Republicans vie for nod in battleground suburban House seat

Republicans took over Georgia’s 7th Congressional District in 1994, one of a string of GOP victories that swept the party into power in the U.S. House and a Georgian into the speaker’s chair. Now with Republican Rob Woodall stepping down after having tenuously clung to the seat in 2018, the GOP has to decide who best to defend the embattled rampart.

One obvious choice might be Renee Unterman, a longtime state lawmaker and fixture of Gwinnett County politics since the 1980s. She’s being challenged by physician Rich McCormick, businessman Mark Gonsalves and former Home Depot executive Lynne Homrich, who are all pitching themselves as outsiders. Also running in the June 9 Republican primary are Lisa Babbage, Zachary Kennemore and Eugene Yu.

A runoff, if needed, would be held between the top two Republican finishers on Aug. 11. The winner of the GOP primary will face the winner of a similarly crowded Democratic field. The district covers parts of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties and could be one of the most closely contested congressional races this year.

Unterman argues that her experience proves that she can deliver, citing among other things her sponsorship of a law that would sharply limit abortion. That law is now tied up in legal challenges.

“They know I’ve answered the call when big issues come up,” Unterman said. “I think that’s how you overcome the stigma of an elected politician.”

Unterman said she supports efforts to improve transportation, protect the region’s water supply in an interstate feud with Alabama and Florida, and clamp down on immigrants illegally entering the country. She expresses confidence that President Donald Trump will present a new plan to lower the cost of prescription drugs and medical procedures.

“I think the president will have a new plan of action and I’m going to follow his lead,” Unterman said. “The most important thing is standing with the president.”

McCormick has emerged as her top challenger. He paints his race in stark terms, saying it’s “a fight for the soul of our country.” The former Marine highlights his service, but other candidates ask what he was doing in 2016, when he didn’t have a ballot recorded in the presidential race.

“I was registered to vote in Florida and I turned in my absentee ballot in Florida,” he said. “It didn’t get counted in Florida.”

McCormick said he wanted to transfer his residence to Florida, but his wife wanted to stay in Georgia. McCormick said he was paying income taxes in Georgia the whole time despite being registered to vote in Florida. During an Atlanta Press Club debate earlier this month, he seemed to imply that he missed voting while serving overseas in Afghanistan.

“I didn’t do anything illegal,” McCormick said. “That’s what they’re trying to imply.”

McCormick entered politics by working with the Medical Association of Georgia to lobby on the issue of surprise billing, when patients who are insured get bills not covered by their policy. Gonsalves has criticized McCormick on the issue because McCormick has worked for Envision Healthcare, a health care staffing company under investigation for its billing practices. But McCormick says physicians are victims of the practice.

“Surprise billing hurts the physician as much as it hurts the patient,” McCormick said during the Atlanta Press Club debate. “It hurts the physician-patient relationship. It hurts our income. It helps nobody but the insurance companies.”

Trying to displace McCormick as the alternative to Unterman are Gonsalves and Homrich.

Gonsalves is running a small government platform calling for a balanced budget and term limits, touting his experience as an entrepreneur.

“It’s time to stop the nonsense,” he said. “We’ve sold out the next generation with all the debt and we’ve got a lot of problems with immigration and the border and now China.”

Gonsalves said he’s ready to have “a hard conversation” about deficit reduction including pushing back the retirement age or reducing the cost of living adjustment to Social Security.

Homrich is running as an anti-politician, saying she was inspired by the way Trump “blew the doors off politics.”

“I don’t want to go to Washington to write policy,” Homrich said. “I want to go to Washington to sound the alarm.”

She says she doesn’t oppose immigration in what is an increasing diverse district, but says “we want a proper process. We want people to get in line.”

She also says the country should focus on ambitious goals. “Somehow, some way, we’ve got to get Washington solving problems again,” Homrich said.