Georgia Democrats have not had much to smile about in recent election cycles. Republicans have tended to dominate legislative races, and they also have a tight grip on all statewide offices.
But as the special election returns poured in last week, Democrats were grinning from ear to ear. They were able to win three seats in the legislature that for years had been held by Republicans.
In the days before the election, hardly any of the political experts predicted that those seats would be flipped. Most of them never saw this coming.
When the smoke cleared, however, Democrats had won two House seats. In another election for a state Senate seat, two Democratic candidates were headed to a Dec. 5 runoff with the assurance that one of them will take that seat.
The two House seats are situated in the greater Athens area. Deborah Gonzalez, a Latina attorney, upset Republican Houston Gaines to win in House District 117, which is mostly located within Athens-Clarke County.
Even more astonishing were the results in House District 119, much of which is in neighboring Oconee County. Jonathan Wallace, a software developer, received nearly 57 percent of the vote to win without a runoff over a group of three Republican candidates.
Here’s a bit of history to show how unlikely Wallace’s feat was. The last time a Democrat held this House seat was way back in 1997, which was 20 years ago.
“It's surreal,” Wallace observed. “We expected to be competitive; we didn't think we'd be that strong.”
The victories of Gonzalez and Wallace illustrate a basic adage of politics: you can’t win if you don’t play.
In both of the aforementioned House districts, Democrats had not even bothered to field a candidate in the 2012, 2014, or 2016 general elections. When Democrats finally did step up and run, they were able to win.
“We were not going to let another election go by with just the Republican incumbent,” Gonzalez said. “We were going to make sure there was Democratic opposition.”
“It’s a testament to the importance of a party contesting every seat possible,” said Republican consultant Todd Rehm. “Kudos to Georgia Democrats for their recruitment efforts.”
Democrats will also take control of a previously Republican seat in Senate District 6, which stretches from Smyrna on the western end to Atlanta’s Buckhead community on the eastern end.
Democrats Jen Jordan and Jaha Howard both made it into the runoff because of a peculiarity in the state’s election laws known informally as the “jungle primary.”
In special elections, the law requires that every candidate be on the same ballot regardless of their party affiliation. The top two vote-getters make it into the runoff if one should be necessary.
There were three Democrats and five Republicans in this special election in Senate District 6. The GOP candidates split the vote among themselves enough to make it possible for the two Democrats to slide into the runoff.
The Democratic victories in Georgia were part of a national wave that saw the party win governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey, and other important elections as well. Much of that success was chalked up to a reaction among voters to the first nine months of the Donald Trump presidency.
To be sure, the Democratic victories will hardly affect the balance of power in Georgia’s General Assembly. Republicans still have a 116-64 advantage in the House of Representatives and a 37-19 edge in the Senate. At this point, it doesn’t appear likely that the GOP will lose control of either chamber in the upcoming 2018 elections.
A Republican lawmaker is already drafting a bill that would eliminate jungle primaries in special elections and make it impossible to have a situation where a single party could hold both spots in a runoff.
The Republican legislative leadership is also expected to redraw the lines of the Athens-area House districts – along with the boundaries of Senate District 6 – to get rid of some Democratic-leaning precincts and make the districts more amenable to GOP candidates.
When you’re the majority party, you can engage in that type of gerrymandering to keep yourself in power.
Nevertheless, for one night at least, Georgia Democrats had a chance to celebrate some long-sought good news.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at email@example.com.