Houston Gaines—the young Republican who lost a state House of Representatives special election to Democrat Deborah Gonzalez last year—announced this morning that he will try for the District 117 seat again in November.
“This district wants and deserves conservative leadership at the state Capitol—and that’s not what it’s getting now,” Gaines said in a news release. "I’m going to provide our district a conservative alternative to the out-of-touch representation we have today.
“I have lived in this district my entire life and had the privilege of graduating from the university in my hometown. My family’s roots run deep here. Just as my grandfather [Joseph Gaines] served this community as a judge, I want to work on behalf of my neighbors in this district to bring high-paying jobs to this region, invest in education to bolster our workforce and prepare students for the careers of tomorrow and protect the high quality of life we enjoy here."
Since taking office, Gonzalez has not shied away from staking out liberal positions on issues like health care and immigration. She co-sponsored a bill to expand Medicaid in Georgia and criticized Clarke County Sheriff Ira Edwards for holding undocumented jail inmates for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport.
Those are popular positions in left-leaning Clarke County (and 73 percent of voters statewide support Medicaid expansion, according to a January Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll), but it remains to be seen how they’ll play in a district that was drawn for a Republican and where 44 percent of voters reside in conservative Oconee, Jackson and Barrow counties. Donald Trump won by larger margins in those counties than Hillary Clinton won by in Clarke County and won the district overall by 4 percentage points in 2016.
"Deborah Gonzalez has made it clear that she is committed to the far-left ideologies that mirror the most radical wing of the Democrat Party," Joan Rhoden, president of the Conservative Republican Women of Northeast Georgia, said in the news release. "Those aren’t the values of District 117, and those left-wing policies do not represent the heart of District 117. We have a choice in Houston Gaines. Houston will give us a voice and will provide a refreshing option from our current liberal activist legislator. While Deborah Gonzalez spends her time putting out inflammatory and divisive statements attacking law enforcement agencies and advocating for sanctuary cities, Houston will take a strong stand to support law enforcement and the policies that help keep our communities safe."
Gaines’ campaign team also includes Rhoden’s husband, Gordon, chairman of the Athens GOP; Appointments at Five owners Kitty Culpepper and Jenny Sligh; former Georgia football coach Vince Dooley and his wife, Barbara, a radio personality; Oconee County Commission Chairman John Daniell and school board Chairman John Odum; Jackson County Sheriff Janis Mangum and GOP Chairman Ron Johnson; and Barrow County Commission Chairman Pat Graham.
Gaines had nearly $100,000 left over from last year’s campaign that he can spend on this year’s, and he can raise more money immediately, whereas Gonzalez is prohibited from fundraising until the legislative session ends sometime in March. Gonzalez had $7,256 on hand as of Jan. 31, according to her most recent campaign finance disclosure.
Then there’s a question of what the electorate will look like in November 2018 versus 2017. Democratic enthusiasm and a countywide T-SPLOST referendum helped boost Clarke County turnout in last November’s special election. It remains to be seen whether that enthusiasm will carry through nine months from now. At the same time, turnout last November was lackluster by Oconee County standards, and extremely low in the slivers of Barrow and Jackson counties that are part of the 117th. That’s unlikely to be the case this November, with the governor’s race and other state and local elections on the ballot.
"Special elections are—as evidenced by their name—unique,” Gaines said. "The dynamics in 2018 will be inherently different, as will our campaign. That’s why we are announcing today, in early February, almost 9 months from Election Day. I’m ready to get to work speaking directly to every voter in this district to hear what issues are most important to them, let them know my vision for our state, and to provide a clear contrast with my opponent."
On the other hand, Gonzalez has already shown a knack for putting together a strong ground game, and she now enjoys the advantage of incumbency. And the concerns about youth and inexperience that plagued Gaines, a 2017 UGA graduate, aren’t going away.