Congressional challengers face a difficult path in Georgia


Rashid Malik admits that he’s running his congressional campaign on a shoestring.

The Lawrenceville resident, who owns an unaccredited college that bears his name, is challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall for his suburban congressional seat northeast of Atlanta.

Malik doesn’t have a campaign website, save for a Spartan Facebook page, and it appears that he hasn’t filed any fundraising reports with the Federal Election Commission. Even more critically, he’s running against a well-funded incumbent as a Democrat in a district rated solidly Republican by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Malik is only one of roughly a dozen congressional candidates on the ballot next month in Georgia who have virtually no chance of knocking off sitting lawmakers, despite statewide polls that show a tight presidential race and a strong anti-Washington mood among large parts of the electorate.

Gerrymandering, the perks of being a congressional incumbent and voters choosing to live among others with similar political leanings all contribute to Georgia’s 14 House seats being in no danger of flipping to another party, experts say.

“It would take some kind of major, huge wave to shift any of those districts, and that’s not going to happen in this election,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University.

Those factors have collectively shielded Georgia’s incumbents from most of the down-ballot impacts of this year’s divisive presidential nominees, as well as the groundswell that facilitated the rise of anti-establishment candidates such as Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders.

Drawing districts

Technically speaking, nine of Georgia’s 14 U.S. House members face contested races this fall. Three other lawmakers face write-in opponents.

Look a little closer at the partisan breakdown of the state’s congressional districts, and none of the contests are truly competitive.

Of Georgia’s 10 House seats held by Republicans, the closest districts still favor the GOP by at least 9 percentage points, according to the Cook Political Report, which rates the competitiveness of congressional and gubernatorial races. Ditto for Georgia’s four seats occupied by Democrats. The closest thing to a swing district, in the state’s southwest corner, still favors Democrats by 6 percentage points.

Abramowitz said the phenomenon can be explained by the way voters are naturally distributed geographically, as well as the way the Legislature has drawn the state’s congressional districts.

“Minority voters, particularly African-Americans in Georgia, are very geographically concentrated” in cities, he said.

And the majority party in the Legislature, which takes up the task of redistricting every 10 years, has an interest in drawing district lines in a way that benefit as many of its candidates as possible.

The tendency is for the majority Republican General Assembly to pack most districts with Georgians who traditionally have voted Republican, and pack Democratic voters into few districts. When Democrats led the General Assembly, they did the opposite.

“For congressional districts, there really aren’t any districts where either the racial mix would lend itself to a competitive race or where you have a large enough percentage of moderate to liberal whites that could result in a competitive district,” Abramowitz said. “Therefore, even if you tried to draw a competitive district, it would be very hard.”

The focus on who gets to draw the lines is what makes the 2020 election a must-win for both parties, since that will determine which side will control the next redistricting effort.

University of Georgia political scientist Jamie Carson said voters sorting themselves geographically is another factor that helps explain why some Republican districts get more Republican and Democratic districts more Democratic.

“Basically, more people moving to districts where there’s other people like them,” he said.

All together, Georgia’s districts have become so politically safe for a single party that primary contests are usually more competitive than the general election.

Take the 9th Congressional District in northeast Georgia. Five Republicans vied for the party’s nomination in a nasty and often personal fight, but after incumbent Doug Collins was crowned the nominee in May, it’s been smooth sailing. The Gainesville Republican does not face an opponent on the November ballot.

Incumbency’s benefits

Another factor that keeps most general election races noncompetitive is the fact that the incumbents, regardless of party, enjoy built-in advantages.

For starters, lawmakers tend to have more name recognition.

They also have built-in fundraising networks through the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that connect them with donors.

By holding seats on congressional committees, the industries that lawmakers help oversee often have an interest in building positive relationships with them, interest that is often shown through campaign contributions.

That comes in stark contrast to their opponents, many of whom kick off their bids for Congress with no money in the bank.

Indeed, the nine congressional challengers who will be on ballots in Georgia this year collectively reported just over $7,000 in cash on hand to the Federal Election Commission at the beginning of October. That money constitutes roughly 1.5 percent of the average amount a Georgia member of Congress had in the bank on Oct. 1, roughly $443,000.

Carson said parties that aren’t in power often have a lot of trouble recruiting high-quality candidates to run against incumbents, given those advantages.

Members of the Legislature who are capable of raising money and know how to campaign, for example, must take a big risk if they want to run for Congress, since they need to be willing to give up their seat in the statehouse.

“The best time is when there’s an open seat,” Carson said. “Since running against an incumbent is so hard, often they don’t want to do it.”

That often leaves political amateurs or perennial candidates to challenge incumbents.

For Malik, who ran unsuccessfully for seats in the Georgia General Assembly in 2010 and 2012, what matters is advancing issues he cares about. In recent weeks, that’s been the honor of women in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s comments about forcibly groping and kissing members of the opposite sex.

But he acknowledges the road ahead is a tough one for a Democrat like himself.

“Take a soccer game,” Malik said. “You cannot let the competition go without the opponents. My philosophy as a Democrat: We have to challenge in every area we have the opportunity to challenge because nobody should take everything for granted.”


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