GEORGETOWN, Ga. (AP) — In an uphill fight against a 30-year incumbent, Republican congressional candidate Chris West was scratching for votes in Georgia's second-smallest county on a recent October evening.
West was telling voters in Georgetown, just across the Chattahoochee River from Alabama, that they should dump longtime Democrat Sanford Bishop if they're unhappy with inflation and gas prices. West said his own experience as a commercial developer would help improve the fortunes of Georgia's 2nd Congressional District, long one of the nation's poorest.
“Sanford has represented this district for 30 years now. And we have been in the top 10 poorest congressional districts for the last 30 years," West told supporters. "And out of 435 districts around the country, why should Georgia 2 have to be in the top 10? It shouldn’t be.”
West and Bishop are rarities in the Deep South: candidates for a congressional race that is even marginally competitive. Though Georgia has emerged as one of the nation's most politically consequential states for statewide contests, House races here are often an afterthought this year, a reflection of how the latest round of redistricting drained the U.S. of districts where both parties had a chance.
The 2nd District covers Georgia's southwestern corner, including Albany and parts of Macon, Columbus and Warner Robins, but also miles of peanut fields, pine forests and pecan groves sprawling across 30 counties.
Bishop, who is Black, has long styled himself as a moderate, courting the largely white farmers who drive the rural economy and supporting the district's military bases. He focuses more on legislative achievements and what his seniority helps him accomplish than on political red meat, rattling off an eight-minute list including COVID-19 aid, gun control and relief on medical costs when asked about his most recent achievements.
“You asked what we’ve done in the last two years and we've done a lot," Bishop said in an interview before a rally in Albany.
Bishop’s 15 previous victories have rarely been close, although the Democrat squeaked to reelection by fewer than 5,000 votes in 2010′s Republican wave. Last year, Georgia Republicans redrew the district to make it somewhat more favorable to their party, sparking fresh interest from GOP candidates.
The 2nd District's status is an outlier after a round of redistricting that reduced the number of competitive congressional seats nationwide. In Georgia, Republicans took two competitive districts in the northern Atlanta suburbs that Democrats had flipped in recent years and drew one safe Republican seat and one safe Democratic seat. That means that even if Bishop wins, Republicans are likely to hold a 9-5 edge in Georgia’s congressional delegation, compared to an 8-6 edge now.
Like many Deep South districts, it's an outgrowth of the Voting Rights Act, which required lawmakers to create districts where Black voters had a chance of electing their preferred candidate, despite racially polarized voting. Many of those districts heavily favor Democrats, while adjoining districts are often heavily white Republican strongholds, reducing competitiveness. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case that would make it harder to create new electoral districts in which Black or Latino voters hold sway.
The 2nd District was never as heavily Black as some other districts, meaning Bishop has always had to pay attention to white constituents as well. The latest round of redistricting nudged the Black voting age population below 48%, but analysts say it still favors Democrats. For Republicans, winning will require almost all white voters to support West, who is white. He's been making campaign stops in Black areas trying to peel off traditional Democrats.
West, an Air Force veteran and lawyer with deep roots around Thomasville, won an upset GOP runoff victory against Jeremy Hunt, a Black military veteran and Yale University law student, by effectively arguing that Hunt was parachuting into the district from Washington.
Now West is betting that people feel the impact of higher prices more acutely than they appreciate the achievements of a Democratic-controlled Congress. He argues that if Bishop was ever a moderate, that's no longer true, pointing to factors including a National Rifle Association rating that has fallen from A to F over time.
The district is spotted with “Farmers for West” signs, as West argues that Bishop's longtime reputation as a friend of the farmer is misleading, saying that “the average farmer doesn’t get any help from Sanford” and that it's time to “rotate the crop.”
Some former Bishop supporters have been receptive to that message. Joey Collins, a Thomasville farmer with 1,650 acres of pecan trees and 2,000 acres of timberland, said he once gave Bishop $1,000. But he says that with high diesel, fertilizer and herbicide prices, "I haven’t made a dime since Joe Biden became president, not one dime.” Now he's backing West.
“He was good for southwest Georgia for a while and the pecan growers, he tried to help us,” Collins said of Bishop. "Now, he does whatever the Democratic Party tells him to do.”
Bishop says he has been trying to help farmers get higher prices for their crops and reduce input costs. Others don't buy West's claims that farmers are abandoning Bishop in droves. Even Republicans acknowledge Bishop has helped them with some past issues. Freddie Powell Sims, a Democratic state senator from Dawson whose 13-county district is within Bishop's territory, said the incumbent has proved his worth.
“Congressman Bishop has the respect and the blessings of the larger farmers that are in southwest Georgia because he’s done so much to answer their requests,” Sims said. “When we had the hurricanes, the tornadoes, the floods, all of these things, Sanford Bishop was there. And he didn’t have to be.”
Then there are Bishop's ethics problems. Two years ago, Bishop was referred to the House Ethics Committee after an inquiry found Bishop may have improperly spent thousands in campaign money for personal country club memberships and may have improperly used congressional funds to pay for holiday parties in his district. Bishop has said he's already paid back some money, but hasn't said how much. Bishop has said his longtime campaign treasurer made mistakes while ill.
“Certainly as soon as I found out that we had some issues, I immediately pledged to cooperate to determine what irregularities might need addressing, because I certainly have never condoned and will not condone inappropriate conduct," Bishop said.
West said he expects more attacks on Bishop's ethics questions in the closing days of the campaign, but it's not clear the Republican will have enough money to spread that message widely. Bishop and Democratic groups have far outraised and outspent West and Republicans. Bishop could also benefit from efforts by Democrats including Sen. Raphael Warnock and gubernatorial challenger Stacey Abrams trying to maximize Black turnout in the region.
That leaves West to fall back on the same grassroots appeal that fueled his primary win.
“We are going to surprise a lot of people in Washington that do not recognize the people down in this district want new leadership," West said. “After 30 years in office, Sanford doesn’t have any more excuses. It’s time for a change.”