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What to Watch For in Georgia’s Republican Senate Primary

Six states are holding primaries Tuesday: Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Oregon and Pennsylvania. But the highest-profile race is the Republican U.S. Senate primary in Georgia. Here’s what you need to know:

Stakes

The candidates will be vying to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss. The winner is likely to face all-but-certain Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn.

The rules of the game

In Georgia primaries, the leading vote-getter only advances straight to the general election by gaining more than 50 percent of the vote. Failing that, a runoff between the top two finishers will be held July 22.

The (viable) candidates

David Perdue, a Georgia Ports Authority member and former CEO of the variety chain Dollar General, is probably the least conservative contender in a field of conservative candidates. Perdue has almost 27 percent of the vote, according to the Pollster average.

Jack Kingston is one of three U.S. representatives running. Voting records, as measured by DW-Nominate scores, place him as the least conservative of the three, and he has been backed by the Chamber of Commerce. Polls show Kingston pulling about 18 percent of the vote.

Karen Handel is perhaps most difficult to peg. Is she an establishment candidate or an outsider? She hasn’t made the incendiary comments that fellow candidates U.S. Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey have, and she’s the former secretary of state. But she does have outsider cred, including the backing of Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, and Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator. The Pollster average has Handel at 16 percent.

Broun and Gingrey are, by almost any measure, the most conservative and viable candidates in the race. Broun, a tea party favorite, has gained national attention for inflammatory rhetoric on a range of issues. Gingrey, a doctor, has failed to differentiate himself from the field, languishing in fifth for most of the campaign. Polls show Broun with 11 percent of the vote and Gingrey with 9 percent.

Past polling accuracy

Some contests are harder to survey than others — and primary polling is often awful — but pollsters have done well in the past three major GOP primaries in Georgia. It might be a fluke, but in those past three high-profile statewide races, just one of 11 major candidates has seen more than a 3-point difference between his vote share and his projected polling percentage (with undecideds allocated proportionally). That was Eric Johnson in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary, who finished with 20 percent instead of 14 percent.

Where the votes are coming from

Georgia has 159 counties, but 50 percent of the vote comes from about 14 counties. The most votes are found in the suburbs of Atlanta, in Cobb and Gwinnett counties, and in Atlanta (Fulton County). Together, these three counties will account for between 20 and 25 percent of the vote. In 2010, the seven counties with the most votes came from the Atlanta area. Chatham County in the southeast, home to Savannah, had the most ballots outside of Atlanta, accounting for about 2.5 percent of the vote.

Key county

Gwinnett will probably be the most telling. It has a ton of votes (9 percent of the total in the 2010 gubernatorial primary), and in every major competitive statewide primary since 2008, the vote there was within 5 percentage points of the statewide vote for all of the top three candidates. In other words, the vote in Gwinnett is a good indicator for how things will shake out (although it’s worth noting that Broun represents a small portion of the county).

Home bases

As we follow the results, we would expect candidates to come in first or second in their home territory. If they don’t, they may be done for.

Broun represents the 10th congressional district in the eastern and northeastern part of the state. Broun fully represents Barrow and Walton counties and partially represents Columbia, Gwinnett, Henry and Newton counties (his district also includes other less populous jurisdictions).

Gingrey is the congressman for the 11th district, in the northern suburbs of Atlanta. His district covers all of Bartow and Cherokee counties, and parts of Cobb and Fulton.

Handel was the chairwoman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners. In 2010, she outperformed her statewide vote percentage by more than 10 points in the populous counties of Dekalb, Fulton and Hall — all in the Atlanta area. She also did well in Richmond County, home to Augusta.

Kingston represents the 1st congressional district, which covers the southeast part of the state, including Savannah. Top voting counties in this district include Glynn and Chatham.

Perdue is from the southeast, though almost all of the polling indicates he’ll do best in and around Atlanta. Look for him to do well in most of the counties that Handel did well in in 2010; he should be beating her in these counties.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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