Georgia lawmakers meet in the state House of Representatives chamber at the Capitol in Atlanta during the 2020 legislative session. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Will the balance of power shift in the Georgia state legislature following the highly anticipated general election on Nov. 3?

For the first time in nearly two decades, Georgia Democratic leaders believe they have a real shot at wresting control of the state House of Representatives, which has been in Republican hands since 2005.

But state and national Republicans are deploying millions of dollars into local races to keep that from happening, targeting Georgia as perhaps the only state where one of its most influential Democratic lawmakers in the House could be toppled.

“For Democrats to flip the House, they have to win what looks like virtually all of the marginal seats now,” said Charles Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

According to Bullock, Democratic candidates flipped 13 seats in the House during the 2018 election that they are likely not in danger of losing next month, prompting Democrats to focus on 17 other seats that could be won in the 2020 general election.

For Democrats, the magic number to flip the House is 16 seats out of the body’s total of 180 seats, representing a cluster of suburban Atlanta districts plus some districts around many of the state’s other urban areas including Athens, Milledgeville, Albany, Columbus, Savannah, Warner Robins and Suwanee.

The Georgia Senate is likely not in play with only five seats potentially open for Democrats that would cut the Republican majority in that body down to a four-seat advantage, according to Bullock’s analysis.

But the Georgia House is the holy grail this year. A shift in the balance of power would not only inject more say for Democrats into the state’s legislative policies, but also giving the party a stronger bargaining hand in the upcoming process to redraw district boundaries next summer.

Based on each new census count every 10 years, the Georgia General Assembly rearranges state and congressional district borders to align with shifts in population. Whichever political party is in charge of that process could tweak the boundaries in their favor to capture potentially decisive voting blocs for the next decade, according to Bullock.

“If the people who draw the districts have good data and are careful with it, they could cast the die in terms of what a legislature’s partisanship looks like for a decade,” Bullock said in an interview last week.

With demographics shifting around urban areas across the state, the key for Democrats will be to sway suburban women voters who may have voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 but have had second thoughts since then, said Andra Gillespie, political science professor at Emory University.

At the same time, some Republicans holding vulnerable seats have begun shifting closer to the center in a bid to win more moderate voters who could turn the tide in a close election, Gillespie said. An example is Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, who sponsored bipartisan hate-crimes legislation in an election year that Georgia Democrats had long sought.

“The idea that they would then pick the low-hanging fruit of the hate-crimes bill which has stalled for years in the General Assembly, was the easy thing to do,” Gillespie said in an interview last week. “They’re trying to get a clear majority of the overall universe of voters in their district.”

Outside groups from both sides have pumped large dollars into contested legislative races, particularly for Republicans’ bid to unseat Georgia House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, whose West Georgia district went to Trump in 2016 and Gov. Brian Kemp in 2018.

The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), a national group focused on state legislative contests, is poised to pump $1 million into the campaign of Trammell’s Republican competitor, emergency-medical helicopter pilot David Jenkins, marking a huge amount of money for one local race.

The strategy is twofold: By forcing Trammell to step back and focus on his own race, Democrats may have to spend more money on a single district than they anticipated and divert some attention from other competitive races elsewhere in the state, said RSLC President Austin Chambers.

“This is a great opportunity for us to take out the leader of their caucus,” Chambers said. “It just creates chaos on their side.”

Republicans also have the stout backing of Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who as one of the party’s most influential leaders has leaned into the campaign season alongside other top Republican lawmakers at the state Capitol.

“Georgia Republicans aren’t taking anything or any vote for granted,” said Jen Ryan, a spokeswoman for the campaign efforts of Ralston and the House Majority Caucus.

Despite that confidence, Democrats aren’t sweating it. They are leaning on a party-affiliated organizing and fundraising initiative called the Legislative Victory Fund to splash millions of dollars into local legislative races across the state, including Trammell’s.

Tied to Fair Fight, the group founded by Democratic Party star and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, the Legislative Victory Fund has recruited and backed Democratic candidates in vulnerable Republican-held House districts from the campaign season’s start this year, said the fund’s organizing director, Patricia Lassiter.

“We are running a full-fledged, multi-faceted movement to show Georgia what needs to be done,” Lassiter said. “We know that once these candidates get into office, they’re going to change what Georgia looks like [and] leadership is going to actually represent Georgians.”

For his part, Trammell has swatted aside recent polls indicating he may be trailing in his race. He points to the big-money moves focused on his own district as evidence that Republicans are “holding on by their fingernails here.”

“They started pumping money into Georgia a few months ago because they know they’re in trouble,” Trammell said in a recent interview. “Voters in the district don’t want a vote that’s for sale. My vote is not for sale and will never be for sale.”

The general election is scheduled for Nov. 3. Early voting begins on Oct. 12.