While November is still six months away, Georgians will head to the polls on Tuesday, May 20 to pick their party's nominees for that election. If May 20 seems early, that's because it is. As the result of a July 2013 ruling by U.S. District Judge Steve Jones, the Georgia Primary Election for federal offices, usually held in July, was ordered moved to June 3 to accommodate absentee voting by members of the military. A compromise was reached moving the election to May 20 and included all state and local candidates, as well as federal candidates. The runoff period has also been extended from three weeks to two months to allow absentee ballots to be sent and returned. The 2014 Primary Runoff will be Tuesday, July 22.
If Jason Carter, the former State Senator and grandson of former Georgia Governor and United States President Jimmy Carter, is able to pull off the upset and defeat incumbent Republican Governor Nathan Deal this November, Carter will face something no Georgia Governor has ever faced in modern times; a legislature controlled by the other party. That's because the fight for control of the Georgia General Assembly ended at noon on Friday, March 7 when candidate qualifying ended for the 2014 elections.
In the Georgia House of Representatives, only 33 House seats out of 180 are seeing a partisan challenge. Ninety-six House seats are facing no opposition or a primary challenge only, which will return a Republican House member next January, even if it is not the incumbent. On the other side of the aisle, 50 Democratic House seats are safe, either unopposed or with only a primary challenge. So even if the Democrats were somehow able to win all 33 of those challenges, the partisan divide in 2015 will be 96R - 83D – 1I. The one independent is State Representative Rusty Kidd of Milledgeville.
In the Georgia Senate, an extremely good Democratic year in Georgia could switch the balance of power, but early reports suggest that the Democrats are not expected to have that good of a year. Out of the 56 State Senate seats up for re-election, 16 face a partisan challenge. Currently, the Republican Caucus controls 38 seats while the Democrats have 18. The Republicans would have to lose 10 of the 13 seats being challenged in November, while the three Democrats would need to survive theirs, for the Democrats to take control of the Georgia Senate for the first time since 2003.
Despite control of the Georgia legislature in 2015 being almost a foregone conclusion, there are still a number of primary races to watch for their future impact on Georgia. Given most districts in Georgia are narrowly drawn to favor one party or the other, the primary in many instances decides who will hold the office in 2015.
The closest watched race in the state is the Republican Primary for the open U.S. Senate seat created by the retirement of Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss. The race has national repercussions as, for the GOP to have any shot at regaining the majority in the U.S. Senate after eight years, the Republicans have to keep Georgia in the red column.
The large GOP field is made up of three current Congressmen, Paul Broun (10th District), Phil Gingrey (11th District) and Jack Kingston (1st District); David Perdue, a business leader who is also the cousin of Georgia's former Republican Governor, Sonny Perdue; and former Georgia Secretary of State, Karen Handel, who fell short of the GOP nomination for Governor four years ago by 2,514 votes out of nearly 580,000.
From that crowded field, polls have been tightening around Kingston, who has the backing of the Washington, D.C. Republican establishment, and recently received the endorsement and financial support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Karen Handel, who has the advantage of having run state-wide twice before and has had former Alaskan Governor and Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer in Georgia campaigning for her; and David Perdue, who counts not only on the former Governor in his corner, but a who's who of the Georgia Republican power base including Alec Poitevint, the former Chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, who also served as Chairman of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Perdue has managed to maintain a lead in the recent polls with Jack Kingston close behind. But as early voting has started, the fight for second place and a chance at the runoff has been slipping away from Kingston with a late surge by Handel. Expect Kingston, who has been leading in fundraising, to make a strong media push for the finish.
The winner of the Republican Primary will likely face Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of former U.S. Senator and retired King & Spalding partner Sam Nunn. Nunn has a primary of her own to get through, but is expected to win handily without a runoff.
The domino effect created with three Congressmen leaving to run for the Senate has created dynamic races in the Augusta and Athens based district of Paul Broun, the Buckhead, Cobb, Cherokee and Bartow County district of Phil Gingrey and the coastal and rural southeast district of Jack Kingston. All of these districts are heavily Republican leaning and are expected to return a Republican to Congress in the fall.
