The field has been winnowed from 14 to three. Among the many who “would be” Georgia’s next governor, three remain standing, with the GOP contest still to be settled on Tuesday, Aug. 10.
Primary turn-out was an apathetic 25 percent, and just more than 1million of Georgia’s nearly 4 million registered voters casting ballots in either the Democratic or Republican primaries. Former Gov. Roy Barnes ran up an impressive victory over a wide and qualified field of Democratic candidates—but his raw vote count with 66 percent of the Democratic Primary votes was 259,482. Following a two-week surge of almost 20 points, and finishing first with 34 percent of the vote, former Secretary of State Karen Handel received 231,990 votes.
Though a divided GOP would be easy for Barnes to conquer, if the GOP vote coalesces behind the run-off winner, Gov. Barnes has some structural challenges to overcome in the Georgia vote. He will have to make a whole lot more Red eyes Blue than he was able to do in 2002. The state is arguably more Republican now than then, and he will not have the advantages of incumbency at his back.
Making the GOP run-off interesting are a handful of factors. Former 9th District Congressman Nathan Deal hails from arguably the most conservative district in the state. The 9th went 70 percent-plus for Sen. John McCain in the presidential election of 2008. In addition to the gubernatorial race, 9th District voters are energized and heading back to the polls for the third time this summer to select the congressman to succeed Deal. Freshman incumbent Congressman Tom Graves (who won a June Special Election) has a strong advantage, but he hasn’t closed the deal yet—and that may help the Real Deal.
Surprisingly for Georgia elections, the major endorsements that most impacted voters hail from out-of-state. Newly visible as a spokesperson against illegal immigration, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer gave Handel her nod, with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin following with a Facebook post and later Robocall supporting fellow “Mama Grizzly” Handel.
And while Handel rounded up an impressive stable during the GOP’s “year of the woman,” Deal got his own significant endorsement from a prominent former Georgian. Former House Speaker and Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich (now a resident of Virginia), weighed in, along with the majority of Georgia’s GOP congressional delegation supporting Deal.
Barnes continues to raise funds, a ruckus and have a bit of good ol’ fashioned political fun, making fun of Georgia’s current GOP leadership team, implanting micro-chips in folks brains and possibly making Georgia a laughing stock. Barnes has the will, will have the money and has the ability to govern. Can Georgia Democrats muster the votes?
The first test of that might be the coming GOP primary runoff. During the primary, nearly 3 million Georgia voters sat on their hands and cast no ballots. Georgia is an open primary state. Voters may vote in either primary, and if they didn’t vote in the primary, they may vote in either runoff. The Georgia GOP demonstrated its ability to marshal cross-over voting several years ago here in the 4th Congressional District, and the first loss for then Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.
Turn-out is likely to drop considerably more for the runoff. The GOP gubernatorial nomination will likely be decided by roughly half-a-million voters. A crossover by several thousand typically Democratic voters could easily help select whichever opponent Barnes and the Democratic Party think would be easier to beat.
Though there is a down-ticket statewide Democratic run-off to select the secretary of state nominee to succeed Handel, Georgia Democrats should have their eyes on the larger prize—a return to the governor’s mansion.
Handel has had luck, some new fundraising success and even unexpected endorsements from more local elected officials and Georgia legislators. Deal is the safer, more traditional GOP standard bearer—but this is a year when safe bets aren’t. Barnes has always been a pretty good poker player, if his party is following his lead, they will be crossing the street, in the 9th District and elsewhere next week to pull for Deal.
Handel, the newly anointed “Mama Grizzly” is probably gonna be a tougher player in the fall. Barnes also knows that as Georgia has not previously had a woman as governor, and 55 percent of registered voters are female, that he is back to another one of those “structural” challenges when it comes to counting Red and Blue or perhaps blue and pink this fall.
Bill Crane is a DeKalb County native and business owner, living in Scottdale, Georgia. He also serves as chief political analyst and commentator for 11Alive News and WSB Radio, News/Talk 750. Contact Bill Crane at Bill@dekalbchamp.com.