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Cage Match in Georgia

The primary runoff in Georgia is primarily a Republican affair (the only statewide or congressional Democratic runoff is for the Secretary of State position). And the marquee contest, the gubernatorial runoff, has been a bitter cage match between former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who finished first in the seven-candidate primary with 34%, and former congressman Nathan Deal, who finished second with 23%.

Aside from the very personal shots the two candidates have been taking at each other (spurring Republican fears of a divided party going into a tough race against Democratic nominee Roy Barnes), the contest has developed a national dimension, punctuated in the home stretch when 2008 Georgia presidential primary winner Mike Huckabee campaigned with Deal (Newt Gingrich has also visibly supported Deal) while Palin appeared today with Handel. Although Atlanta-based Handel has a geographical advantage, very close polls and the likelihood of low and erratic turnout indicate anything could happen.

The bitterness of this contest is nothing new. Handel’s campaign message from the get-go (strikingly similar to that of another Palin endorsee, Nikki Haley of SC) has been that she’s a “conservative reformer” taking on the corrupt, unreliably conservative (and in some cases ex-Democratic) good ol’ boy establishment of the GOP. She raised some serious hackles in the ranks of Republican state legislators when she continued the corruption charges without interruption after House Speaker Glenn Richardson was dumped in the wake of a sex-with-a-utility-lobbyist scandal. So it’s not surprising that Deal has been endorsed by a majority of Republican state legislators (including Richardson’s replacement, Speaker David Ralston, who hails from Deal’s North Georgia stomping grounds), along with most of his former colleagues in the congressional delegation. A contributing factor to resentment of Handel’s anti-establishment message is her unofficial sponsorship by lame duck Governor Sonny Perdue, who is held in low regard in many elite Republican circles.

While Handel’s “conservative reformer” riff has represented her main claim to the much-prized “true conservative” mantle in this race, Deal has gone very specifically ideological, siding with the Georgia Right-to-Life organization’s angry attacks on Handel for favoring rape-and-incest exceptions to a hypothetical abortion ban, and for opposing GRTL’s proposal to restrict IV fertility clinics (a very personal issue for Handel, who is childless after years of trying to get pregnant). Deal has also invested serious television ad time to attacks on Handel for alleged pro-gay-rights positions taken earlier in her career when she was a local elected official in Atlanta.

With Handel calling Deal a corrupt, superannuated hack, and Deal calling Handel a lying liberal (these are not exaggerations of the rhetoric), it seems reasonably obvious that Handel’s trying to boost turnout with some populist heat and a special appeal to women, while Deal’s hoping to appeal to hard-core conservatives who are sure to vote, particularly supporters of the losing candidates in the primary. Polls indicate that Deal’s doing a pretty good job of attracting such supporters in middle and south Georgia, outside his own North Georgia base and Handel’s metro Atlanta base (though he did not receive a much-hoped-for endorsement from third-place finisher Eric Johnson of Savannah).

Only 52,000 early votes had been cast in the runoff as of one day before the deadline, possibly indicating a very low turnout (though the early voting period for the three-week runoff campaign was unusually short). So the late fireworks–including a full-throated attack on the “good ol’ boys” generally and GRTL specifically by Palin–could matter.

The other factor influencing the size and shape of the statewide runoff vote is where other runoff races are occurring. It’s very helpful to Deal that there’s a runoff in his old 9th district congressional seat; it’s the fourth time in just three months that Deal’s successor, Tom Graves, has faced former state senator Lee Hawkins (in a special election when Deal resigned, in a special election runoff, and then in the regular primary and runoff). Graves has struggled with reports of legal and financial issues involving his business, but is benefitting now from help from the GOP congressional leadership, along with the Club for Growth and his longstanding ties with the Tea Party movement. Hawkins main hope is probably that he’s from Hall County, as is Nathan Deal, so a very big home-town vote for the gubernatorial candidate could help the congressional underdog as well.

But another competitive Republican congressional primary is in Handel’s political wheelhouse of metro Atlanta, the 7th district runoff to succeed John Linder. The first-place finisher, former Linder chief of staff, Rob Woodall, is expected to defeat the surprise second-place finisher, Christian Right activist and radio talk show host Jody Hice, if only because Woodall’s been endorsed by Linder and is from vote-heavy Gwinnett County. Hice, a Southern Baptist minister famous for defying IRS regulations restricting electioneering from the pulpit, drew attention this year with billboards reading: “Had Enough of Obama’s Change?” with a hammer-and-sickle replacing the “C” in “Change.”

The third GOP congressional runoff, in Blue Dog Democrat John Barrow’s 12th district, which runs from Augusta down to Savannah and was narrowly carried by Barack Obama, is harder to predict, with two candidates claiming the Tea Party and “true conservative” mantle engaged in an increasingly nasty contest. Unsuccessful 2008 candidate Ray McKinney, who finished first in the primary, is expected to defeat volunteer fire chief Carl Smith, mainly because of solid self-financing and a more visible district-wide campaign. The winner will be an underdog against Barrow, who’s been busily raising money and voting against the Democratic leadership on many high-profile issues (he carried less than 60% against underfunded liberal primary opponent Regina Thomas).

One other runoff that could have an impact on the overall turnout pattern is the Republican Attorney General’s race, where the former chief executive of the large metro Atlanta suburb of Cobb County, Sam Olens, is competing, and could draw a strong vote from the home folks. Cobb, like Gwinett, was handily carried by Karen Handel in the primary.

As noted above, the polls in the gubernatorial runoff show a close contest. Georgia-based Insider Advantage, polling on August 5, showed a 46-46 tie, with Deal running surprisingly well in metro Atlanta. A three-day poll by Mason-Dixon released about the same time showed Handel up 47-42, with a significant gender gap helping her among women. And then at the last minute, the Republican firm of Landmark Communications, which had an earlier survey showing Handel up 46-37, released a new poll showing Deal pulling ahead 44-42, with virtually no gender gap.

It should be an interesting election night. Polls close at 7:00 EDT.