This story is the third installment of “Could She Flip It?,” a series from The Lily about the women running in 2020 who could flip House and Senate seats long held by the opposing party.
SUWANEE, Ga. — Carolyn Bourdeaux’s 2018 congressional campaign grew out of the living rooms of suburban White women.
The evening would usually begin around 6:30 p.m., early enough for women to swing by on their way home from work. While many had never been to a political event before — let alone one held for a Democrat — it was easy to feel comfortable. The brick homes and manicured lawns looked like the ones they would go home to, in this subdivision or the next one over. Ushered inside by a friend, or a friend of a friend, they would nibble at the Costco cheese plate on the counter and pour a glass of white wine from the fridge. Then they would settle in to listen to what the candidate had to say.
Throughout her 2018 run for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, in the traditionally conservative northern suburbs of Atlanta, Bourdeaux targeted a constituency that President Trump won handily in 2016 and has fought hard to retain in 2020: suburban White women. She lost by just 433 votes, in the closest congressional race in the country. And though the coronavirus has forced Bourdeaux to abandon the suburban happy hours of her 2018 campaign, she is still relying on these women to help flip the district blue.
The Atlanta suburbs are seen as a political bellwether for the state of Georgia: If they flip, analysts say, so will the state. The 7th District is a place where “the Old South meets the U.N.,” said Bianca Keaton, chairwoman of the local Democratic Party. While Republicans have held this seat since 1995, its demographics are changing. It is now a majority-minority district with 25 percent of its population born outside the United States. Trump won the 7th District by six points, a far slimmer margin than previous Republican candidates for president. Many residents were “stunned” when gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams won the district in 2018.
Bourdeaux was the only White candidate to run in this year’s six-person primary. And though she was criticized for failing to represent the district’s communities of color, she won by a landslide, beating her closest opponent by more than 40 percentage points. Her campaign tapped into the political energy and deep pockets of suburban White women, many of whom had never spoken openly about their politics, convinced no one in their neighborhood shared their anti-Trump views. Bourdeaux focused on women like her neighbor, who she says would wrap Hillary Clinton’s biography in brown paper before she took it to the pool.
Could Bourdeaux convince her that others might be secretly reading it, too?
Bourdeaux is not a natural campaigner. A 50-year-old professor of public policy, she would rather get right to the spreadsheet where she can show you exactly how much the state of Georgia overshot its budget in the 2019 fiscal year. Whenever she can steal a moment for herself, she’ll turn on a podcast about the history of warfare, soothed by the straightforward nature of military strategy.
Bourdeaux connects with these suburban White women because, like them, she is pushing herself out of her comfort zone, said Becky Butler, who leads Necessary Trouble, a women’s activist group that grew out of the Women’s March. Butler has admired Bourdeaux since she first saw her campaign, she says: Bourdeaux had stepped out from behind her table at a large political event and was introducing herself to every person who walked by.
“You could feel that went against Carolyn’s default nature,” Butler said. “But she was pushing against that shyness.
“It seemed to me that she was being very brave.”
Bourdeaux had never seen anything like Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport on Jan. 20, 2017. Everywhere she looked, she said, there were women in pink hats. Boarding her flight to D.C., Bourdeaux said, it was clear almost everyone was heading to the Women’s March.
“It was a planeload of women,” she said. “It was wild.”
Bourdeaux went with her sister, Margaret Bourdeaux. Once they’d had their fill of the crowds on the Mall, they made their way to Le Pain Quotidien, where they took off their coats, ordered croissants and began to map out a potential run for Congress. To no one’s surprise, Margaret said, Bourdeaux had already begun to check out the census data. She was convinced: Georgia’s 7th District could go blue.
When in doubt, Bourdeaux believes you should always go back to the numbers. She taught Georgia State University’s Introduction to Budgeting class for years, lecturing on how to develop a reliable “baseline,” and why “performance-based budgeting” is key. Right before the Great Recession, Bourdeaux became the director of the state budget office, advising top government officials on what they could afford.
“I love budgeting,” she said, smiling in a way someone else might when talking about a dear friend. “It’s the heart of all policymaking.”
When Bourdeaux got back to Georgia, she said, she started meeting with friends, colleagues, and people active in Georgia politics to scope out a potential run. There was hardly any Democratic infrastructure in the 7th District at the time, Margaret said — no handy lists of voter emails and phone numbers. Most people told Bourdeaux that she was “kidding herself,” Margaret said: The 7th District wasn’t ready to elect a Democrat. During her first run, Bourdeaux received no financial backing from the national Democratic Party.
“It forced us to engage with all the new community groups just forming, like the women’s huddles,” said Margaret, referring to the activist groups that got started at the Women’s March.
Necessary Trouble had been waiting to support a candidate like Bourdeaux, Butler said. At their first meeting in early 2017, 50 women gathered in her living room, distraught that Trump had been elected. The group shared what they had been doing for self-care: One woman was planting daffodils, one had bought a weighted blanket, and another was reading about Sekhmet, the Egyptian warrior goddess of healing.
