Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 9, 2016

Hank Johnson Faces First Serious Primary Threat in Georgia

Johnson faces a serious primary challenge in May. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., will likely confront the toughest primary challenge of his congressional career this cycle from a well-known local law enforcement official.

The four-term Democrat, known for his unscripted comments in the House, will face former DeKalb County Sheriff Tom Brown in a May 20 primary in the deep blue 4th District in the Atlanta suburbs.

Although there are no independent public polls of the race yet, Brown has so far raised more money than Johnson — a rare feat for a challenger. What’s more, Brown enjoys high name recognition due to his long tenure as sheriff in one of the Peach State’s largest counties. For these reasons, plus a few more, local Democrats see him as a formidable primary challenger for Johnson.

“Assuming that Tom can keep up his fundraising pace, he’s probably the most credible challenge that Hank has had so far,” said Cabral Franklin, a Georgia Democratic consultant.

Johnson has faced primary challenges in prior cycles. He came to Congress by ousting then-Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney, D-Ga., in a 2006 primary. Yet Johnson’s primary challengers have never been well-funded or as well known as Brown.

This time around, Johnson’s campaign has acknowledged that Brown’s threat is real. His aides say they are working hard to fend him off in the primary, which is tantamount to the general election in this strong Democratic district.

Specifically, Johnson’s campaign recently rolled out an endorsement from President Barack Obama, who enjoys high approval ratings in this majority black district — despite his lackluster poll numbers nationwide.

“The president is widely popular here in the district, and unlike what you get on Capitol Hill and nationally, the Affordable Care Act is something people here in 4th District are hungry for and can help many, many people,” Andy Phalen, a spokesman for Johnson’s campaign, said last week. “We are proud of that endorsement, and I think all measures will be taken to get the word out that the president is supporting Hank.”

Brown said he is unconcerned with Obama endorsing his opponent, adding that he is running because he can be a more effective leader than Johnson.

“We’ve seen every election the same picture of congressman Johnson running down the stairs of Air Force One with the president,” Brown said in a March 21 phone interview. “But the question is, what has that [relationship] resulted in for the district, and we have not seen that.”

The congressional hopeful is largely credited with cleaning up the county sheriff’s office over the past decade. Brown arrived there in 2001, following the assassination of then-Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown (no relation to Tom Brown) in front of his home. Former Sheriff Sidney Dorsey had ordered Derwin Brown’s murder, and now he is sentenced to life in prison.

To be sure, running for Congress in and around Atlanta is difficult for any challenger. The local media market is expensive. There’s also a crowded GOP primary for Senate on the same date, and breaking through the ad blitz in the weeks before May 20 will be challenging — even for a Democrat.

However, it’s unclear whether either Democrat will have enough funds to make a significant push on broadcast television. Johnson raised $70,000 in the last quarter of 2013, and reported $85,000 in cash on hand. Brown, on the other hand, raised $152,000 in the fourth quarter, and reported $108,000 in cash on hand.

Instead, the race is likely to be won through direct mail and ground game, much of which centers around the large church communities in the district.

Operatives add that despite Brown’s familiarity with voters during his time as Sheriff, the early primary gives him less time to make his case to voters for ousting Johnson from office. That, too, gives Johnson a boost.

“I say Hank is the favorite, but I wouldn’t count Tom Brown out,” said one Democratic operative unaffiliated with the race.

Johnson has never received less than 50 percent of the primary vote since he ousted McKinney in 2006. His most recent close race was 2010, when Johnson faced controversial DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Vernon Jones and DeKalb County Commissioner Connie Stokes in a Democratic primary. Despite facing two other candidates, Johnson avoided a runoff that year, receiving 55 percent of the district’s vote to win the primary outright.

Georgia’s 4th District is rated a Safe Democrat contest by Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call. Obama won the district by a 48-point margin in 2012.

  • don76550

    Johnson is a hopeless idiot. His comment, made in all seriousness, that Guam might tip over if we added troops there, is only but one of an endless stream of moronic comments he has made. If you live in his district, just watch him on CSPAN during congressional hearings. He is cluless, inarticulate, ignorant and an embarassment. It is a sad commentary on America that such unqualified people like Johnson can get into congress.

  • teapartyidiots

    I know- I think maybe Brown is the better choice.

  • CVBeethoven

    Until you realize that people like Louis Gohmert and Michelle Bachmann can get into Congress, then you realize it’s all just horses for courses.

  • Glove Notice

    And who endorsed this idiot?
    Barack Obama.

  • Teflarious Buggettsiahn

    None of the above is the best choice in this race. People should write in former state of GA Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond instead.

  • don76550

    Actually Gohmert and Bachmann have done an excellent job. The only people who don’t like them are anti American constitution hating lying marxist democrats.

  • GB101

    I don’t know Brown. I know Johnson. Brown is the better choice.

    The fact that Johnson is ballyhooing his support of Obamacare, instead of running away from it, says a lot about the district’s voters. The are as clueless as he is.

  • teapartyidiots

    Um… I know may Republicans who are embarrassed by them – just not baggers.

  • Oscar Mysterious

    Run-of-the-mill collectivists routinely attempt to confuse roads and fire departments with collectivism by referring to them as “socialism”.

  • Dopple Gang

    Evidence of cultural evolution is visible in related alphabets, such as those of the Greeks and Russians, who trace their roots to the same language ancestor as Hindi, Urdu, and Sanskrit.

  • CVBeethoven

    Yes, they are giants. Giants among lesser men.

  • RAGordy

    I live in this district, and have never seen Hank. Brown, however, goes to my barber shop. The choice is easy for me. I’m tired of these elitist democrats who never connect their community out of an election cycle.

  • RAGordy

    Wow. Really dude?

  • EricStoner

    Wait, has he solved that problem of Guam tipping over?

  • Pro_bono_publico

    This metro Atlanta/Decatur district is going to elect a Democrat regardless of who the nominee is, so it really doesn’t matter . . . That having been said, I hope and pray the Democrats don’t support a comeback by that raving lunatic Cynthia McKinney.

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