The Most Expensive State House Race in Georgia: A Million Dollar Push To Unseat Bob Trammell

State Rep. Bob Trammell, Democratic Leader of the Georgia House, has held his seat for 5 years, but his family goes back in the district generations. He practices law in the house once owned by his grandfather, and great-great aunt and uncle.

Emma Hurt / WABE

Georgia Republicans have controlled the General Assembly since 2005. Democrats made a dent in that majority in 2018 by flipping 13 seats, but this year the Georgia GOP is fighting back and has been getting some help.

The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), a major Republican PAC working nationally to bolster Republican state legislatures, has named one Georgia state House race — for District 132 — its top target in the country.

Democratic House Minority Leader Bob Trammell currently holds it, and Republican nominee David Jenkins wants to change that.

“I told everyone that I talked to that they were going to see a race like they’ve never seen before in this district, and it has surprised me to be honest with you,” he said. “I didn’t expect the level of support that I’ve gotten.”

Jenkins is an Army combat veteran, air ambulance pilot and a goat farmer whose campaign has pulled in big-name Republican support in Georgia and national support from the RSLC to the tune of about $1 million.

David Jenkins is the Republican nominee trying to unseat Democratic House Leader Bob Trammell in GA HD-132. (Emma Hurt/WABE)

Austin Chambers, the committee’s president, said they made this decision for two reasons. Most obviously, the district that has elected Trammell also elected President Donald Trump in 2016 and Gov. Brian Kemp in 2018.

“That should be a Republican seat,” he said.

Plus, he said, “It makes great strategic sense to tie up the leader of their caucus, tie up the leader of their party on having to fight his own race.

“Because he’s distracted trying to fight for his own political survival, he’s not able to be out there campaigning for everyone else.”

And so, this has become the most expensive statehouse election in Georgia history.

Trammell has held the seat for 5 years, but his family goes back generations in the district. He practices law in a house where his father grew up, which had been owned by his grandfather and his great-great aunt and uncle before him. (Jenkins, his opponent, actually lives on a street named after Trammell’s cousin.)

“My granddaddy was a farmer. And my granddaddy had a saying about money: Money is like manure,” Trammell said. “It worked best when you spread it around, to make things grow, and when you piled it up in one place, it started to stink.”

Trammell said Republicans are misunderstanding his district by thinking they can defeat him.

“They know that when they need me, I’m going to be here,” he said of his constituents. “And I think that’s something that is still a big factor in a district like this.”

“A lot of people look at this district, and it looks like an anomaly,” he said of its voting record.

“What I would say is in a district like this and districts throughout Georgia, voters are looking for candidates and campaigns that go out and contest for every vote.”

Jenkins, his opponent, counters that the conservative vote in the district has been growing and said Trammell has just never had a serious challenger before.

He said he’s glad to have the money spent against him because the dollars aren’t being used to defend Republicans in districts that Democrats are trying to flip, mostly in metro Atlanta.

Chambers, with the RSLC, dismissed that.

“We’re spending enough in Bob Trammell’s district to defeat him. And we’re going to spend enough in the other districts to protect the Republican majority,” he said. “There’s a good plan in place, and I think it’s been executed pretty well.”

“There just aren’t that many places where Republicans can go on offense in 2020,” Trammell said. His is the only Democratic seat Republicans are targeting that is not an effort to take back a seat recently turned Democratic.

The Strategy

Jay Walker has been in charge of coming up with that plan for the Georgia House Republican caucus. He is the director for house campaigns for the caucus.

Until now, he said, there hasn’t really been a “need for an overall caucus strategy” since Republicans took the House in 2004.

In 2018, Republicans across the country lost control of eight state legislatures, and Georgia Republicans had a wake-up call when they lost 13 state House and Senate seats.

“November 2018 was the worst night we’d had since we had the majority in the House, and you try to learn from that, take things away from it that will make you better,” said David Ralston, Republican speaker of the Georgia House, while campaigning for Jenkins in LaGrange.

He said their three-prong strategy has been to recruit new Republican candidates like Jenkins, give them resources, and give vulnerable Republican incumbents a record to run on.

For example, the General Assembly’s continued balancing of the budget, he said, and passage of a law outlawing hate crimes and a reform to address the state’s maternal mortality crisis, a longtime Democratic priority.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same result. So you have to change,” Walker said.

But Democrats aren’t sitting idly by. They’re challenging 66 Republican seats, 10 more than they challenged in 2018.

“The energy is even more noticeable this year in 2020. I think folks are excited,” Falak Sabbak, executive director of the Georgia House Democratic Caucus, said. “They see an opportunity. I think people are ready to make a change.”

And what’s at stake for both parties is redistricting, which the party in power next year will get to control.

Correction: This report has been corrected with the proper spelling for Falak Sabbak’s last name. Sabbak is executive director of the Georgia House Democratic Caucus.