They were eager to “do something to shift things,” Butler said.
For many, it was an intimidating prospect. As a White Southern woman, you are trained to stay in the inoffensive middle, said Martha Dyer, a member of a 7th District “huddle” that has been campaigning for Bourdeaux.
“White suburban women [here] just didn’t really engage in politics before,” Bourdeaux said. But the 2016 election brought a “sense of awakening,” she said.
In the 2020 primary, other Democratic candidates attacked Bourdeaux for her investment in these voters. Bourdeaux was called out for focusing too much on the White electorate — and for being the only White candidate in the race.
“The reality is that Carolyn Bourdeaux has done nothing different from her last election cycle,” Brenda Lopez Romero, a Latina who ran in the primary, said during a debate. “She is still not reaching out to diverse communities, particularly the Black, Latino and Asian communities.”
That is “absolutely untrue,” Bourdeaux said in her rebuttal. To reach these communities, she says, she joins them where they worship, spending every Sunday at a Black church, and also frequenting the district’s synagogues and mosques. Bordeaux swept the primary with a diverse coalition: Most Democratic primary voters in the 7th District were people of color.
“Running to represent Georgians from so many different walks of life and ensuring all voices get a seat at the table is a critically important responsibility, and one I take incredibly seriously,” Bordeaux said.
Given the changing demographics of the district, many expected the Democratic nominee to be a person of color, said Keaton, the Democratic Party chairwoman. She wasn’t surprised that so many people of color decided to put their names on the ballot, she said.
“I think it’s obvious why all the people of color ran,” said Nabilah Islam, who is South Asian American and ran against Bourdeaux in the primary. “We wanted representation.”
Without the coronavirus, the primary might have turned out differently, says Islam, who immediately endorsed Bourdeaux when she dropped out of the race. Many of the candidates had planned to rely heavily on door-knocking and person-to-person connection, she said. When they had to conduct their campaigns from their homes, she said, fundraising became far more important. With high name recognition from her 2018 race, Bourdeaux outraised all her opponents by at least $1 million dollars.
Much of that money came from suburban White women. Unable to knock on doors for Bourdeaux, Dyer said, she and many of her friends have been taking out their wallets.
Raising that kind of money is a lot harder for people of color, Islam says.
“People aren't used to giving us money. When I was running, I had to prove myself because no one had seen someone like me run before.”
Islam says she never heard much from the White women’s activist groups that threw their full weight behind Bourdeaux.
“I don’t think I was the type of candidate that they were looking to support.”
Butler says her group is deeply committed to racial inclusion. Of the four Georgia candidates from around the state that they are supporting in the 2020 cycle, she says, three are women of color. If Bourdeaux had been running for the first time this election, Butler says, the group would have been “hard pressed” to support her over the women of color in the race. But by 2020, she said, they knew Bourdeaux. And they were sold.
“You know when you meet someone who is like you, but they’re doing it better?” asked Dyer, who leads a 7th District huddle. “My inclination is to go to Costco and buy a cheese tray. Her inclination is to run for Congress.”
Meeting Bourdeaux, Dyer said, the women in her group immediately felt a certain kinship.
“We saw a lot of us in her.”
To mobilize these women, Bourdeaux first has to convince them that they’re not alone. Even after Abrams won this district in 2018, many remain confident that they’re the only one in their neighborhood who will not be voting for Trump. Going door-to-door in the last election, Bourdeaux said, women would peek out and ask her not to tell anyone that they voted Democrat. Bourdeaux would sometimes take out her phone to show them the list of other Democratic voters on their street.
“People don’t know how many others are standing behind trees in the forest until people start stepping out to say, ‘I’m here,’” said Dyer.
It can be particularly difficult to publicly switch parties. Vanessa Zerzan, a registered Republican who voted for Clinton, hosted a 2018 event for Bourdeaux at her home in a “very conservative, pro-Trump subdivision.” When she sent the invitation out to the 400 people on her neighborhood e-mail list, she said, she knew she might lose some friends.
It was worth it, Zerzan says, who calls Trump’s presidency a “tragedy.”
“I’m almost shocked at myself. I’m so much more liberal than I thought I was, and I want to do something about it.”
The social fallout of voting Democrat is even closer to home for some women in the district. Calling voters or door-knocking in the suburbs, Bourdeaux will often encounter Republican husbands, who may not be fully aware of their wives’ political views. One woman who held a fundraiser for Bourdeaux in 2018 told her conservative husband that she was hosting a dinner party — then sent him out for the evening.
For Bourdeaux, it’s a familiar impulse. When she launched her campaign in 2018, she said, she didn’t immediately share the news with her neighbors, avoiding the subject of politics as they waited together for the school bus every morning.
She knew some would never agree with her. With others, she was more hopeful. Looking up her neighbors’ voting histories, she learned that one woman had never voted before.
Now that neighbor has a Bourdeaux campaign sign on her lawn.