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Georgia Primary Preview

Georgia will have a very active primary day tomorrow, with competitive gubernatorial primaries in both parties, an assortment of congressional primaries, and even some anticipatory 2012 presidential skirmishing.

Despite all the activity, turnout could be pretty low (25-30% is the most common estimate), and voters have been very slow to focus on these elections, resulting in a lot of last-minute turbulence and uncertainty. This is a state that makes early voting relatively easy, but it appears not much more than 100,000 early ballots were cast, out of 4.9 million registered voters. Since Georgia has a 50% nomination requirement, runoffs will be held on August 10 for a variety of offices.

The gubernatorial contest has gathered by far the most attention. Georgia had nothing but Democratic governors from the early days of Reconstruction until 2002, when party-switching Republican Sonny Perdue upset incumbent Democrat Roy Barnes in a contest that showed exactly how much the demographic changes of the 1990s had changed the state politically. (Republicans also captured the state Senate that year–winning the House two years later–and knocked off Sen. Max Cleland).

After a surprisingly easy re-election in 2006, Perdue is term-limited, and the highly fractious and well-populated Republican primary to replace him is playing out against the background of a comeback attempt by Barnes, who has his own primary to navigate.

On the Republican side, the front-runner until very recently has been former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, who was first elected to that post in 1994, and enjoyed high name ID and a good head start in fundraising. The Oxendine campaign, however, has been haunted by ethics allegations. Early in the campaign, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Oxendine had received $120,000 in contributions from the owner of two Georgia-based insurance companies (which of course, he is responsible for regulating), operating through Alabama-based PACs. Although his campaign returned the money (and went on to raise about $3 million) this charge is still under review by the state ethics commission. But the commission will not hold formal hearings on the subject until after the primary. The AJC came in with fresh allegations of linkage between Oxendine’s fundraising and regulatory activities just the other day.

For most of the campaign, the three other viable candidates in the field–former Secretary of State Karen Handel, former Congressman Nathan Deal, and state senator Eric Johnson–have been jockeying to secure a runoff spot opposite Oxendine, while also hoping the front-runner’s ethics problems would finally begin to affect his numbers. The salience of ethics issues was considerably increased when the state’s Republican House speaker, Glenn Richardson, had to resign in disgrace late last year after a lurid sex-with-a-utilities-lobbyist scandal, which indirectly affected the reputations of Johnson (chairman of a legislative ethics committee that refused to pursue the scandal early on) and Deal (Richardson’s candidate for governor). Then Deal was hit with his own ethics problem, allegedly resigning early from Congress to curtail an investigation of a state contract obtained under questionable circumstances by one of his companies back home.

All this unseemliness positioned Karen Handel very well to run a virtual carbon-copy of the campaign run by SC’s Nikki Haley (until sexual allegations and attacks on her ethnic and religious background took over the SC race and vaulted her to a landslide runoff victory), identifying herself as the “conservative reformer” taking on the corrupt and ideologically suspect (both Oxendine and Deal started their careers as Democrats) good ol’ boys. Another parallel is that Handel, like Haley, is the protege of her state’s term-limited incumbent governor (more of an advantage in Georgia than SC, given Mark Sanford’s recent issues). Handel’s main problem, like Haley’s, was poor fundraising, and the former Secretary of State was also haunted by positions on cultural issues, especially gay/lesbian rights (she once made a small contribution to the Log Cabin Republicans, not a popular group among Georgia conservatives), she took early in her own career, when she was running for office in relatively liberal Fulton County (Atlanta). Handel also got hit hard by Georgia’s influential right-to-life lobby, which blasted her for supporting rape-and-incest exceptions to a hypothetical abortion ban, and for opposing proposals to sharply restrict IV fertility clinics (a touchy personal issue, since Handel and her husband reportedly have tried without success to have children).

Aside from ethics, abortion and gay rights, the immigration furor touched off by Arizona has emerged as important in the Georgia gubernatorial race (not a surprise, since Georgia is a state with a highly visible but politically weak Hispanic population). Deal was the first to try to capitalize on it, but the other candidates moved in lockstep to the same position, and Handel scored a coup late in the campaign when she was endorsed by AZ Gov. Jan Brewer (a former fellow Secretary-of-State).

