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Hank Johnson Faces First Serious Primary Threat in Georgia

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

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