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GOP Keeps Control of Georgia House as Democrats Fall Short

House Speaker David Ralston. Credit: House Photo Office

House Speaker David Ralston received resounding support from his GOP colleagues after he successfully led the charge to block Democrats from flipping control of the chamber for the first time since 2004.

Instead of naming their own House speaker, the Democrats who campaigned long and hard to wrest 16 seats from Republican control are set to replace their House minority leader, who lost his re-election bid last Tuesday. 

Ralston won the nearly unanimous support of his caucus Nov. 9 as he defeated Rep. David Clark of Buford, one of the few dissenting voices and one of the few Republicans who called for his resignation last year. Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, said the support is a welcomed relief after spending the final week leading up to the Nov. 3 election traveling the state to stump for members in tough fights for another term.

“How does it feel to beat the odds and stand here today as a winning thing?” Ralston asked as GOP legislators gathered in the House chamber. “The blue wave, when it got to this House of Representatives, was a squirt gun last week.”

Democrats had gained only two extra seats as election officials counted a few remaining ballots. That’s well shy of the 16 they hoped to gain to take control of the House. State and national Republicans also targeted House Minority Leader Bob Trammel (D-Luthersville) with a $1 million campaign to unseat the last remaining white Democrat representing a rural district. 

Not that the election was smooth sailing for GOP incumbents. With a few races still in play while ballots were counted, GOP incumbents who lost re-election bids included Rep. Dale Rutledge of McDonough and Rep. Brett Harrell of Snellville, the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee chairman. Republicans conceded another loss during the meeting at the Capitol with Rep. Deborah Silcox of Sandy Springs trailing Democrat Shea Roberts by about 365 votes. If GOP leads hold up for influential legislators in Gwinnett and Cobb counties, voters will send Reps. Chuck Efstration and Sharon Cooper back to the Capitol for another two years.

“Although losing great members like Brett Harrell and Deborah Silcox and Dale Rutledge hurt my heart so much, to retain a strong majority in the current environment is, in my view, a great achievement and one in which we can take a lot of pride. We did what they said could not be done,” Ralston said.

The full House chamber will vote on Ralston’s appointment at the start of the legislative session in January. Clark’s campaign against Ralston for the party’s nod won just two votes in favor of replacing him as the speaker. The Buford resident charged that Ralston shirked his lawyer responsibilities by using his role as a speaker to improperly delay court cases and by failing to create a better blueprint for long-term Republican success in the legislature. 

“He’s a headhunter and a dictator, not a leader who fights for our caucus and lets us each represent our own diverse districts,” Clark said.

Election 2020 wasn’t supposed to be such a comfortable GOP victory holding on to the House after Democrats gained significant ground in 2018 by winning 11 additional seats. More than a year ago, Democrats mapped out the ambitious scenario of overtaking the House, mostly by winning heavily populated suburban areas around Atlanta and other pockets of the state. 

State Rep. James Beverly, a Macon Democrat who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said it’s a big blow to fall short after months of hard work. “We didn’t have an enthusiasm gap, we didn’t have a bad candidate gap, we didn’t have a commitment gap,” Beverly said. “We had a numbers gap.”

Among the vulnerable Republicans who emerged victorious in battleground districts are Rep. Rick Williams, whose district covers Baldwin County and much of Putnam County, and 37-year incumbent Rep. Gerald Greene of Cuthbert. Democrats also failed to retake two Athens-area seats held by Reps. Houston Gaines and Marcus Wiedower that they briefly flipped in a 2017 special election.

Georgia Republican Party Chairman David Shafer credited the “amazing partnership” with the House Republican Caucus that raked in more than $3 million to the Georgia Republican Party for the elections. Spending from outside groups also ratcheted up this election, including Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee, a political action committee that pumped $3 million to back state GOP candidates in heated battles, including Gaines. 

Republicans chalked up the win against Trammell to a well-financed campaign and a strong candidate in David Jenkins, a military veteran, air ambulance pilot and goat farmer in Meriwether County. The district straddling Meriwether, Troup and Coweta counties sits 60 miles southwest of Atlanta and backed Trump in 2016.

“We couldn’t be more excited to send Bob Trammell packing and replace him with an upgrade. Republican David Jenkins will serve his district with the utmost integrity and attention to the needs of his community,” said Austin Chambers, president of the Republican leadership committee. 

Replacing someone as adept as the Luthersville attorney Trammell won’t be easy, said Beverly, who is eligible for the minority leader job himself. 

Trammell congratulated Jenkins on the victory. “In Georgia, we had a lot of competitive House races, which is a testament to where we are as a state,” he said. “It’s been an honor to represent the district for six years, and I appreciate the trust the constituents have had in me during that time.”

This article originally appeared in the Georgia Recorder.