Handel rematch against McBath set, Perdue challenger unclear after Georgia election meltdown

Long lines and accusations of suppression in battleground state

Five Republicans were vying for the nomination Tuesday to challenge Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., who narrowly won a GOP-held seat in 2018. (PhotBill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Five Republicans were vying for the nomination Tuesday to challenge Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., who narrowly won a GOP-held seat in 2018. (PhotBill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 10, 2020 at 6:23am

Former Republican Rep. Karen Handel won the chance for a rematch Tuesday against Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath in Georgia’s 6th District, and Republicans picked emergency room doctor Rich McCormick, who caught President Donald Trump's attention, in the open 7th District seat.

But other Georgia primaries were headed to runoffs next month or remained uncalled Wednesday morning as new voting machines, untrained poll workers and intense voter interest led to long lines at coronavirus-consolidated “megaprecincts” and court orders to keep sites open long past the scheduled 7 p.m. closing time.

Nine-term Rep. David Scott faces a runoff against former state Rep. Keisha Sean Waites in the 13th District in Atlanta's western suburbs after getting had 47 percent of the vote to Waites’ 31 percent, with 94 percent of precincts counted.

In the primary to choose a challenger to GOP Sen. David Perdue, Democrat Jon Ossoff had a clear lead but was not over the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff. Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker, had 48.6 percent and former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson had 14.8 percent, with 94 percent of the vote in at 4:15 a.m., according to tallies by The Associated Press.

McCormick will also have to wait to know his opponent. Democrats will have a runoff between Carolyn Bourdeaux and Brenda Lopez Romero in the 7th District, which Republican Rep. Rob Woodall decided not to defend after winning by just 411 votes in 2018.

Runoffs are also set for both parties for the 9th District seat that GOP Rep. Doug Collins is giving up to run for Senate against incumbent GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler in November. And Republicans have a runoff in the 14th District, where GOP Rep. Tom Graves is retiring. Both races are rated Solid Republican by Inside Elections by Nathan L. Gonzales.

In the 14th, Marjorie Greene, a supporter of the alt-right QAnon conspiracy theory, was the top vote-getter with 41 percent to John Cowan’s 20 percent, with 90 percent of precincts reporting. Greene led in fundraising and had the support of several Trump allies and conservative groups, including the House Freedom Fund and Ohio Rep Jim Jordan, according to The Center for Responsive Politics.

The Aug. 11 runoffs will give state and county officials a chance to try to work out problems that led to a meltdown at polling sites and Democrats raising charges of voter suppression against the Republican administration. The state that will be a key battleground for the White House and control of the Senate, with both Perdue and Loeffler, who as appointed and must defend her seat, on the ballot in November.

State blames counties

State officials blamed county officials for poor planning and execution, plus the combination of heavy turnout and social distancing required because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many sites where elections are normally held, including schools, senior centers and veterans halls, were not available this year, Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the Georgia secretary of state, said on CNN Tuesday night.

"In Fulton County, specifically they lost 40 locations and collapsed many of those locations into megaprecincts, which saw a lot of these amazingly long lines," he said.

But many Democratic candidates took to Twitter to urge voters who were on line to stay there and not allow the system to disenfranchise them.

“They want to discourage you. They want you to give up and go home,” Ossoff tweeted. “It’s not right. It’s not just. STAY IN THOSE LINES. Defy voter suppression.”

Sterling said that before Tuesday dawned, 1.3 million Georgians had voted early or cast absentee ballots. But those who voted in person, some complaining that requested absentee ballots were never delivered, reportedly waited for hours as election officials scrambled. In some places, voting machines were delivered late, frustrating voters who had showed up early. Sterling blamed county officials for most of the problems, and said the state would investigate and try to do better in the runoff.

Ossoff’s 2017 House race was the most expensive ever, thanks in part to tens of millions of dollars in outside spending. But outside groups largely sat out the Senate primary this year, with the only outside spending — $90,000 from a PAC called Undivided Purpose — going to support Tomlinson. 

That spending triggered one of the only direct attacks of the primary after an Ossoff aide called for the FEC to investigate whether Tomlinson’s campaign and the group were illegally coordinating because they shared digital consultants and fundraising advisors, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. 

Tomlinson’s campaign said she adhered to all campaign finance regulations. 

