Guess who's back?
With apologies to Donald Trump and Jody Hice, Doug McKillip is perhaps Athens Democrats’ greatest villain.
For those who are unfamiliar with McKillip’s treachery, shortly after winning re-election to a third term in the state House representing a left-leaning Athens district in 2010—the tea-party landslide year that saw the GOP win control of Congress and tighten its grip on Georgia government—he announced that was switching parties and becoming a Republican.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, McKillip said at the time—he couldn’t effectively pass legislation as a member of the minority party. Later, he said he found Jesus and changed his political philosophy. He pledged to remain independent on social issues, but then introduced a bill restricting abortions after 20 weeks, further enraging his Democratic constituents but bolstering his support from the Christian right.
In order to protect their convert, House Republicans redrew District 117 to include parts of Oconee, Jackson and Barrow counties, rendering it unwinnable for a Democrat. But not even the help of House Speaker David Ralston and the entire GOP establishment could protect him from a primary challenge. With support from many local Democrats, fellow Republican Regina Quick ousted McKillip in the 2012 GOP primary—barely. (Quick is not running for re-election.)
Now, McKillip wants his old seat back. And yes, he’s still a Republican.
Last week, he maintained that his conversion was genuine. “No one thinks the same way they did 10 years ago,” he said.
He’ll be tested by the up-and-coming politician Houston Gaines, who brings a prominent name to the table—he’s the grandson of the late Judge Joseph Gaines—and, despite his youth, managed Mayor Nancy Denson’s re-election campaign to victory in 2014. Two years later, he won his second political race, for UGA Student Government Association president.
“I’m running for House District 117 because this community has been home my entire life, and I want to serve my neighbors by working for better educational opportunities for our children, good-paying jobs and new investment in transportation options to improve mobility,” Gaines said in a news release announcing his candidacy. “I believe in low taxes and smaller government, the value of free enterprise and personal responsibility—and as a lifelong Republican in this community, I always have.”
Gaines raised $66,136 for the race in just two weeks, according to a campaign finance report filed earlier this month with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. In addition to a bevy of Republican elected officials, mostly in Oconee County, he’s supported by a few big-name Democrats, including Denson, Atlanta state Rep. Margaret Kaiser (Denson’s daughter), former ACC Commissioner Kathy Hoard and former mayoral candidate Charlie Maddox. His campaign advisor is Brian Robinson, an ex-spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal, a sign that Gaines, not McKillip, may now enjoy the backing of the Republican establishment.
McKillip, meanwhile, has not received any campaign contributions, but has poured $102,000 of his own money into the campaign.
Waiting in November will be Democrat Deborah Gonzalez, an Athens lawyer, who had raised $7,421 as of June 30. District 117 is tilting left—Donald Trump won it by just four points last year—so with Democrats motivated by McKillip’s name on the ballot, Gonzalez might have a fighting chance. Against Gaines, though, she’s probably toast. She can’t afford to lose even a handful of Democratic votes.
Gaines’ bipartisan support could work against him, though, McKillip contended. "He's going to tell Athens Democrats one thing and Republicans in Oconee County another, and try to stitch together a coalition that way," he said. "It's straight out of Regina's playbook."
And that’s a statement straight out of the McKillip playbook. He’s an aggressive campaigner, and refreshingly candid about his tactics. If nothing else, this should be the most entertaining local race of 2018.