Georgia House leadership from both the Republican majority and Democratic minority crowded around House Speaker David Ralston on March 12. If Democrats take control of the state house next year Ralston could be on the outside looking in. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Joyce Barlow lost her bid to unseat a longtime south Georgia state representative two years ago, but she says she never really ended her campaign.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

After the last votes were counted and the Democratic challenger had come up about 1,400 votes short, about 7 percentage points separated her and the 37-year incumbent, Republican state Rep. Gerald Greene.

So, the Albany health care administrator said she kept right on campaigning in 2018. Now, she’s back on the ballot again this year and this time, Barlow has been able to match Greene in campaign fundraising.

“I felt that, if was my first time running and I did so well, I had to keep campaigning, making sure people knew me, what my message was, to feel comfortable and good about me and then to vote for me – because you’ve got to break that stronghold,” Barlow said, referring to Greene’s nearly four-decade incumbency.

Barlow has put health care and the plight of rural hospitals – a timely issue for the district – at the center of her campaign. Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center in Cuthbert closed its doors just this month. She advocates for expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans have called too costly.

Barlow is one of a handful of challengers that state Democrats hope can collectively help them take control of the Georgia House of Representatives and loosen the powerful hold the GOP has had on all areas of state government for the last 15 years.

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Greene, who is a retired teacher, is actively courting voters across the political spectrum and has highlighted a new primary care clinic that opened in Clay County with help from the Legislature. Multiple attempts to reach the Cuthbert Republican by phone this week were unsuccessful.

‘Everything would have to go just right’

Democrats would need to flip 16 seats while protecting all of their incumbents to seize control of the chamber, which has a total of 180 members. Gaining 15 seats would split the House, giving Democrats equal footing with Republicans.

Either scenario would be tough to pull off. The minority party gained 11 seats two years ago after winning 14 races in metro Atlanta but losing three elsewhere.

Whether the Democratic push to take over the House will receive a boost from Georgia’s battleground status is one of the big questions of an election that has thrust the state into the national spotlight. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden visited a week ahead of Election Day and President Donald Trump is planning yet another visit in the coming days. Competitive U.S. Senate and congressional races are further ginning up interest.

As of Thursday, Georgia continued to see record-setting voter turnout with more than 3.6 million ballots cast.

“Trying to get to 15 or 16 is a reach. It’s possible, but everything would have to go just right,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

Bullock points to the high Democratic turnout in the primary as a sign of potential trouble for Republicans, though a competitive U.S. Senate primary battle likely helped. All told, there were 16 House districts where more voters showed a Democratic preference, he said. That includes Greene’s district, where Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 3,400 votes. Some of these districts, though, saw razor-thin margins, like a 54-vote difference in Rep. Jan Jones’ northwest Fulton County district.

In the races featuring the 11 Democrats who picked up seats in 2018, Republican voters represented the minority of the ballots cast in those districts.

Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to make sure the stars do not line up just right for Democrats.

A national GOP group has pledged to spend a $1 million in hopes of flipping a west Georgia district held by House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, who is the chamber’s lone rural white male Democrat. House Speaker David Ralston has also spent the final days of the election traveling the state – going as far south as St. Simons Island – to stump for members who are fighting for another term. The powerful state lawmaker dropped in at a rally for Trammell’s challenger, too.

“I’m guardedly optimistic that not only are we going to bring everybody back but we’re going to add two or three (seats),” Ralston said this week during a campaign stop for Milledgeville Republican state Rep. Rick Williams. Slightly more Democratic ballots were cast in the primary in Williams’ middle Georgia district.

Much is at stake this year: A Democrat-controlled House would give the party a seat at the table when it comes time to redraw district lines next year. An all-Republican affair could empower the GOP to stay on top for another two or three elections, Bullock said.

Rematches

Democrats are also having to play defense, particularly with newly won seats in the north Atlanta suburbs. State Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat, will once again face the Republican he narrowly beat two year ago, Alex Kaufman. Both men are attorneys.

There were nearly twice as many Democratic ballots cast just a few months ago in the primary, which is a good sign for McLaurin. But turnout for the general election has already surpassed 2016 voting, according to georgiavotes.com, and it remains to be seen which candidate benefits from that.

Kaufman said he believes the intensity at the top of the ticket could help him. He’s making the case for a return to Republican representation because he argues his values are more in sync with the district.

“Since this district was long held by a Republican representative until two years ago, a heavier turnout of Republicans and Democrats put off by the many radical stances of my opponent can help,” Kaufman said.

But McLaurin said he’s feeling good about his chances and has focused his campaign on access to health care, reforming the state’s criminal justice system and policing, and fully funding education.

“We’ve been talking about expanding Medicaid for a decade now, and Republicans would like to pretend that the message grows tired just because we’ve been saying it for a long time,” McLaurin said. “But it only reinforces how absurd it is that we have not taken this option to provide hundreds of thousands of Georgians with health care at a relatively low cost to the state.”

There are several other rematches on the ballot, including attorney Shea Roberts’ bid to oust the last remaining Republican in the Atlanta caucus, state Rep. Deborah Silcox.

Roberts lost two years ago by about 1,200 votes, but she came up short as the party’s gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams, clinched 52% of the vote in that district. This summer, the district saw a surge in Democratic turnout in the primary, and overall, voter turnout in the district has also already surged past 2016 turnout.

The Atlanta Democrat said voters may have crossed over party lines to vote for the Sandy Springs Republican in the past because they knew her personally. But with redistricting on the line, Roberts argues that sending her to the Gold Dome will help ensure Democrats at least have some say in the process. As it is, Republicans rule both chambers and the governor’s office.

“Because Republicans have the trifecta, they’re going to redraw the maps and we don’t really have the luxury of voting just for the candidate at this point anymore,” she said. “My goal is to make it so they actually have to talk to us and that we actually have to sit down and draw fair maps, or my preference would be to give it to an independent commission.”

Roberts has also highlighted Silcox’s role in the House GOP leadership, which Roberts criticized for resisting Medicaid expansion. Silcox is a member of the majority deputy whip team, which helps count and win over support for bills. Silcox declined comment Thursday.

“That’s just fiscally irresponsible – and that was before we were in a pandemic,” Roberts said of the state’s resistance to Medicaid expansion. Instead, Gov. Brian Kemp is pursuing a health care plan that would slightly expand coverage – which the Legislature had to approve – and that seeks to reduce insurance premiums.

Georgia Recorder reporter Stanley Dunlap contributed to this report.

Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing...