Georgia Democrats strung together seemingly improbable victories Tuesday night, emboldening partisans who hope the strong performance is a prelude to next year’s statewide vote — and the beginning of a forceful rebuke of President Donald Trump.
Democratic newcomers flipped two state House seats in northeast Georgia considered so conservative the party hadn’t contested them since the district lines were redrawn in 2012. And Democrats captured an Atlanta-based state Senate district held by a Republican for the past five years, breaking the GOP’s supermajority in the chamber.
The Georgia results were part of a national wave that defeated Republican gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey. And with a wide-open race for governor next year, Democrats Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans trumpeted the results as validation of their strategies.
Supporters of Abrams said Ralph Northam’s victory in Virginia confirms their approach to the election, which hinges on energizing the party’s base. Her campaign said it was “proof that the momentum is on our side going into 2018.”
Evans’ backers said Northam’s success in districts carried by Trump, coupled with the Democratic wins in Georgia GOP strongholds, shows there’s an opening for Democrats like her who aim for disaffected Republican voters.
And Democrats of all stripes saw the votes as a warning shot to Republicans who cling too closely to Trump.
“The results are a rejection of Trump — it’s clear as day,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta. “Republicans who continue to embrace him can start the countdown on their political careers.”
But Georgia Democratic Party Chairman DuBose Porter said the success of more liberal candidates shouldn’t solely be considered a rebuke of Trump.
“This night wasn’t about what we’re against — it was about what we are for and what we are offering Georgia families,” Porter said. “Now we move forward to pocket even more wins in next month’s runoff races and build on this movement for a string of victories in 2018.”
State House Speaker David Ralston warned, however, that Democrats shouldn’t get too comfortable.
“Our House Republican Caucus and Georgia GOP are already working to reclaim those seats lost last night in next year’s elections when a greater percentage of Georgians will go to the polls,” the Blue Ridge Republican said.
Ralston also pointed to the large number of seats still held by the party. The GOP holds 116 of the House’s 180 seats.
“While every race is important, only 1 percent of seats in the House changed hands between parties,” Ralston said in a statement. “I would caution against reading too much into such a minor shift.”
Some Republicans didn’t spin defeats late Tuesday in House districts covering parts of Athens and Watkinsville. Trump had carried both districts in November, and Republicans mounted solid and well-financed contenders for the seats.
“It’s a testament to the importance of a party contesting every seat possible,” Republican operative Todd Rehm said. “Kudos to Georgia Democrats for their recruitment efforts.”
He added that he’s not sure what precedent the votes set, since special elections are imperfect predictors of midterm votes. But he warned that the results will likely spur a new Democratic mission to contest all possible elections, even in deeply conservative areas.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said that’s why the party is investing in races across the country going into 2018.
“We need to make sure that we’re competing everywhere, because we can win,” he said on a call with reporters Wednesday morning.
Democrats couldn’t capitalize on Trump’s struggles in metro Atlanta last year because the party failed to put forward credible contenders — or any at all — in dozens of races. Only 31 of the 180 state House seats in Georgia featured candidates from both parties. An Associated Press analysis found that uncontested rate of 83 percent was the highest in the nation.
Republicans are defending a slate of open statewide seats in next year’s vote, and the four leading GOP contenders running for governor are already engaged in a race to the party’s conservative flank on “religious liberty,” illegal immigration and other hot-button issues.
State Sen. Michael Williams, a Republican running for governor on a pro-Trump platform, quickly posited that Republican Ed Gillespie was defeated in Virginia in part because GOP primary voters overlooked other candidates who more ardently backed the president.
“For Republicans to continue winning elections, we have to elect pro-Trump conservative Republicans who are willing to take on the establishment of both parties,” Williams said.
Democrats privately saw the Athens-based seat as their biggest pickup opportunity. Athens is a liberal bastion, but the district only encompasses about half of the city — and stretches east to include conservative territory in nearby rural counties.
Republicans consolidated around Houston Gaines, a 22-year-old former student government president at the University of Georgia and budding political operative. He was the campaign manager for Athens Mayor Nancy Denson, and her support for him led to her ouster from the local Democratic Party.
But Democrat Deborah Gonzalez, a media and entertainment attorney, swept to a 6-point victory fueled by a 2-to-1 margin in Athens-Clarke County and solid support in other parts of the district.
“Voters sent a message that they’re not happy with the representation they had before,” Gonzalez said. “They want new representation and different solutions to the problems they’ve been faced with for years.”
She said she knew before she was elected that Republicans would mobilize to take the seat back next year.
“I always viewed this as just one point, not the end or the final piece of the story,” Gonzalez said. “So we’re taking a well-earned break for a few days, and then we’re getting right back to work.”
The Watkinsville-based seat came as the bigger shock. Jonathan Wallace, a software engineer, trounced his three Republican opponents with 57 percent of the vote. He dominated the Athens sliver of that district and won a plurality of the vote in Oconee County, which Trump carried with two-thirds of the vote in November.
And former state Sen. Hunter Hill’s district appears to be one that can easily swing back and forth between the parties. Hill defeated five-term Democratic incumbent state Sen. Doug Stoner in 2012, just after the district’s lines were redrawn to include more conservative voters.
That district has become increasingly competitive in recent elections: Jaha Howard, one of two Democrats headed to a runoff election next month, was narrowly defeated by Hill last year. He and Democrat Jen Jordan received the most votes of the nearly 24,000 cast, but together the five Republicans in the race secured just more than half of the overall vote.
The results of Tuesday’s vote also seem likely to spark other Democrats to embark on campaigns once written off as long shots — and prod higher-profile potential candidates to take another look at their options.
Democrat Jon Ossoff, who lost this year’s epic battle for the 6th Congressional District, still hasn’t said whether he will challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Karen Handel next year. But he made clear on Tuesday that he was watching.
“This is a great night for our country,” he tweeted, adding: “Historic and decisive wins in Georgia tonight.”