day, fewer than 3,000 residents of the district, which includes portions of Marietta and Kennesaw, had cast their ballots. That is about one-tenth of the people who voted in Reeves’ race in November, when former President Donald Trump topped the ballot.

The Atlanta suburbs, and Cobb County in particular, have been central to the leftward shift that helped President Joe Biden narrowly win Georgia. But the northern portion of the county, where Reeves’ district lies, is considered more conservative than south Cobb.

Democrats there are hungry to claim another House seat, and they’ve been canvassing, phone banking, texting and dropping off pamphlets for weeks. Fair Fight, the voter registration group founded by Stacey Abrams, has also been pitching in, but with turnout looking low, Cobb Democratic Party Chair Jacquelyn Bettadapur is not making any predictions.

“We’ve been disappointed in turnout overall. I don’t know how much of a conclusion you can take from a special election where we’ll be lucky if we can draw 10% voter turnout,” she said. “But with any jungle primary, it all hinges on turnout, so are Republicans going to do a better job of turnout than we Democrats? 

“Anything goes in a jungle primary. If we are able to turn out more voters, we can get two candidates in a runoff.” 

Something similar happened in a district that includes part of south Cobb in 2017 after Republican state Sen. Hunter Hill stepped down to run for governor. A crowded jungle primary eliminated all the Republicans in the field, and the eventual winner, Atlanta Democratic Sen. Jen Jordan, was easily reelected in 2018 and 2020.

That’s the nightmare scenario for Salleigh Grubbs, chair of the Cobb County GOP.

“That’s always a concern when you have a general election,” she said. “I mean, I don’t know why we do it. It’s not fair to either party, and it’s a non-partisan issue that anytime you have all of these people running together, there’s going to be an issue.”

The Cobb GOP is not taking the race for granted, Grubbs said. They’ve been making phone calls and knocking on doors as well, with the support of Greater Georgia, the voter registration group launched by former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

Republican volunteers in Cobb are appealing to voters to help hold back Democrats who have gained seats under the Gold Dome in recent elections, although only flipped a couple seats last year.

“We need to protect our conservative values, and here in Georgia, we need to be sure that every seat is filled with a conservative, especially after losing like we did in 2020,” she said.

“We need to turn Cobb red again, and we need to ensure that, if there’s fraud again, that we have enough votes to make up the difference so that that does not happen again.”

Multiple recounts have turned up no evidence of fraud in the 2020 election in Georgia.

Bettadapur said Democratic volunteers have gotten the best response by appealing to national issues.

“I think voting rights is still playing large, and of course I think, although this is a local election, it seems national politics is what is engaging and motivating voters the most, so it’s things like the filibuster, the infrastructure bills, those sorts of things,” she said.

The race, along with another race to replace outgoing Republican state Rep. Greg Morris of Vidalia and local races in Baker, Dougherty, Henry and Treutlen counties, will be the first since parts of the state’s controversial new voting law were signed into law by Gov.  Brian Kemp in March. The rest of the law’s provisions will not take effect until July 1, meaning they could come into play if there’s a runoff.

Bettadapur said the law has not had a significant effect on the special election given that it is limited to one district and turnout has been low. But she said she has concerns, especially about a reduction in the number of ballot drop boxes available in metro Atlanta. 

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.