Voters deliver upsets in Georgia House races with other contests headed to a June runoff 

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by Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

May 23, 2024

This report was updated at 12:30 p.m. May 23 to include comments from Rep. Lauren Daniel.

Georgia voters kicked out incumbents, picked replacements for departing legislators and set the stage for June runoffs as well as the big show in November.

Ballot casters up and down the Peach State made choices Tuesday that are already set to reshape the state Legislature, which could have an even greater effect on the average Georgian than who sits in the White House this time next year.

In one of Tuesday’s biggest upsets, Gabriel Sanchez, a Smyrna waiter endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, beat out Smyrna Democratic Rep. Teri Anulewicz, who had represented House District 42 since 2017.

Sanchez earned 2,240 votes, good for 56.8%, to Anulewicz’s 1,711 votes, or 43.21%, according to unofficial results.

Sanchez chalked up his victory to organization and messaging.

“We had an amazing grassroots campaign that reached the voters very, very well,” he said. “We had a strong field program where we hit 17,000 doors, and we had over 100 volunteers for our campaign, and then the second thing was we had a strong message and a strong vision for the future that the people could believe in, and I think a lot of people in our community want a change, and so they heard that message and were ready to support us.”

Sanchez said he wants to push for policies to help renters, including rent control to limit how much landlords can increase rent and regulations on corporate landlords buying up property. He also calls for a $20 minimum wage and universal housing in Georgia.

Sanchez would be the state’s first openly Democratic Socialist legislator, but he said he wants to work with Democrats when their goals align.

“We all have very similar goals of helping working people,” he said. “And while there are disagreements even within the party, I do think that there are very common goals that we can all work together on. We all agree in making sure that voting rights are protected in the state, as well as protecting our LGBTQ community and having racial justice here in Georgia. So there’s definitely a lot of issues that we can work together on.”

Before he can do that, he has another race to run. In November, Sanchez will go on to face Republican Diane Jackson, who works in marketing and was unopposed in her primary.

Locust Grove Republican Rep. Lauren Daniel campaigned as an “unapologetic mom” and could often be seen during the legislative session with her youngest son, baby Zane, strapped to her chest.

The House even made Zane a nametag like the ones lawmakers wear that said “Zane Daniel, Baby of the House.”

Daniel had the support of Gov. Brian Kemp, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and other establishment figures, but she faced opposition from ultra conservatives.

“We came up short this time y’all, and the Republican voters of District 81 have chosen someone else to face off against the Democrat challenger this fall. My family & I have been slandered, lied about, harassed and threatened for months at this point and honestly, there is joy in the morning today because I know without a doubt, God is good ALL THE TIME!” Daniel wrote on social media Wednesday.

Noelle Kahaian, a paralegal from Henry County, sent mother and baby packing Tuesday, defeating Daniel with 2,665 votes to 2,384, or about 53% to 47%.

Kahaian will go on to face Democrat Mishael White, a truck driver from Henry County, in November. White earned 3,212 votes from voters who chose Democratic ballots.

Far-right gun rights advocacy group Georgia Gun Owners celebrated on Twitter with an image of a tombstone with Daniel’s name on it and two skulls, one being pecked by a crow.

GGO political director for advocacy Alex Dorr said Daniel, who has an A rating from the NRA, did not do enough to support expanding gun rights.

“For GGO members, it’s not enough for Republican legislators to simply VOTE NO on gun control,” he said in an email Wednesday. “Our members expect Republicans to actively work to expand our gun rights with legislation like the Second Amendment Preservation Act (HB-293 and HB-1009.) Lauren refused to fight for SAPA, or anything else where our gun rights were concerned. She was a fraud. Now she’s gone!”

In a phone call with the Recorder Thursday, Daniel called Dorr and Georgia Gun Owners scammers who targeted her and other Republican legislators in the state.

Georgia Gun Owners is part of a network of right-wing advocacy groups operating in states around the country.

Daniel said she was proud of her pro-Second Amendment bona fides, including an A ranking from the National Rifle Association.

“I was also endorsed by (Georgia Second Amendment), they really work on the pro-gun legislation in the state,” she said. “So, you know, facts didn’t matter here. It was just about what some out-of-state, dark money lobbying organization said. And that ruled the day.”

Daniel, who beat Kahaian by just 22 votes in a 2022 runoff, said she hasn’t yet thought about her political future beyond helping Republicans hold onto their seats in the coming elections.

State Rep. Saira Draper, an Atlanta Democrat, handily won a second term Tuesday. She faces no opposition in November in the heavily Democratic district.

Draper won nearly 68% of the vote in what was the only legislative race where two incumbents faced each other after being drawn together during last year’s court-ordered redistricting do-over, so at least one sitting lawmaker was sure to lose.

The new district included more than 70% of Draper’s old district.

Draper said Wednesday that she also attributes the outcome to her pitch to voters that her experience as a voting rights attorney made her the best choice. She had also emphasized the perspective she brings to the Legislature as a member of the Hispanic and AAPI caucuses and one of the few women lawmakers with young children under the Gold Dome.

“We were very disciplined in our message that I brought something to the Capitol that filled a critical gap, which is my unique knowledge and experience in voting rights, democracy and elections,” Draper said.

“Right now, our institutions of democracy are being challenged and voting rights are under attack. To succeed as a Democratic caucus, we have to have someone who can address those issues head on,” she said.

State Rep. Becky Evans, an Atlanta Democrat who was first elected in 2018, said on social media that she called to congratulate Draper Tuesday evening.

“The results were not what we wanted, but as someone who has spent the last six years fighting so hard to protect and serve this community and our democracy, I certainly respect the will of voters,” Evans said.