Finally, in a truly distinctive Georgia twist, two Republican candidates have adapted the highly popular (among conservatives, particularly in Georgia, where Rep. John Linder and talk-show host Neal Boortz have incessantly promoted it) national “Fair Tax” proposal to state politics. Both Handel and Oxendine have advocated the abolition of the state income tax, which accounts for about half of all state revenues. Neither has made it clear what, exactly, they would do to replace those revenues, and either might be vulnerable in a runoff or general election to charges that they would have to massively increase sales taxes, especially given chronic recent state budget deficits. Abolishing income taxes, of course, strikes a very strong chord not just with long-time “Fair Tax” fans, but with Tea Party activists.

As the primary has approached, the many months of stability in the Republican contest collapsed, and polls have shown a great deal of flux. [Note: see the UPDATE at the bottom of this post]. Having held back on advertising due to financial limitations, Handel has been coming on strong, and with the same impeccable timing she showed in South Carolina, Sarah Palin gave Handel priceless free media by endorsing her last week. Deal immediately encountered with an endorsement by Georgia’s own Newt Gingrich, who has also cut an ad for his former House colleague. Johnson’s heavy TV ad spending seems to finally be paying off with a bit of a late surge, and he’s also emulated Alabama Republican gubernatorial nominee Robert Bentley by running a positive campaign and criticizing other candidates for personal attacks. The long-awaited Oxendine collapse is arguably well-underway, and the last two polls (from Mason-Dixon and Insider Advantage show Handel surging into the lead, with Deal and Oxendine battling for second place and Johnson moving up into double digits for the first time. A late Rasmussen poll shows Handel and Deal tied at 25%, with Oxendine hanging close at 20% and Johnson at 13%.

In this highly competitive environment, Oxendine and Deal have both intensified their attacks on Handel’s social views, presumably trying to counteract the impact of the Palin endorsement on hard-core social conservatives, and Palin herself has recorded robocalls defending Handel as a “pro-life and pro-family” conservative. The rhetoric has grown very heated, with Oxendine and Deal running ads calling Handel a “liberal,” and Handel’s campaign calling Oxendine “the most corrupt politician in Georgia’s history” (much earlier, prominent Handel supporter Erick Erickson of RedState pledged to vote for Barnes if Oxendine won the Republican nomination).

Geography could matter a lot in the primary results; Deal’s base in in the North Georgia region he represented in Congress, while Handel is strong in metro Atlanta; these areas are where the bulk of Republican primary voters live. Johnson, from Savannah, has a base in South Georgia. But all in all, almost anything could happen.

The Democratic gubernatorial contest has been much quieter than the GOP’s. Barnes has been the prohibitive favorite all along, with the main mystery being whether he could be forced into a runoff. His opponents all have strong resumes. David Poythress, who has served in a variety of statewide posts dating back to the 1980s, was the first in the field and has attracted some national netroots support, but has struggled to raise money or make much of a mark in the polls. Former state House Democratic Leader Dubose Porter has positioned himself as a traditional moderate-to-conservative Georgia Democrat, but has gone nowhere since Barnes jumped into the race; Porter’s main distinction is that his wife, Carol Porter, has become the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor, a relatively powerful position in this state. But the main challenger to Barnes is Attorney General Thurbert Baker, an African-American who has quietly been elected and re-elected to his position three times, after serving as Zell Miller’s floor leader in the state House.

Baker’s obvious strategy is to make the runoff via an appeal to African-Americans, who will make up an estimated 40-50% of the Democratic primary electorate (these are all rough estimates, because Georgia does not have registration by party, making both primaries “open”). But his initial law-and-order message, compounded by a high-profile case in which Baker pursued appeals to secure the jailing of an African-American teenager for consensual sex (or so-called statutory rape) with another teenager, has cut into his popularity with that community. Baker finally started running TV ads late in the campaign, and has staked a lot on a proposal to legalize electronic bingo (a big issue in neighboring Alabama) to fund improvements in K-12 education. He also received a well-publicized endorsement from Bill Clinton, who was clearly thanking Baker for his steadfast support of Hillary Clinton in 2008. But Barnes had a big head start on TV, and has attracted a number of prominent African-American endorsements (most notably new Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed). Both candidates are from metro Atlanta, so geography should not matter much.

In contrast to the instability of public opinion in the GOP contest, the four public polls (Mason-Dixon, Insider Advantage, Rasmussen and Survey USA) of the Democratic race taken since Independence Day have all shown Barnes at between 54-56%, and Baker at between 15-20%, with a significant undecided vote. With Barnes looking very competitive for the general election and Republicans tearing each other apart, Democrats appear to scent an unlikely red-state 2010 victory, and that should benefit the former governor tomorrow.

