Reps. Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux flipped two longtime Republican congressional districts in Atlanta's northern suburbs by running against then-President Donald Trump and his divisive brand of politics.
But as they fight to keep their House seats this year, they're competing against each other.
After new congressional maps approved by the Republican-controlled state Legislature made McBath's district more conservative, she decided to compete for Bourdeaux's seat. That's pitting two colleagues from the same party against one another ahead of Georgia's May 24 primary.
The race is an uncomfortable development for Democrats who would prefer to celebrate the inroads they've made in Georgia, culminating with Joe Biden becoming his party's first presidential candidate to take the state in 28 years. Rather than building on that success, which was driven in part by support in Atlanta's suburbs, the primary is pitting two of the party's rising stars against each other.
Bourdeaux, who has referred to McBath as a “sister" and previously campaigned alongside her, said in a recent interview that she was “pretty shocked” by the primary challenge.
“If the shoe were on the other foot, it would not have crossed my mind in a million years to go over to the sixth (district) and run against her,” Bourdeaux said, lamenting that McBath was devoting resources to defeating her in the primary that could instead be directed at Republicans.
McBath said her push to remain in Congress is “about my work to honor my son,” not her primary opponent. Her 17-year old son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed at a Florida gas station in 2012 by a white man who was angry over the loud music the Black teenager and his friends had been playing in their car, spurring McBath into becoming a gun safety activist.
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“To keep that promise to my son and my family and my community, I have just refused to let Brian Kemp and the NRA gun lobby and the Republican Party decide who represents our communities in Georgia,” McBath said in an interview, referring to the state's Republican governor and new maps state lawmakers drew based on the 2020 census.
She added: “I’ve had many people say to me, ’I think you’re making the right decision. It’s a difficult decision, of course, but I think it’s the right decision.'”
The contest is one of five major incumbent-on-incumbent House primary races that will unfold around the country this summer. They include Democratic Reps. Andy Levin and Haley Stevens in suburban Detroit; Republican Reps. David McKinley and Alex Mooney in the northern half of West Virginia; and Illinois congressional colleagues from both parties — Republicans Mary Miller and Rodney Davis and Democrats Marie Newman and Sean Casten.
For some of these contenders, trying to unseat a colleague is just a political reality that comes along with the once-a-decade redistricting process. In Michigan, Levin and Stevens each said they still considered the other a friend despite now competing for a new seat drawn by an independent commission.
“When something unfortunate like this happens, to me, it’s nothing personal,” said Levin, who opted to forgo competing in a newly drawn battleground district to instead challenge Stevens in a safely Democratic one.
Stevens said that, during a recent vote on the House floor, she pulled Levin aside to discuss a bill they'd been working on. Later, she said, it hit her that, ”‘Holy smokes. I’m in this primary with him and, no matter what happens, we’re not gonna be colleagues.’”
The race in Georgia is especially stinging because it will stunt one of two nascent, promising political careers.
McBath won a House seat in 2018 from a suburban district that was held by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich for two decades. The former Delta flight attendant is known nationally as a fierce gun safety advocate.
The same year, Bourdeaux came within a few hundred votes of unseating a Republican in the adjacent district, before ultimately winning the seat in 2020. A former public policy professor and Georgia Senate budget director, Bourdeaux has worked on transportation and infrastructure issues. She was among a small group of House Democrats who urged passage last year of a bipartisan infrastructure law before agreement was reached on a larger Democratic social policy package.
Bourdeaux’s redrawn district includes wealthy suburbs in Gwinnett County that have grown increasingly diverse in recent years. It has large Black, Hispanic and Asian populations. A stretch of Buford Highway that runs through the area has become a major draw for its breadth of ethnic restaurants.
The district is heavily Democratic, so the winner of the primary is expected to prevail in the general election.
The two have stayed fairly even in the money race. As of the end of last year, McBath had raised slightly more than $3 million, compared with Bourdeaux’s nearly $2.4 million.
Bourdeaux has been endorsed by some top Gwinnett County Democratic leaders, while Everytown for Gun Safety, where McBath once worked, has runs ads on her behalf. “Protect Our Future,” a new Democratic super PAC backed by a cryptocurrency billionaire, has also vowed to spend big to boost McBath, prompting calls from Bourdeaux’s campaign that her opponent should “disavow” funding from the group.
Jovanny Emery Sierra, a 27-year-old technologist at a medical company from Duluth, voted for Bourdeaux in the 2020 general election but is now volunteering for McBath. He said he was alienated by Bourdeaux seeming to prioritize the infrastructure legislation rather than a larger, White House-backed social spending and public works bill known as Build Back Better that eventually collapsed.
“It just felt like a slap in the face,” he said.
Others who live in the district say they feel anguished that McBath or Bourdeaux will be left without a congressional seat.
“We have two great, caring people that are Democrats, but through this gerrymandering at the state Legislature, they just cut them up and dilute the democratic process,” said Jim Shealey, 72. Shealey said he hadn’t decided whom to vote for in May.
Still, Julie Pierce, 65, said McBath’s decision to challenge Bourdeaux “leaves me squeamish.”
Pierce said she’s always thought highly of McBath, but she sees Bourdeaux out campaigning much harder.
“If you’re going to parachute in, for crying out loud, parachute in and date me,” Pierce said of McBath. “Don’t take me for granted.”
Weissert reported from Washington.