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Democrats surge in Hall, but face long odds to topple GOP
Party's primary votes double in 9th District as leaders aim to build for future
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Most of the Hall County Democratic Party’s 2018 ticket smile for pictures during the party meeting March 14, 2018, at the Gainesville Civic Center. From left in back are Patrick Anderson, Cynthia Lyne Shubert-Jett, Alana Watkins, Josh McCall, Maria Palacios and Stephanie Lopez-Burgos. The party qualified seven candidates for public office this year, more than the past four election cycles combined.

A surge of Democratic enthusiasm is coursing through Georgia, even if the chance of that energy flipping the 9th Congressional District appear slim.

Formerly red counties in metro Atlanta and South Georgia are going pink or even light blue with a lukewarm Republican primary this year. A historic contest for governor excited Democrats, who just nominated the first African-American woman for the office, while Republicans settle what promises to be a rough primary runoff between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Primary runoff

When: July 24

Early voting: July 2-20

More information: Georgia Secretary of State Elections: Hall County Elections

Democratic turnout jumped more than 30 percent from the 2010 primary, the last time the Democrats had a contested gubernatorial primary, to the 2018 primary held Tuesday, May 22.

That surge means almost as many Democrats turned out statewide to vote in their primary as Republicans — a first for the out-of-power party in Georgia since Democrats ran in the state in the 1990s. On Tuesday, a total of 606,747 votes were cast for governor in the Republican primary. In the Democratic primary, 553,565 votes were cast, more than 75 percent for nominee Stacey Abrams.

That energy has revived what was a dying party in Hall County. The election of President Donald Trump in 2016 has rejuvenated a slumping opposition party and local leaders in the Democratic sphere, including party chairman Kim Copeland, who dedicates himself full time to party work, and Leigh Miller, the head of candidate recruitment for the party.

In the 9th District — the 20 counties making up the northeast corner of the state, including Hall — an even stronger jump in Democratic voter turnout than in the statewide gubernatorial primary was seen Tuesday. More than twice the votes were cast in the Democratic primary this year than in 2014, when Democrat David Vogel ran unopposed to challenge U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.

This year, Democrats fielded two candidates for the House seat, along with several other down-ballot candidates, a surprising turnout for a party that just a couple of years ago was considering calling off regular meetings altogether.

The crop of seven candidates was one of the largest the party has fielded in years. As she builds candidate recruitment, Miller has started a program of having potential candidates interested in future runs volunteer for those who are on the ballot now.

The end result is a revived party in Hall County and beyond, with active Democratic contingents in Lumpkin County and elsewhere.

Josh McCall addresses a crowd at the Midtown Greenway on Aug. 16, 2017, following a solidarity march against racism and bigotry that began in Roosevelt Square in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers
“By the time I announced, 150 people showed up to my announcement at the (Gainesville) Civic Center,” said Josh McCall, who won his primary Tuesday and will face Collins in November, of the vast change in enthusiasm in 2017. “And, of course, the meetings have been very big ever since then.”

It’s not just meetings, either. Democrats have invested the time to hold events, marches, several different protests and community events since Trump took office in January. The result is a party that is much more visible and present in a community that left it behind years ago as the Southeast turned from blue to red.

However, this is the 9th District, one of the most conservative districts in the nation, and to pull it from Republican hands would require not just doubling Democratic turnout, but multiplying it five times over.

Collins drew 63,607 votes Tuesday while unopposed. By himself, Collins’ turnout represented 10.5 percent of all votes cast in the all 159 counties for the gubernatorial election statewide. As safe seats go, Collins’ might as well be under guard.

The odds are long, but Democratic leaders are aiming to set the groundwork for a larger party down the road.

“Attendance was really dismal — you know, five, six people (at our party meetings before Trump),” said McCall. “I showed up to my first meeting in February to try to recruit somebody else to run, and couldn’t find anybody. That’s why I decided to run in April, because I knew it would take a long, long time to get people energized and organized.”