Why you should care

Because suburban districts, typically kind to Republicans, are suddenly at risk in these midterms. 

Almost every seat is taken, plus a few wheelchairs, in the lobby of the seniors apartment complex in Suwanee, Georgia, for the meet-and-greet event with Carolyn Bourdeaux. A Georgia State public policy professor who likely would never have merited such a crowd a year ago, the 48-year-old mother of one son now has audiences for everything from her belief that everyone deserves access to affordable health care to her plans for getting special-interest money out of politics to redirecting subsidies from fossil fuels to addressing climate change instead.

Today, at this senior center, she mimics the unapologetic rhetoric of other first-time Democratic women running for office across the nation, just as the night before she was waxing poetic during a candidate forum her opponent, four-term incumbent Rob Woodall, didn’t attend. “There are 110,000 people in this district without health insurance,” she said at Berkeley Lake Elementary School. “Our Congress passed a tax bill that added $2 trillion to our national debt. Now, our congressman is saying we don’t have enough money for Medicare and Social Security.”

She’s hitting senior homes in politically red Georgia and elementary schools near ritzy street names like River Mansion Drive — usually not natural audiences for a liberal message. And yet she has fans like John Carroll, 73, who decries the national Democratic Party for acting not like a minority party, but a “super-minority” party, in his words. “I love her. One, that she stood up. And I also love her background,” he says. Despite the country club aura, this congressional district in the Atlanta suburbs is remarkably diverse — 20 percent African-American, 9 percent Latino and 10 percent Asian. Those demographics, combined with a national environment that favors Democrats by 8 percentage points, are part of the reason this seemingly safe Republican district is now at risk for an upset, according to OZY’s exclusive election prediction model with Republican data and technology firm 0ptimus.

It’s not just this demographic change by race, but a generational change we’re seeing as well.

Sam Park, Democratic state representative

“This is a tough district, but it is not one where I ever thought it was impossible,” Bordeaux says. “In that [diversity] there is a window, as well as with a lot of disaffected folks who don’t like the national Republican agenda.”

In fact, Georgia’s 7th Congressional district is now the second-most Republican-leaning seat considered to be a true toss-up in our model. The district is 9 percentage points more Republican than the nation as a whole, according to the venerable Cook Partisan Voting Index. The reality on the ground has been muddied by a surprisingly hot contest, says Alex Alduncin, a data scientist for 0ptimus. For one, Woodall has had surprisingly low fundraising totals so far for an incumbent, less than $1 million total, which has “hurt his chances,” Alduncin says.

Meanwhile, suburban voters have shifted noticeably toward the Democratic Party in the past three years. And in August, the Bourdeaux campaign released internal polling by Tulchin Research that showed her ahead, 46 percent to 44 percent, with likely voters, although that lead was well within the margin of error.

While most attention has gone to the neighboring 6th District, host to the nationally dissected special election between Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff last summer, the 7th “is certainly a sleeper race,” Alduncin says. “It’s not just this demographic change by race, but a generational change we’re seeing as well,” says Democrat Sam Park, an Asian-American state representative whose district is completely contained within the 7th congressional. “Folks in the suburbs tend to be much more moderate,” Park says, adding that it is the Year of the Woman “for a reason” amid heated #MeToo debates. “Women want a seat at the table and want their voices heard, and Carolyn serves as a perfect surrogate to harness that desire.”

To be sure, Woodall still has the advantage in a district that he won with 60 percent of the vote in 2016, compared to 51 percent for Trump. The result showed Woodall’s affable, wonky presence and conservative but not far-right record since taking office in 2011 to be a stronger brand than Trump’s here. Our model gives Woodall a 59.9 percent chance of holding the seat at this stage.

But there are signs of change. Bourdeaux remembers an Iftar dinner at one of almost a dozen mosques in the district. When she was getting ready to speak, she turned to the host and asked: “Is this crowd mostly Republican, Democrat or independent?” He replied that in the past the crowd was pretty ideologically diverse, but the Trump travel ban on seven Muslim-majority nations had changed things. “No. We’re all Democrats now,” the host said. In increasingly diverse suburban House districts around the country, it’s a troubling sign for Republicans.

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