The Eyes of the World Are on Democratic Candidate Lucy McBath

Georgia's 6th congressional district is a ripe opportunity for Democrats to flip one of the 23 seats they need to regain the House. Democratic candidate Lucy McBath plans to be the one to do it.

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Nov 5 2018, 7:51pm

Some time during my two-and-a-half hour flight to Atlanta on Sunday afternoon, Lucy McBath’s race against Republican incumbent Karen Handel became a toss-up. I was making my way to a rally where McBath was scheduled to appear, in Chamblee, a suburb just north of the capital, when I saw the news. With less than 48 hours before the midterm elections, Real Clear Politics announced that the 6th congressional district was no longer leaning Republican—the seat was anyone’s to have. It could soon belong to first-time Democratic candidate Lucy McBath.

“Honestly, I’ve just given it over completely to God,” McBath told me. “It’s just our time.”

When McBath speaks her eyes get wide, giving you the feeling what she’s telling you is all the more dire. She talks slowly and deliberately, in a tone that conveys even more seriousness. She’d given the crowd in Chamblee, which had assembled outside a clothing boutique called “Hello Gorgeous,” the same treatment just a few minutes before we spoke.

“The eyes of the world are on Georgia,” McBath said, sounding at times like she was on the verge of tears. “The eyes of the world are on this district. Let’s show them what we’re made of. If they don’t know who we are, let’s show them.”

“The eyes of the world are on this district. Let’s show them what we’re made of. If they don’t know who we are, let’s show them.”

Georgia's 6th congressional district is a ripe opportunity for Democrats to flip one of the 23 seats they need to regain the House, but it's a bit of a sore spot for the party. In 2017, Democratic donors poured $30 million into first-time candidate Jon Ossoff’s failed bid to win a special election in the district, the result of Republican Tom Price resigning his seat to join the Trump administration as secretary of Health and Human Services. Though it occurred just five months after Trump took office, the election was thought to be a referendum on his presidency and a test for Democrats, who were betting on anti-Trump vitriol to fuel electoral victories. Price’s former district was fertile ground for such a test: Trump had only won there by a slim 1.5-percent margin, and Cobb County, located in the northern part of the district, was one of just six counties in the country that voted for Hillary Clinton after going to the Republican nominee in the last two presidential elections.

The apparent shift in the electorate made the race competitive, and Republicans and their allied PACS put large sums of money behind Handel too. It paid off for Republicans; Handel beat Ossoff by four points. Democratic leadership, however, saw promise in the loss.

“There are more than 70 districts more favorable to Democrats than this deep-red district, and Ossoff’s close margin demonstrates the potential for us to compete deep into the battlefield,” Ben Ray Luján, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said at the time.

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Photo of Lucy McBath and supporters by Marie Solis.

McBath has advantages Ossoff didn’t just a year ago. Ossoff may have enjoyed the nation’s undivided attention during his race, but McBath benefits from a much more powerful blue wave favoring Democrats across the country.

“Since it was a special election, Ossoff had the cycle to himself, and it gave him the spotlight and popularity to capture the hearts and minds of people who wanted to resist the Trump presidency,” Howard Franklin, a Georgia-based Democratic strategist, told me Saturday evening. “But he didn’t have the groundswell of support and urgency you see from a national election.”

Ossoff remains a kind of niche celebrity in Georgia, with many citing him as the origin of the progressive wave cresting in the state this cycle. Ossoff is modest about the designation, but in fact, many of this year’s state-level Democratic candidates—as well as the people behind their campaigns—decided to run or become involved in politics because they had first worked on Ossoff’s 2017 bid. Looking over the crowd of 50 or so at Sunday’s rally, Ossoff called the gathering a “family reunion.”

“Sometimes even if you lose, a fight well-fought is worth what it builds in the process,” Ossoff told me later, standing in a quiet corner of Hello Gorgeous among the store’s novelty handbags, knitted scarves, and tea towels. “It’s really important for me to say that Lucy McBath is a really strong candidate; I can’t take credit for her strength. But if I look back on my campaign last year and know that in some way it helped lay the foundation for Lucy McBath to go to Congress … I’ll be all the more proud of the race.”

