Democrat Josh McLaurin will succeed retiring Republican stalwart Wendell Willard in Sandy Springs’ House District 51 seat, according to unofficial results, after a bitter race where GOP leaders accused him of illegal campaign activities, and he threatened to sue for libel.

McLaurin eked out a defeat of Republican Alex Kaufman with 51.49 percent of the vote, according to the unofficial results reported by the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. The narrow margin could lead to a challenge or other review.

“I’m honored to have received the trust of voters and hope to live up to their expectations for their representative,” McLaurin said in a written statement. “After meeting hundreds of HD 51 residents personally and having conversations about their concerns, I will advocate for progress on top priorities like healthcare, schools and transit.”

The impact on local politics is big. Willard not only served as the local state representative for 17 years, but also among the city’s founding figures and its longtime city attorney. McLaurin is an attorney who has never held elected office and moved to the area relatively recently. Not only that, but he was the target of various legal attacks by the local Republican establishment, including a residency challenge filed by former City Councilmember Gabriel Sterling, and more recent claims of election-paperwork wrongdoing that went out on campaign mailers.

“[Kaufman’s] campaign strategy was for lawyers affiliated with the state GOP to file complaints about me with government agencies, so he and the state GOP could send [a] negative mail saying I was ‘under investigation,’” McLaurin said. “The mail said this even though the State hasn’t taken any formal action on his allies’ complaints. Voters saw through the strategy.”

Kaufman said he expects the legal challenges against McLaurin to continue.

“As we’ve said all along, these are serious investigations and politicians should be expected to follow the law,” he said.

Kaufman believes the North Fulton races were heavily affected by “national issues” and strong Democratic candidates being at the top of the ticket.

“Obviously there was a blue wave in North Fulton and the entire northern arc of metro Atlanta,” he said in an email.

Other local results

Some other key local state House races showed a mix of change and stability, according to unofficial results. In House District 52, Republican incumbent Deborah Silcox fended off Democratic challenger Shea Roberts with 52.33 percent of the vote, while in House District 80, Democrat Matthew Wilson ousted Republican incumbent Meagan Hanson.

-Evelyn Andrews contributed

This story has been updated with comments from Alex Kaufman and Josh McLaurin.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.