AFTER NEARLY SLEEPWALKING HIS WAY TO DEFEAT, GEORGIA REPUBLICAN WON'T RUN AGAIN FOR SWING HOUSE SEAT
On Thursday, GOP Rep. Rob Woodall announced he would not seek a sixth term in Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, a diverse suburban Atlanta seat that has become very competitive turf over the last few years.
Normally, national Republicans would be upset to lose a veteran congressman in a battleground seat, but Woodall is a special case. As we’ll discuss below, the congressman ran an extremely complacent race last year against Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux and ended up winning by just 433 votes. (His lead initially stood at 419, but a recount netted him another 14 votes.) Team Blue is likely to wage a strong effort to flip this seat again, and just after Woodall made his retirement known, Bourdeaux told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she would run again.
This constituency, which is dominated by Gwinnett County to the northeast of Atlanta (82 percent of the seat is located in this county, with the balance in Forsyth County), had been reliably red territory for decades. Woodall spent years working as an aide to Rep. John Linder, who never had any trouble winning re-election during his nearly two decades in Congress. Linder retired in 2010 and Woodall, who by now was his chief of staff, ran to succeed the congressman. Woodall did face a competitive primary against conservative radio host Jody Hice, but he defeated him in the runoff by a 56-44 margin; after redistricting, Hice would join Woodall in the House by winning the new 10th District in 2014.
Woodall had no trouble winning the general election in 2010, and the following year, Republican mapmakers did all they could to make sure the 7th District remained safely red. For a time, they succeeded. The new 7th District backed Mitt Romney by a strong 60-38 margin, and national Democrats didn’t make any effort to target Woodall for most of the decade. However, Donald Trump was toxic in well-educated suburban seats like this, and he only carried the seat 51-45. Woodall once again fended off a little-known Democratic foe without any effort in 2016, but that wide victory only seems to have helped lure him into a very false sense of security.
Indeed, while Democrat Jon Ossoff was making a strong effort to win the neighboring 6th District, which had also moved hard against Trump, in a 2017 special election, Woodall was very unconcerned about his own prospects. In May of that year, Woodall glibly said of his own race, “It’s gerrymandering that makes these things noncompetitive, right?” Woodall never seemed to understand he was in danger even as the political climate got worse and worse for the GOP, and Bourdeaux proved to be a strong fundraiser. In late October, a survey from a bipartisan team of pollsters showed Woodall ahead, but by a shaky 49-43 margin.
However, that poll became public a few days after Woodall had released his own survey from the discredited firm McLaughlin & Associates, which gave him a 59-32 lead. The fact that Woodall was even employing the pollster that had such a bad history of high-profile misses, most notably when it gave then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor a huge lead just before he lost his 2014 primary, alone was a sign that the Georgia Republican wasn’t ready for a serious race. And sure enough, Woodall very much seemed to believe McLaughlin’s glowing numbers. (Update: This post has been edited to note that the McLaughlin poll was released first.)
Woodall didn’t run any ads for most of the campaign or even do many advertised campaign events. However, he got something of a wake-up call late in the campaign when Independence USA, a super PAC funded by former New York City Mayor and gun safety advocate Michael Bloomberg, dropped $913,000 on him in the final days of the race. On the Friday before Election Day, Woodall finally went up with his first TV spot, which praised this suburban Atlanta seat's diversity and featured people saying that they supported Woodall in various languages—not exactly your typical Republican message.
Woodall did defeat Bourdeaux, but only by 433 votes. At the same time, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, despite the taint of Republican voter suppression that marred her election, still managed to narrowly win the 7th District by a 50-49 margin, another indication that the seat wasn’t done moving to the left. However, Woodall didn’t seem inclined to make much of an effort to defend the district in 2020, and he barely raised any cash for the remainder of last year. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this week that some unnamed GOP officials were pressuring him to "consider his options" for 2020, and it seems he took the message to heart and decided to call it a career.