Democrat Christine Triebsch will compete against Republican Kay Kirkpatrick in a May runoff after both fell short of an outright victory in Tuesday’s special election to represent portions of Cobb and Fulton counties in the state Senate.
The vote was splintered among eight candidates seeking to replace longtime state Sen. Judson Hill, who vacated his seat to run for the U.S. House, with no individual taking more than 25 percent.
Triebsch, a family and juvenile attorney, won the most votes in the traditionally Republican district. While she topped Kirkpatrick by just 3.1 percentage points, the results suggest the seat could be more competitive than expected.
Her narrow edge is remarkable given the almost $5,200 worth of total contributions Triebsch collected compared with Kirkpatrick’s nearly $310,000 in total donations.
While Kirkpatrick’s donors included state Reps. Beth Beskin, R-Atlanta, and Deborah Silcox, R-Atlanta, and U.S. Health Secretary Tom Price’s wife, state Rep. Elizabeth Price, Triebsch campaigned on the grass-roots level.
“I’m new at this,” Triebsch said.
The state Senate District 32 seat has been held by a Republican since 1995, when Charlie Tanksley was elected in a special election. Hill, who succeeded Tanksley in 2005, kept the seat in Republican control and helped maintain a GOP majority in the state Senate until he resigned to run for Congress.
“Logically, both of these are such deeply Republican seats,” said former state Sen. Chuck Clay, referring also to the open seat in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.
In presidential and midterm elections, voters in the Senate district — where the median income is more than $93,000 and median age is more than 41 years — have leaned Republican. Though Triebsch earned the top spot in Tuesday’s election, she could face an uphill battle as the five Republican candidates combined received 60.2 percent of the total vote. Kirkpatrick, who spoke with her Republican competitors after the votes were counted, said they planned to unite behind her for the runoff.
Special elections, Clay said, where candidates of different parties are on the same ballot, “are different animals.”
“There has been a lot of energy,” said Kirkpatrick, a retired orthopedic surgeon, “which was reflected in the high turnout for both parties — higher than you would normally expect for a special election — so I was basically prepared for any result last night.”
Triebsch, who was “deeply affected” by the results of November’s presidential election, capitalized on the energy from the more than 60,000 people who attended the March for Women and Social Justice in Atlanta in support of civil liberties and human rights as well as Democratic congressional candidate Jon Ossoff’s “Make Trump furious” campaign.
She stuck her signs next to his in yards and along roadsides, and she featured his face next to hers in promotional advertisements.
“Can Cobb turn blue? Yes,” Triebsch said. “We have a President (Donald) Trump. If that’s possible, anything’s possible.”
Kirkpatrick, meanwhile, does not talk about Trump on the campaign trail.
She has not made plans to attend the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Atlanta where Trump is scheduled to speak April 28. She had also not yet spoken with Karen Handel, the Republican congressional runoff candidate, as of Wednesday afternoon.
“I’m probably just going to focus on my race at this point,” Kirkpatrick said, “because I can only really do one thing at a time right now and that’s to try to get my message out there.”
That message includes a promise to increase preparedness for public safety disasters, with an emphasis on addressing the heroin and opioid epidemic, as well as simplifying the tax code and using conservative principles to change health care at the state level.
As to whether the district could flip, Kirkpatrick could not give an answer.
“To some degree, demographics of districts can change, and I guess we’ll know the answer to that in my district after the runoff,” she said.
The runoff will take place May 16.