Georgia On the Mind

As alert readers know by now, Robert Bentley won the Republican gubernatorial runoff in Alabama, with Terri Sewell winning the 7th district Democratic congressional nomination (tantamount to election), and Martha Roby turning back viral ad icon Rick Barber for the Republican nomination in the 2nd congressional district. My write-up of the results can be found here.

The next big primary state is Georgia, where voters go to the polls next Tuesday, July 20. There are competitive primaries for governor in both parties; and competitive Republican primaries for Congress in no fewer than six districts, with two Democratic congressional primaries that have drawn some attention. Georgia has a 50 percent nomination requirement, which means many contests will go to a runoff on August 10. This is also a state with a history of substantial early voting, though as of last week, mail-in and in-person ballots were down from prior elections, perhaps indicating a low turnout.

The Republican gubernatorial race (incumbent Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue is term-limited) has heated up in the last week, with a bunch of polls, sharp exchanges between candidates, and interventions by national figures. For most of the cycle, the front-runner has been State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, though he’s been considered vulnerable because of long-pending ethics investigations of alleged illegal contributions to his campaign by insurance companies. Three other candidates—former Secretary of State Karen Handel, former congressman Nathan Deal (who has some ethics issues of his own, which appeared to speed his departure from Congress), and state senator Eric Johnson—have been jockeying for a runoff position opposite Oxendine, though at least two polls now show the front-runner slipping into third place. Handel, whose campaign message closely resembles that of South Carolina gubernatorial nominee Nikki Haley (a “conservative reformer” fighting the “corrupt good old boys”), has been the candidate on the move of late, and got priceless attention this week from a Facebook endorsement by Sarah Palin. Deal countered with an endorsement from Georgian Newt Gingrich. Both Oxendine and Deal have been pounding Handel for alleged heresy on abortion and gay rights. And meanwhile, Johnson has been heavily running television ads, and has moved up into the teens in at least one poll. In other words, just about anything could happen on Tuesday, though Handel looks almost sure to have a runoff spot.

In terms of issues, all the GOP candidates have been competing to show avid support for an Arizona-style illegal immigration crackdown (Deal’s made this a signature issue, while Handel has sported an endorsement from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer), and two candidates, Oxendine and Handel, have proposed abolition of the state’s income tax, reflecting the wild popularity of national “Fair Tax” proposals among Georgia Republicans. And all the candidates are hard-core conservatives on cultural issues, though Handel got into a fight with Georgia Right-to-Life by opposing its proposal to restrict IV fertilization procedures.

On the Democratic side, the big question all along has been whether former Gov. Roy Barnes, who lost to Perdue in a big upset eight years ago, can win the primary without a runoff, as most recent polls have suggested he will. Barnes’ most prominent challenger, Attorney General Thurbert Baker, got off to a very late start in television advertising, and is now trying to attract enough support from his fellow African-Americans to deny Barnes the win (African-Americans typically cast close to half the votes in Democratic primaries in Georgia). Baker got a significant boost earlier this week with an endorsement from President Bill Clinton (Baker was a big Human Rights Campaign supporter in 2008), and has been promoting legalization of electronic bingo as a way to raise money for K-12 education. But Barnes has strong African-American support of his own; just today he was endorsed by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Other significant candidates who could soak up some votes include former Secretary of State David Poythress, who’s been running an under-the-radar web-focused campaign, and former state House Democratic leader Dubose Porter, whose wife, Carol, is the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination for Lt. Governor.

On the congressional front, the state’s two white (and Blue Doggy) Democratic House members, Jim Marshall and John Barrow, are as usual considered vulnerable in November. Marshall, whose district went solidly for John McCain, has drawn a strong opponent in state representative Scott Austin, who should win the GOP nomination easily on Tuesday. Barrow, whose district is marginally Democratic even in presidential years, has for the second time drawn a primary challenge from former state representative Regina Thomas, whom he beat 3-1 in 2008. Thomas got some help from in-district anger at Barrow’s vote against health care reform, but his massive financial advantage should get him over the line. Meanwhile, Tea Party-backed candidate Ray McKinney is favored over former fire chief Carl Smith for the right to oppose Barrow, though that race could easily go to a runoff.

There are big and active Republican primaries in the districts of African-American congressmen David Scott and Hank Johnson (who also faces former Dekalb County executive Vernon Jones, something of a party renegade, in the primary but isn’t expected to lose), who has had recent health problems, but Republicans would have to get very lucky to become competitive in either place.

An open seat in the north metro Atlanta 7th district has spawned a mammoth eight-candidate Republican primary to succeed John Linder, with every single candidate endorsing Linder’s “Fair Tax” proposal. Former state representative Clay Cox and former Linder chief of staff Rob Woodall are the favorite to make a runoff, though Christian Right figure Jody Hice also has some support.

And up in the North Georgia 9th district, until recently represented by gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal, the winner of last month’s special election, Tea Party favorite and former state representative Tom Graves, must face pretty much the same field of opponents in the primary, but is expected to win.

In non-Georgia political news, the big development was probably the implosion of the Colorado gubernatorial campaign of former congressman (and GOP front-runner) Scott McInnis, accused of plagiarizing portions of a think-tank paper for which he was grossly overpaid a few years ago. Colorado Republicans are in a quandary; the only other candidate on the primary ballot, Don Maes, has struggled to raise money, and has, ironically, also been cited for campaign finance violations. To hand-pick another viable candidate, party leaders would have to wait for the primary to occur and then beg the winner to step aside.

Ed Kilgore’s PPI Political Memo runs every Tuesday and Friday

Photo credit: Airno’s Photostream