Unsettled races

Along Georgia’s coast, St. Marys Republican Rep. Steven Sainz appears to have narrowly missed the 50% plus one threshold to avoid a runoff. In a three-person race, Sainz took about 49.7% of votes, creating a rematch with retiree Glenn Cook, who scored 1,673 votes, or around 27%. Cook was an early adopter of artificial intelligence in his campaign.

In a Wednesday morning Facebook video to supporters, Sainz sounded an optimistic tone and indicated he’s waiting on absentee and provisional ballots to trickle in.

Cook also expressed optimism, pledging to keep up the fight in the weeks leading up to the runoff and beyond.

“The next four weeks are about one thing above all else: being truly present in the lives of our community members,” he said in an email. “I ran because our current representative, focused on the perks of government, neglected the responsibilities and the people he was meant to serve. My wife and I personally knocked on over 4,000 doors in this district, dedicating countless hours to listening to your stories and understanding your needs. True conservatism means being present and engaged.”

In one closely watched Atlanta contest, middle school teacher Bryce Berry dodged a runoff, winning a four-person race outright with 1,975 votes, or 54%.

That earns him the right to face Republican Rep. Mesha Mainor in November. Mainor switched parties last summer after facing criticism over her support from her colleagues for her position on issues like school vouchers.

“This is only half the battle, but it’s a battle we will lead with love, hope and optimism of what Georgia can be,” Berry said Wednesday on social media. “We’re taking this to November and restoring progressive values to District 56.”

Berry’s confidence is not unfounded. District 56 strongly prefers Democratic candidates, supporting President Joe Biden by nearly 90% in 2020. On Tuesday, the four Democratic candidates combined notched 3,651 votes total. Mainor, the sole Republican, got 114 votes in her party’s primary.

In Gwinnett County, IT cybersecurity professional Arlene Beckles and program specialist Sonia Lopez appear set to face off to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Pedro “Pete” Marin. Beckles got 505 votes, just over 39%, and Lopez got 394 votes, about 30.5%. Third place finisher Neva Thompson appears to have earned 390 votes, about 30.3%, but in such a close low-turnout race, uncounted absentee or provisional ballots could make a difference.

No Republican qualified to run in the district.

Over in east Georgia near the South Carolina border, general contractor Rob Clifton is set to go into a runoff against retired educator Paul Abbott to replace the retiring Republican Rep. Jodi Lott. In a five-person race, Clifton got 1,887 votes, about 48.8%, and Abbott got 728 votes, 18.8%.

Looking forward

Representatives of both parties said Wednesday the results in House races point to a bright future for their respective caucuses.

Democrats pointed to two races where they think the results show possible pickups.

In the north metro 53rd District, Atlanta attorney Susie Greenberg got 3,257 votes in the Democratic primary, outpacing incumbent Republican Rep. Deborah Silcox, who got 2,504 votes in the GOP primary.

Democrats have listed the district, which supported Biden with nearly 55% of the vote in 2020, as one they hope to pick up this year.

“I’m particularly excited about Susie’s number–that seat is historically Republican and I think seeing Democrats energized enough to vote in the primary there is a great sign in November, even if it’s not an apples to apples comparison,” said Georgia House Democratic Caucus Campaign Services and Field Director Jake Field in an email.

Field also pointed to District 99 in Gwinnett, where non-profit CEO Michelle Kang, a Democrat, slightly outperformed Republican incumbent Rep. Matt Reeves, earning 1,964 votes in the Democratic primary to Reeves’ 1,888 in the Republican primary.

Democrats also have that district on their target list. In 2020, voters there backed Biden over Trump by 52.7% to 47.3%

“That one shocked me quite a bit as the Dem base in that seat tends to be lower turnout–I think that’s a great sign that Dems are engaged up there,” he said.

Reeves told the Recorder the only thing the results show is that the district is close to 50-50.

He said there were over 700 ballots cast without a vote on the state House race, which means those voters either left the section blank or selected a non-partisan ballot.

Reeves said he’s encouraged by what those voters did cast ballots for, including the state Supreme Court race which some viewed as a proxy fight over abortion rights and a homestead tax exemption that passed overwhelmingly.

Challenger John Barrow, who campaigned on his belief that abortion rights are protected under the state Constitution, lost his race against Justice Andrew Pinson, and he lost in District 99 56% to 44%, Reeves said.

“If you look at things like the Supreme Court race and the homestead vote, people are looking for folks who are focused on common ground and sound public policy and not partisan politics, and I think the tax relief, public safety, education and other work I’ve done the last two years fits into the common ground type work that the district’s looking for.”

But Field was less enthusiastic about another Gwinnett district, Democratic Rep. Farooq Mughal’s District 105. That’s one Republicans think they can flip, and on Tuesday, Republican Realtor Sandy Donatucci provided some evidence they could be right.

She tallied 2,209 votes in the Republican primary, with Mughal narrowly edging her out with 2,292.

“I’m not super surprised about Farooq’s number–that roughly tracks with the partisanship with that seat,” Field said. “I know there was also a property tax referendum that was energizing Republicans in Gwinnett and while there’s no overlap, the City of Mulberry referendum likely had some residual excitement in the North Gwinnett area.”

But House Majority Leader Chuck Efstration said in a statement that the Republicans are prepared to fight for their seats and to flip Democratic ones.

“Congratulations to all of our Republican nominees celebrating wins yesterday, including a slate of impressive challengers to incumbent Democrats,” he said. “As we move into the general election cycle, our House leadership team will not take our majority for granted. We’re prepared to both defend our current caucus members and take on incumbent Democrats whose liberal positions are out of touch with their communities. As hardworking Georgians continue to battle inflation and rising crime, our House leadership team will work tirelessly to protect and defend our conservative majority.”

Georgia Recorder Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report. 

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