Georgia is one of two GOP Senate races this cycle Democrats are optimistic on. Senator Saxby Chambliss’s decision to not seek reelection has set off a free-for-all GOP primary among Congressmen, businessmen and former politicos to replace him. Meanwhile. Democrats have settled on former non-profit CEO Michelle Nunn (related to the state’s last Democratic Senator). Despite the possibility of the GOP nominating an extreme candidate Nunn can exploit the state is still the GOP’s to lose as the analysis below will show.
Georgia, like many Deep South states has a colorful electoral history. Formerly a bastion of Southern Democrats the state has swung uniformly to the right since 70’s. To put this in context consider that between 1932 and 1960 the state never voted for a Republican. In 1964, when LBJ was crushing Goldwater the state, along with the rest of the Deep South backed Goldwater (his only electoral votes that year). In 68 the state voted for segregationist George Wallace and in 1972 returned to voting Republican for Nixon. In both 76 and 80 the state favored home state hero Jimmy Carter and in 1992 narrowly went for Clinton over HW. In every other Presidential election the state has favored the GOP candidate by varying margins.
Currently the state has a GOP Governor, two GOP Senators, a super-majority of Republicans in both chambers of the state legislature and a Republican holds every other elected statewide office. Republicans also hold nine of the state’s 14 Congressional districts though Republicans plan to heavily contest perennial target Congressman John Barrows. Despite Democrats lack of power in the state they have made strides since 2002 when incumbent Democratic Governor Roy Barnes lost to Republican Sonny Perdue. The electoral map of 2002 and for that matter the 2000 Presidential election still largely defines electoral politics in the state today.
In 2000 George Bush carried the state by 12% and in 2002 Perdue carried the state by 5%. Excluding the fact that Perdue was facing an incumbent the margin of victory was really only based on turnout. In both cases GOP strength in the state came from the Atlanta suburbs and the Northeast and North of the state. Democratic strength came primarily from metro Atlanta and the Southwest of the state. In 2004 the same map emerged though Bush did increase turnout which led to him winning several center state counties and more Southwestern counties. In 2006 Perdue cruised to reelection winning by 19% and winning every county Bush won and than some.
Since 2006 however the state has changed somewhat due to demographic changes. In 2008 President Obama lost the state by a mere five points despite not winning a single county Bush won in 2000 or 2004. Obama’s success in the state came from increased margins in and around Atlanta centered in Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton and won Richmond by a 2/1 margin. GOP turnout in predominately suburban and rural counties was anemic. The reelection map for Chambliss almost perfectly resembled the Presidential map. Chambliss did win a few smaller, suburban counties McCain lost and a drop in turnout around Atlanta hurt Democratic nominee Jim Martin. Still, Democrats were gleeful at the narrow loss.
The state returned to its GOP roots in 2010, easily electing a new GOP Governor, Nathan Deal, over former Democratic Governor Roy Barnes by 10% and knocking off conservative Democrat Jim Marshall in a district centered around Macon. Republicans also almost knocked off Democrat Tim Bishop (AP reports initially said his opponent had won). In 2012 the same map in effect since 2000 appeared but increased turnout in strongly GOP rural and suburban areas helped Romney improve on McCain’s 2008 performance (5%) by almost 3%. More importantly for the GOP in 2012 however was the fact the party won enough seats to have a 3/5ths majority in the state house and one seat shy in the state senate (they have since convinced an independent black senator to caucus with them).
All this brings us to 2014’s Senate race. The GOP field is crowded with GOP Congressmen Paul Broun, Jack Kingston and Phil Gingrey. Former Secretary of State Karen Handel and former Governor Sonny Perdue’s son, David Perdue, are also in the mix. A slew of lesser known candidates are also in the mix. Unsurprisingly, the crowded GOP field has raised Democratic hopes they can take the state especially if Nunn successfully pulls off appearing as a centrist Democrat able to win cross-over votes. Further worrying the GOP is the fact that the state utilizes a run-off system where if no candidate in a primary or general election hits 50% the top two vote getters face off in a run-off. Political insiders worry this could allow an extremely conservative candidate like Gingrey or Broun to unite the Tea Party vote and knock off a more moderate conservative in the run-off.
Even if this scenario were to appear however the state would still be the GOP’s to lose. Democrats in federal elections since 2000 have been unable to broaden their support beyond majority-minority counties and metro Atlanta. More worrisome for any Democrat running as a centrist in a potentially competitive race, the GOP leaning Atlanta suburbs have shown to be incredibly resistant to Democratic candidates overtures. Nunn’s campaign is likely to focus heavily on suburban women in these suburbs keeping with the Democratic Party’s “War on Women” theme.
For the various Republicans competing for their party nod their more immediate issue may be geography and not ideology. Congressman Kingston represents a more rural, Southern Congressional district meaning he will have to branch out his support to win the party nod. Broun represents a central district that tends to have lower turnout in elections. Gingrey represents a suburban Atlanta district and of the Congressmen appears best positioned to reach voters in the suburbs. Handel as former Secretary of State and 2010 Republican Gubernatorial runner-up maintains decent name ID statewide. As for David Perdue, he has low name ID but plenty of cash to spend on building it up. The lesser known candidates have yet to show they can compete seriously in the race. Most of the candidates agree on the issues and the campaign will likely be decided by degrees on the issues and turnout.
The state and national GOP would prefer that a more moderate conservative like Handel or Kingston make it out of the primary. A business friendly Republican like Perdue would likely not struggle against Nunn. But Gingrey and Broun are known for being cultural warriors and making gaffes concerning Republicans. The run-off primary does not help assuage Republicans concerns.
Still, the undeniable fact is that while GOP has shifted a bit to the left since 2006 it is far from being a perennial Southern battleground like Florida or even an emerging one like North Carolina. Rather, the state still has a pronounced GOP lean and any Democratic candidate running has to find a way to counteract this fact. Unlike Kentucky where Democratic candidate Allison Grimes can count on a strong and vibrant state Democratic Party to buoy her efforts no such vibrancy exists in the GA Democratic party. Perhaps in time Democrats such as Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed can do this, maybe even Nunn can jump-start it next year by pulling off the upset but until than GA remains a GOP state. At best, in 2014 Democrats and Nunn can make it slightly less so.