First-time congressional candidate Lucy McBath has pulled off a victory in a close contest in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, unseating incumbent Republican Rep. Karen Handel just one year after Democrats lost the district in a nationally watched special election.
McBath, a gun control advocate who previously served as a spokesperson for Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, first came to national attention after her teenage son Jordan Davis was killed in 2012 in an act of racist gun violence.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, McBath’s position as a “Mother of the Movement” — a group of black women who have lost children to the police and vigilante violence central to the rise of Black Lives Matter — made her a prominent surrogate for Hillary Clinton. Jordan’s death was central to McBath’s 2018 campaign, in which she stumped for gun control alongside issues like improving access to health care.
A congressional run wasn’t always in the cards for McBath; in 2017 she first mounted a campaign for Georgia’s state house. But after the February 2018 Parkland school shooting, McBath switched her focus to Congress, saying that national attention and activism following the shooting showed that America was finally ready for a serious conversation about gun control.
“I’ve spent all this time championing for gun violence prevention; I’ve been helping to build this big organic movement for gun violence prevention,” she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month. “But if we do not get people in on the inside, it is going to be much, much harder to change the culture and it will take much, much longer.”
McBath won her primary runoff earlier this year, but national coverage of her race initially paled in comparison to that of Jon Ossoff. In 2017, he ran against Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, in a special election to replace previous Rep. Tom Price. While local and national Democrats focused on Ossoff’s campaign as a referendum on Trump, that message was not enough to put him over the top in Georgia.
There was a chance that the 2018 contest against incumbent Handel could go a similar route. As she did with Ossoff, Handel argued that McBath wasn’t truly a resident of the district (McBath previously lived with her husband in Tennessee) and that she couldn’t represent its voters. When McBath criticized Handel for taking money from the National Rifle Association, Handel countered that McBath had accepted money from Everytown for Gun Safety. Handel also attempted to distance herself from Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare, arguing that the vote happened before she took office.
In an election cycle dominated by national politics, McBath ran a deeply personal campaign
Where Ossoff’s campaign failed to connect with enough local voters to win, McBath succeeded. As a black woman competing in Georgia at the same time as governor candidate Stacey Abrams, McBath was likely helped by the top of the ticket. But beyond that, McBath used her personal stories of losing her son and surviving breast cancer twice, to connect with voters. McBath made inroads in a majority-white congressional district and gained national attention, with the New York Times arguing that she was “redefining social justice in politics this year.”
McBath embraced this status further in the race’s final months, as she published a memoir about her son’s murder and also released “Jordan,” a campaign ad where an emotional McBath discussed her son’s death further. “I still continue to mother [Jordan] by making sure I preserve the lives of other children,” McBath says in the ad.
Perhaps not coincidentally, these ads came as the race was tightening. In August, McBath was added to the Democratic Party’s Red to Blue program, which boosts candidates running to flip political control of districts. By early September, internal numbers from McBath’s campaign had her within 2 points of Handel. And in early November, the Washington Post noted that the Cook Political Report and FiveThirtyEight changed the race’s rating from “leans Republican” to “toss-up.”
With her victory, McBath will now head to Congress, where she says she will continue to act in memory of her son. “What I’m doing today is still mothering his legacy,” McBath told voters at an October event. “I’m extending what I would do for my son to my community.”