Both of Athens’ congressional seats and four out of five seats in the state legislature are up for grabs this year, with incumbents facing more competition than they’ve had in years. Democrats didn’t even bother contesting most of those seats in 2016, but anger at President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress, energy from two Democratic upsets in 2017, a progressive sweep in May’s local elections and the most competitive Democratic campaign for governor since 2002 are driving a renewed sense of political activism in Athens.
Democratic incumbents are trying to protect the two GOP-leaning state House seats they won in special elections last year, and challengers are trying to pick off two Republican-held state Senate seats and two in Congress. But those races will be far more difficult, as the incumbents have major money advantages, and the campaigns are being waged on more conservative ground.
Here’s a look at the local races on the ballot Nov. 6. (Or, vote early at the Board of Elections through Friday, Nov. 2; at the ACC Library Oct. 31 or Nov. 2; or at City Hall Nov. 1 or 2.) For previous, more in-depth articles on the candidates, click here, and for coverage of candidate forums, click here. Coverage of Oconee County races—many of which include part of Athens—can be found here.
House District 117
As a member of a prominent Athens family who built a huge network of political connections as student government president at UGA and under the wing of mentor Mayor Nancy Denson, Houston Gaines looked like the favorite to keep this district in Republican hands after then-Rep. Regina Quick became a Superior Court judge in the summer of 2017. But Deborah Gonzalez, a lawyer and political neophyte, wrested the seat away in a blue wave. In the rematch, Gaines continues to enjoy a fundraising edge, thanks to support from the Atlanta business establishment, while Gonzalez now has the advantage of incumbency.
Gonzalez co-sponsored a bill during the last legislative session to expand Medicaid in Georgia and also supports increased funding for education, child-care subsidies, gun control and protections for the LGBTQ and immigrant communities. Conflating Medicaid with Medicare for all, Gaines has accused her of supporting single-payer universal health care. He has also criticized her for demanding that Sheriff Ira Edwards stop cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport jail inmates. Gaines’ platform includes tax cuts, gun rights and creating a friendly climate for business.
House District 119
Gonzalez and Rep. Jonathan Wallace are sort of a package deal. Despite being from different backgrounds—Gonzalez was raised in the New York area and put herself through law school as a single mom; Wallace is originally from Louisiana and works in the tech industry—they have similar politics, jibed on the campaign trail last year and work closely together in the House. He also co-sponsored the Medicaid bill, but lately his pet issue has been election security—he is critical of Georgia’s outdated and easily hacked voting machines and is in favor of using paper ballots and optical scanners.
Running in a redder district than Gonzalez, Wallace won a stunning 57 percent of the vote and defeated three Republicans without a runoff. One of those Republicans, Marcus Wiedower, is back to challenge him again. He’s well funded as the GOP looks to take back a seat they held for decades and regard as rightfully theirs. Wiedower’s platform is fairly run-of-the-mill, but he does have the unusual idea of ditching health insurance altogether and returning to a fee-for-service model where patients pay doctors directly.
Senate District 46
As Senate majority leader, Bill Cowsert is one of the most powerful men in Atlanta, and he has the $400,000 war chest and tailor-made district to show it. Republicans chopped Clarke County in half in 2006 to increase Cowsert’s chances of winning his brother-in-law Brian Kemp’s Senate seat. It worked, and after he trounced two opponents by double digits, Democrats didn’t even bother to try to oust him for a decade. This year, though, retired U.S. Forestry Service administrator Marisue Hilliard is giving it a go, as is Green Party write-in John Fortuin.
Cowsert is generally an orthodox Republican, although he often strays from party ideology by opposing corporate tax breaks and voted against the campus carry bill. Recently, he’s faced questions about his role in gutting a bill that would have made it easier for victims of child molesters to sue institutions that enable them; his law partner represented three Athens churches accused of covering for a Boy Scouts leader who preyed on boys in the 1960s and ’70s. Hilliard’s signature issue is gun control—she founded the local chapter of Moms Demand Action after the Sandy Hook mass shooting and supports universal background checks, a minimum age of 21 to buy a semi-automatic rifle and prohibiting domestic abusers from owning guns.
Senate District 47
Frank Ginn is the Republican who represents the other half of Clarke County, along with much of the deep-red surrounding area, allowing him to dispatch past Democratic challengers with ease. He faces a determined opponent in Dawn Johnson, a Winder resident (and wife of Athens Banner-Herald crime reporter Joe Johnson) who works for a nonprofit that provides services to adults with developmental disabilities.
Despite the conservative makeup of most of the district, Johnson is running on an aggressively progressive platform that includes more funding for pre-K and K-12 education and HOPE, Medicaid expansion, a living wage and labor rights. Beer drinkers will appreciate Ginn’s role in easing laws on craft breweries selling directly to the public. Otherwise, there’s much to like about Ginn from a Republican perspective, but not much for Democrats.
10th Congressional District
Jody Hice is the heir to Paul Broun, Athens’ previous gun-toting, evolution-disbelieving, Obama-slamming congressman. Prior to being elected in 2014, Hice was known as the pastor who convinced the Barrow County Commission to display the Ten Commandments, and an author and talk-radio host who claimed Islam is not a religion and women shouldn’t run for office without their husbands’ permission, and compared abortion to genocide. Unlike the flamboyant Broun, though, Hice has kept a low profile in Congress—so low that he’s never held a town hall meeting in Athens. Democrats’ sacrificial lamb this year is Tabitha Johnson-Green, a Washington County nurse and business owner who came out of nowhere to win the primary against two better-funded and (seemingly) better-organized opponents.
A small part of Athens is in the 9th District, where Republican incumbent Doug Collins of Gainesville faces Josh McCall, a Bernie Sanders-style progressive. With a Cook Partisan Voting Index rating of R +31 (meaning that if Republicans received 50 percent of the vote nationally, a typical Republican in the Georgia 9th would receive 81 percent), the district is one of the most conservative in the country. The 10th, also considered a safe GOP seat, has a Cook PVI of R +15.
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