It’s worth noting that this gubernatorial race is one of those that could have a major impact on redistricting. With Georgia due to pick up an additional congressional seat, and with two currently Democratic districts being very marginal, a Democratic gubernatorial win could break up a significant Republican gerrymander.

Speaking of Congress, one of Georgia’s two perennially vulnerable white Democratic Members of Congress, Blue Dog John Barrow of the 12th district, faces a rematch with 2008 primary challenger Regina Thomas, a former state legislator, who is banking on liberal (and particularly African-American) anger at Barrow’s vote against health car reform. But as in 2008, the incumbent has a vast financial advantage over the challenger, and Thomas is likely to attract little more than a protest vote. The Republican primary in the 12th, however, is a wide-open multi-candidate affair that will probably go to a runoff; the candidates most likely to get there are Tea Party favorite Ray McKinney and former Savannah-area fire chief Carl Smith. This Augusta-Savannah-based district has been narrowly carried by the last four Democratic presidential candidates.

The other vulnerable white Democrat, Jim Marshall of the central-south Georgia eight district, has successfully overcome his district’s Republican leanings through several tough challenges. Another Blue Dog who opposed health reform, Marshall did manage to avoid a serious primary opponent, but his almost-certain general election opponent, state Rep. Austin Scott (who dropped out of the governor’s race to take on Marshall) is a well-financed and formidable candidate.

Two heavily Republican House districts are also holding competitive primaries, though one of them, the 9th, features an incumbent, Tea Party favorite Tom Graves, who recently won a special election in the district to replace Nathan Deal. Barring odd turnout patterns, Graves should hold on for nomination to a full term, though special election runoff opponent Lee Hawkins, with a strong geographic base in Hall County, could force Graves into yet another runoff, particularly given simmering publicity about a banking scandal involving the incumbent.

Meanwhile, in the North Metro Atlanta 7th district, longtime arch-conservative incumbent John Linder is retiring, and eight candidates are vying for the GOP nomination to face him. Unsurprisingly, all eight have pledged support for Linder’s signature “Fair Tax” proposal to replace the federal income tax with a national consumption tax. The front-runners and the candidates with the most financial resources are former state Rep. Clay Cox and former Linder chief-of-staff Rob Woodall. Cox, who has been endorsed by the three top Georgia statewide officials (Gov. Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, and House Speaker David Ralston) is the favorite, and could win without a runoff, though the plethora of candidates suggests that’s a bit of a long shot.

There is a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, but Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond (who, like Thurbert Baker, is an African-Americans who has won statewide elections three times) is the heavy favorite for the nomination to oppose incumbent Johnny Isakson.

Retirements, resignations and candidates running for higher office have opened up an unusual number of down-ballot statewide positions, including Attorney General, Secretary of State, Agriculture Commissioner, Labor Commissioner, and State School Superintendent. There’s not enough space here to go through those races, but very competitive primaries are going on in both parties for AG and SoS.

Polls close in Georgia statewide at 7:00 p.m. Aside from the early voting issues mentioned earlier, Georgia is operating under a controversial photo-ID requirement that is an important part of Karen Handel’s conservative resume from her tenure as Secretary of State. This could have an impact on minority turnout, but its implications are more likely to play out in November.

UPDATE: Magellan Strategies has released a last-minute poll of the GOP gubernatorial primary that suggests an intensification of the recent trends in the race. It shows Karen Handel blowing out to a huge lead, with 38%; Nathan Deal is second at 20%; Eric Johnson has continued his late surge, and now has 17%; and astonishingly, long-time front-runner John Oxendine has dropped all the way to a poor fourth at 12%.

Just three weeks ago, I was on a panel in Georgia with a highly-regarded former Republican legislator and pundit (I won’t embarrass him by mentioning his name) who suggested that Oxendine might win without a runoff, and that Handel, handicapped by money problems, might well fade. He also said Eric Johnson could enjoy a late surge, so he got one out of three predictions right. The point is that this race has really upset expectations, particularly if Magellan has got it right. And it’s all highly reminiscent of SC, where Nikki Haley’s late surge looked a lot like Handel’s. Since Handel has not been accused of marital infidelity or attacked for her ethnicity or religion, there’s little question Sarah Palin will get a lot of credit, deserved or not, if Handel does romp to a strong first-place finish tomorrow. And if her runoff opponent is Nathan Deal, we’ll see a rare and fascinating surrogate confrontation between two potential 2012 presidential candidates, right on Newt Gingrich’s home turf, and it could get very, very ugly.