Amy Swygert, who’s lived in Georgia for about 30 years, is among those who cut her teeth with Ossoff’s campaign. She said she came to political consciousness after President Donald Trump’s win, and found an outlet when Ossoff launched his bid. Now a seasoned campaign volunteer, Swygert has turned the basement of her home into an unofficial canvassing headquarters for Georgians working to elect McBath, gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and other state candidates on the Democratic ticket.

“We closed a 20-point gap to four points, and that was before Trump started separating families at the border,” Swygert said of the 2017 result. “We’re able to take the infrastructure we built and apply it against the anxiety, angst, and anger we’re seeing now, and that’s going to benefit the whole ballot. Ossoff’s campaign built the infrastructure for what’s happening now.”

McBath’s political awakening, however, doesn’t trace back to the 2017 special election, or even the 2016 presidential election. Instead it began in 2012, when her 17-year-old son Jordan was killed by a white man who opened fire on the teen and his friends at a Florida gas station, complaining that they’d been playing their music too loudly. After his death, McBath got involved in gun control activism, becoming the faith and outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety and lobbying for gun control legislation on the state and federal level.

Initially, McBath had planned to run for a seat in Georgia’s state House of Representatives, launching her bid for the Republican-held seat in Georgia’s 37th House district in January. But then, just a month later, the Parkland shooting happened. McBath was fed up with the “thoughts and prayers” streaming from the White House and Capitol Hill; she wanted real change. Three weeks later, she announced she was dropping out of her Georgia House race—she wanted to go to Congress.

“In the last few weeks since the tragedy in Parkland, we’ve all witnessed the reaction from Washington,” she wrote in a March statement. “It’s been much of the same response after every other mass shooting. ‘It’s not time to have the debate.’ ‘Let’s wait and see.’ ‘It isn’t the time to act.’ With much prayer and reflection, I’ve decided to listen to the voters I met and to those brave students from Parkland and run for Congress in my home district of Georgia’s 6th.”

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Lucy McBath in the final 48 hours before the election. Photo by Marie Solis.

McBath mentions her late son in every stump speech I’ve seen her give. “I’m still parenting Jordan,” she told supporters at the Chamblee rally. On one lapel of a black suit jacket, McBath wore a pin that said “BYOC,” an allusion to the famous line uttered by Shirley Chisholm, the first Black congresswoman: “If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” On the other, she wore a button with Jordan’s face on it.

But Handel hasn’t made much of an issue out of McBath’s position on gun control, despite having an A rating from the National Rifle Association herself; Handel doesn’t even have a platform on Second Amendment rights posted to her campaign website.

Gun control did, however, become an issue at McBath’s October debate against Handel. “We don’t get anything done in Washington on this issue because most of our politicians are bought and paid for by the NRA gun lobby,” McBath said.

“I was elected to the Sixth District because a majority of residents in the Sixth District voted for me,” Handel shot back. “If you recall that election last summer—oh, wait, you don’t,” she added, leveling a common criticism against McBath: that she hasn’t spent enough time in the district. “You weren’t here.” (McBath has said that she briefly left Georgia to be with her husband in Tennessee, but lives full-time in Marietta.)

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Photo of Lucy McBath courtesy Marie Solis.

Still, for all of the anxiety about what it means to run on gun control in a “gun-loving” red-state, Georgia’s 6th congressional district race may not be about guns after all. Being a suburb on the outskirts of one of the most liberal southern cities, the district isn’t the Second Amendment stronghold some would think. “You don’t have a bunch of hunters and fishers clinging to their guns,” Franklin said.

McBath knows what she wants her race to be about—and it’s what she believes the country will take notice of on Tuesday.

Georgians, she said, “are no longer willing to stand aside and let the same people decide what’s best for them or what their futures look like.

“We are the party for the people,” McBath told me. “That’s why we’re going to win.”