Ossoff led the Democratic field in fundraising, raising more than $4.1 million by May 20. He supplemented that money with a $450,000 loan in the last week of the primary. Tomlinson raised $2.4 million, which includes an $80,000 loan she made to the campaign.

The Democrats hammered Perdue for stock trades he made in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, transactions they likened to those by Loeffler that attracted national attention and investigations from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice. 

Ossoff called for senators to put their assets into blind trusts, a proposal that dovetailed with his campaign pledge to root out corruption in Washington. 

“We have squandered trillions on endless war. We have squandered trillions on bailouts for failed banks. We have squandered trillions on tax cuts for wealthy donors. Then we’re told there’s nothing left over for the people,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when he announced his campaign, adding: “The corruption must be rooted out. And Sen. David Perdue is a caricature of Washington corruption.”

Handel-McBath rematch

In the 6th District, Handel, had had 73 percent of the vote with 96 precincts reporting. Joe Profit was second with 15.5 percent. 

Handel argued throughout the primary that she could win the 6th District race against McBath, who beat her by 1 point in 2018, if more Republicans show up to vote. “This is a question of turnout,” she said in an interview on the local Fox TV station last week. 

But McBath, who was a political newcomer the last time around, could be a more formidable opponent. As the African American mother of a man who was murdered in a 2012 “stand your ground” shooting, she is considered a leading advocate for racial justice. McBath had raised $4.3 million as of May 20 without a primary opponent and had $2.9 million left in the bank. 

Democrats spent millions of dollars trying to flip the district in the 2017 special election. With the help of outside spending from national GOP groups, Handel — a former Georgia secretary of state — defeated Ossoff that year in a $40 million race.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 6th District race Tilt Democratic. 

Toss-up race in suburbs

In the 7th District, McCormick, a Marine veteran, had struggled to fundraise and to stand out in the crowded seven-person Republican primary until the spring, when Trump retweeted a video he had posted defending Trump’s response to the virus.

The open seat in the Atlanta suburbs, a once deep-red area that demographic shifts in recent years have put in play, is rated a Toss-up by Inside Elections. 

McCormick had 55 percent at 4:15 a.m., with state Sen. Renee Unterman, once considered the frontrunner until this spring, in second with 17 percent. 

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“With faith, hard work, and trust in the electorate, our campaign exceeded all expectations," McCormick said in a statement. “From day one I have been ‘ALL IN’ to take back the House and stop Nancy Pelosi’s socialist agenda.”

Democrats, meanwhile, will have to wait for a nominee until after a runoff between Bourdeaux, public policy professor, and Romero, a state representative. With 97 percent of the vote counted, Bourdeaux had 46 percent to Lopez Romero's 15 percent in the six-candidate race. 

McCormick told CQ Roll Call in March that his expertise could inform coming debates about healthcare, pharmaceutical prices and how to prepare for the inevitability of another viral outbreak. 

He also pointed to his background as the former student body president of the historically black Morehouse College, where he went to medical school and later taught, as proof that he could appeal to a diverse electorate. 

McCormick also won the endorsement from the anti-tax Club for Growth and the hard-right House Freedom Fund, which spent a combined $70,000 to support his race and oppose Unterman. 

Unterman, who achieved local prominence as the sponsor of the state’s “heartbeat” abortion bill, hammered McCormick for “refusing” to vote for Trump in 2016, pointing to irregularities in McCormick’s voting record. McCormick said he voted for Trump by absentee ballot after returning from active duty in Afghanistan. An investigation by a local television station found he requested the ballot from Florida.

Bourdeaux, who narrowly lost to Woodall in 2018, argued during the race that she had spent the last two years building the momentum it would take for Democrats to win the seat. 

Her opponents in the diverse field argued that the nomination should go to a candidate who better represented the majority-minority district, but the coronavirus pandemic made it hard for those who hadn’t already established political reputations to stand out while they campaigned from their homes. Lopez Romero said in an email to supporters she made the runoff through grassroots organizing.

“In a primary that many had assumed was a forgone conclusion, we have shown that grassroots organizing and a consistent presence in our community matters,” Lopez Romero said in a statement. “We have two months to show once and for all that it is the people that decide elections — not the Political Elite and Out-of-State Donors.”