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These suburbs of Atlanta present how Georgia has change into a battlefield state for 2020


Carolyn Bourdeaux and Rich McCormick

Carolyn Bourdeaux for Congress and Rich McCormick for Congress.

In a suburb northeast of Atlanta, Melissa Clink has an ambitious goal.

"We have been working to normalize democratization in Forsyth County for some time," she said.

Clink is the leader of the local Democratic Party in a county that has long been a Republican stronghold. Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential race with 71.71% and Republican Brian Kemp won the 2018 gubernatorial race with 70.57%.

Neighboring Gwinnett County tells a different story. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the county by 50.20% – the first time since Jimmy Carter in 1976 that Gwinnett picked a Democratic presidential candidate. In 2018, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams won Gwinnett County by 14 percentage points.

The reliably republican Forsyth and the increasingly democratic Gwinnett meet in the 7th Congress District of Georgia. In 2018, the 7th district was the closest house election in the nation. The incumbent Republican MP Rob Woodall fended off the Democratic challenger Carolyn Bourdeaux after a recount by just under 0.2%.

Now Woodall is retiring and initiating a heated battle for the seat of the open house. Bourdeaux runs again and faces Republican newcomer Rich McCormick in a contest that CNN has identified as the congressional district most likely to turn around in 2020. The Democrats are trying to consolidate their majority in the House of Representatives, while the Republicans are hoping to defend a seat that was once one of their strongest districts.

The GA-7 competitive race provides a glimpse into Georgia’s shift towards a battlefield state and America’s changing political landscape.

"What we see in 7th Congressional District is a microcosm of what is happening in many of these inner suburbs around the major metropolitan areas," said Alan Abramowitz, political scientist at Emory University.

Change in suburban demographics

In the last ten years the 7th district has become more racially diverse, better educated and richer – all characteristics that are democratic.

This change was spearheaded by Gwinnett County, which makes up most of the district. Gwinnett's non-Hispanic white population, known as the "majority minority," is only 35.4% and about a quarter of the population was foreign born, according to 2019 census estimates.

According to Emory political scientist Andra Gillespie, gentrification and the growing enclaves of immigrants in the suburbs have driven more colored people out of the city in inner-ring communities like Gwinnett. It's a phenomenon that's happening in suburbs around Atlanta and across the county, she said.

The growing non-white electorate in the state has contributed to the shift in Georgia towards battlefield status. Trump beat Clinton by 5% in 2016, but recent poll averages show Biden has a chance of winning Georgia.

"Georgia Democrats see it as a question of when and not if they end up with national elections," said Gillespie.

Bourdeaux is Professor of Public Policy at Georgia State University and headed the Senate Budget and Evaluation Office during the Great Recession. She has made universal, affordable healthcare a focus of her platform and positioned herself as a seasoned executive who can work across the aisle.

McCormick is an ambulance and military veteran based on petty government conservatism. "Rich is still working the night shift in the emergency room while running for Congress. This is a guy who has a servant's heart," said campaign spokesman John Simpson.

Bourdeaux's opponents have portrayed her as a non-contact "career bureaucrat" while McCormick's opponents have criticized his response to the coronavirus pandemic and tried to reconcile him with Trump.

"It's telling that the worst thing Rich McCormick can come up with is that Carolyn Bourdeaux has the leadership experience to bring both parties together and get our economy back on track," said Monica Robinson, Bourdeaux spokeswoman. in a statement

"Far more alarming is that Rich – an ambulance – refuses to wear a mask at crowded events, wants millions of people to be deprived of health care, and routinely downplays a pandemic that has already killed 220,000 Americans."

The president endorsed McCormick, a fact the candidate announced in his campaign's Twitter bio, but McCormick has increasingly distanced himself from the president in a district where Trump, even among some Republicans, has mixed feelings.

"Rich is by no means speaking to the president regularly," Simpson said. "Rich's position is that the president can defend himself."

During his re-election campaign, Trump has claimed he will protect America's suburbs from what he calls "crime and chaos in democratic-run cities." Critics say his "law and order" rhetoric is racially charged scare tactics.

McCormick has also adopted a "law and order" approach that may appeal to some voters in the white-majority Forsyth County. "When you see what's going on in the democratically controlled cities of this country, we remind voters of what the Democratic Party certainly stands for," said Patrick Bell, chairman of the Forsyth Republican.

But voters illustrating a changing version of the suburb can be turned off through the GOP's approach.

"What he doesn't think is that we live in the suburbs. This is Gwinnett County," said Lawrenceville-based Pamela Martinez, 68, who identifies as black and refers to her multiracial family as the "United Nations." "He doesn't really get this because he's not really into diversity."

Way to victory

With a presidential race and two senate races also on the ballot, turnout will be high in the 7th district. "The candidate who wins this house race will almost certainly be the candidate whose party wins the presidential election in that district," Abramowitz said.

For Bourdeaux and McCormick, it is a question of which voters turn up in greater numbers.

"The Democrats will seek to increase the turnout of color voters – black, Latin American and Asian-American – in Gwinnett County. Republicans hope to increase voter turnout, particularly in Forsyth County," said Gillespie.

While Inside Elections ranked 7th Ward as "Tilt Democratic" and the Cook Political Report and Sabato's Crystal Ball as "Lean Democratic", FiveThirtyEight's election forecast gives McCormick a slight advantage. Experts say it will be the wire.

Voting data so far suggests record turnout in Gwinnett County. The first week of the county's in-person early voting exceeded the total number of ballots cast in three weeks of early voting in 2016, local election officials reported.

"For many Democrats, these Bourdeaux elections are about quitting the job we started in 2018," said Bianca Keaton, Gwinnett County's local Democratic leader.

The high enthusiasm of the voters is also met with long queues and electoral obstacles. The Gwinnett Daily Post reported lines up to eight hours in length to polling stations in the county on the first day of in-person early voting. Research shows that non-white voters are more likely to face longer queues than white voters, which according to electoral activists is a form of voter repression.

Anything is possible in a district where fewer than 500 votes voted for the last Congress race.

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