Georgia’s top congressman faces toughest race since 2010

After years of re-election, Georgia’s leading congressman is preparing for his toughest campaign in more than a decade as hopeful Republican challengers line up for the May 24 primary ballot and raise impressive sums for target the Democrat who has held the seat for 30 years.

Rep. Sanford Bishop, a black Democrat first elected in 1992, was listed among the most vulnerable House Democrats in the fall by his own party. Last year, the Republican-controlled state legislature redesigned its 2nd District seat in southwestern Georgia to dilute the influence of black voters.

Republicans only need to win five seats in the US House to take control of the chamber in November. The GOP is betting that weak approval from President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress will make it difficult for Bishop to maintain the support of rural voters who once backed him.

“People in our rural communities have struggled over these decades,” said Jeremy Hunt, one of six candidates for the Republican nomination to challenge Bishop. “A lot of people in our district, regardless of how they might have voted in the past, are saying, ‘We’re ready for something new’.”

In a battleground state where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock are both waging closely watched statewide campaigns, Bishop’s is the only congressional seat of 14 in Georgia as far as the opposing party considers that there is a real possibility of reversal.

Like Georgia as a whole, the Bishop District is politically divided — between mid-size cities that favor Democrats like Columbus and Macon and rural counties that are Republican-dominated. Spanning 30 counties, the district includes the military base of Fort Benning and Robins Air Force, as well as large cotton, poultry and peanut farms at the heart of Georgia’s $70 billion agricultural economy. .

Bishop, 75, became Georgia’s top congressman after the 2020 death of Rep. John Lewis. He is also the only Democratic and black member of Congress outside of metro Atlanta.

He admits to sometimes walking a political tightrope on divisive issues, such as his 2010 vote in favor of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. On the other side of the spectrum, Bishop prides himself on being a supporter of gun rights and has previously earned high marks from the National Rifle Association. In recent years, he has supported enhanced background checks for gun purchases.

Bishop largely seeks to downplay partisanship and highlight his influence as a member of the Appropriations budget drafting committee, where he chairs a subcommittee that oversees farm spending. He played a key role in passing $19.1 billion in disaster relief in 2019, nearly a year after Hurricane Michael devastated crops in the Bishop District.

On the campaign trail in recent weeks, Bishop has been busy handing out oversized ceremonial checks — $11.4 million in pandemic recovery funds to a technical college, $1 million for two mobile hospital clinics, $1 million in dollars to upgrade a rural town’s water and sewer system and $500,000 for a local Urban League Chapter to repair and improve its headquarters.

When Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $420 million for flood mitigation projects last month, he broke the news in Georgia with Bishop at his side. The package included five projects in the Congressmen’s Quarters.

In an interview, Bishop insisted he could still connect with voters in his district, even as they grew more intensely partisan.

“Things are a lot more partisan than they’ve ever been,” Bishop said. “However, there are a significant number of people in the electorate that I have spoken to who have indicated to me that they just want someone who makes sense and who will listen to them and not be so partisan.

Bishop raised more than $1.1 million to defend his seat. Half of the Republicans who showed up in the primary to challenge him brought in respectable six-figure sums.

Hunt has raised more than $438,000 since launching his campaign in January, which nearly matches Bishop’s $441,000 in Q1 contributions. A 28-year-old former army officer, Hunt hadn’t even been born when Bishop first took office. He dropped out of Yale Law School to run for Congress and is one of two black Republicans in the primary.

Wayne Johnson, who ran the federal student loans program under President Donald Trump, campaigns mostly with his own money. More than three-quarters of its reported funding of $410,500 is made up of personal loans.

Chris West, a real estate developer and Air National Guard officer, said he raised $257,000 by the end of March.

Bishop saw his last serious fight for re-election in 2010, when he barely held his seat with 51.4% of the vote. The following year, his constituency was redrawn to be more pro-Democratic. Bishop decisively won each subsequent race and received 59% of the vote in 2020.

Last year, Republican state lawmakers reorganized Bishop’s district to eliminate some of its Democratic support. Most notably, the changes reduced the district’s black voting-age resident population from 49.4% to 47.6%.

That’s not enough to erase the advantage of Bishop and the other Democrats. Biden, who won 56% of the vote in Bishop’s district in 2020, would still have carried the reconfigured district by a slightly lower margin.

“Republicans see it as an opportunity, but I don’t think it’s going to happen right now,” said Wane Hails, president of the NAACP chapter in Columbus. “Sanford Bishop is strong.”

Still, Republicans believe they have a chance of overturning Bishop’s seat if Biden’s approval ratings remain low and inflation keeps prices high at grocery stores and gas pumps. Portfolio woes could particularly undermine Bishop’s support among conservative-leaning farmers, Republican strategist Brandon Phillips said.

“These guys are here to buy fuel, fertilizer and food and all three are drastically different than they were a year ago. It’s tough,” said Phillips, who is the Georgia GOP 2nd district chairman.

Bishop’s own party recognizes that he is not safe. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has placed Bishop on a list of House Democrats it considers most at risk midterm.

Other Republicans in the running are Paul Whitehead, who says he wants to be the first openly gay Republican in Congress; Vivian Childs, minister and former president of the Georgia Black Republican Council; and Rich Robertson, retired Air Force Lt. Col.

Bishop also has a Democratic lead challenger, Joe O’Hara, whose only reported campaign money so far is a $5,220 personal loan. O’Hara’s website calls for the closure of all US military bases overseas and the legalization of all drugs.

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