In Broun's 10th district, seven Republicans are facing off, including former State Representative and House Caucus Chairman Donna Sheldon; Mike Collins, a businessman and son of former Republican Congressman Mac Collins; and minister and radio host Jody Hice, who feel short in the runoff for Georgia's 7th Congressional district four years ago against now Congressman Rob Woodall. Polls have been scarce for this district and the last one available taken in early March showed Collins in the lead followed closely by Hice and then Sheldon far behind. The money advantage goes to Collins who, at the end of the first quarter, had nearly double the cash on hand, $214,096, of his next closest opponent, Donna Sheldon who had $128,398. Cash on hand is the amount of funds a candidate has in the bank to spend at the end of the reporting period.
In Gingrey's 11th district, six Republicans are facing off including attorney and former U.S. Congressman Bob Barr, who was defeated for re-election in 2002 when he challenged fellow Republican Congressman John Linder; attorney and the former Georgia House Majority Whip, Ed Lindsey; pilot and former State Senator Barry Loudermilk; and businesswoman and former Director of the Governor's Office of Workforce Development, Tricia Pridemore. Polls as recently as last week showed a fluid race with Barr and Loudermilk fighting for the top spot and Pridemore in 3rd followed by Lindsey. Pridemore was leading in the fundraising race though with $238,645 on hand.
In Kingston's 1st district, six Republicans are also running including Darwin Carter, who served in several positions in the Department of Agriculture during the Reagan Administration and twice ran for Georgia Agriculture Commissioner; Buddy Carter, a pharmacist who has served as Mayor of Pooler, GA and State Senator; former State Senator and Gubernatorial candidate Jeff Chapman; businessman, former aide to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Republican nominee for Secretary of State, John McCallum; and Savannah surgeon Bob Johnson. Buddy Carter is leading in the fundraising with $461,096 on hand, but Johnson is not far behind with $408,296 nor is McCallum with $372,801.
Outside of those open districts, there are two other races being closely watched. One is the Democrat Primary in the 4th Congressional District and the other is the Republican Primary in the 12th District.
In the DeKalb County based 4th District. Congressman Hank Johnson is facing what many observers feel is a strong challenge by DeKalb County Sheriff Tom Brown. Brown's fundraising has been strong and at the end of the first quarter had more on hand than the incumbent Johnson with $147,296 to Johnson's $92,537.
In the 12th District, the rural eastern Georgia district of Democrat Congressman John Barrow, five Republicans are running to challenge one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the U.S. House. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report classifies the District as "Leans Democrat," but Republican Mitt Romney carried the district with 55% of the vote in 2012, and the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm for the House Republican Caucus, seeing the opportunity, started early with an ad buy in the district more than a year ago.
Statewide, the only race where no one is sure who will be left at the end is the Republican Primary for Georgia's State School Superintendent. Republican incumbent John Barge has stepped down after one term to challenge Governor Nathan Deal, leading nine Republicans and three Democrats to challenge for their Party's nomination. With Georgia's education standards a top issue in attracting business and development to the state, there are concerns this race and the candidates are not getting the attention they deserve.
On the Democrat side, State Representative Alisha Thomas Morgan of Cobb County is favored, while no clear front runner has emerged on the Republican side. With that being the case, there is concern that the two who end up in the runoff may simply be the top two names on the ballot. In that case, it would be Mary Kay Bacallao, a Mercer University professor and member of the Fayette County School Board, and former Hall County Commissioner and attorney Ashley Bell. The fundraising race tells a different story with businessman and founder of the Atlanta Beat, a professional woman's soccer team, Fitz Johnson with $214,045.85 on hand, followed by Bell with $31,929.09 and DeKalb County School Board member Nancy Jester with $3,781.88. Bacallao had only $157.80 on hand.
Shifting to the Georgia General Assembly, two influential state senators are facing what is likely the fight of their careers, Senator Jack Murphy of Forsyth County and Senator Don Balfour in Gwinnett. Two years ago, Murphy, the former Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, won re-election in 2012 against a relative unknown by a razor thin 114 votes. Murphy had kept his Chairman position for two years despite a federal investigation involving the failed Alpharetta based Integrity Bank. This year he is facing two opponents including Lauren McDonald, the former Coroner of Forsyth County and son of Public Service Commissioner Lauren "Bubba" McDonald.
In Gwinnett County, Don Balfour of Snellville is the longest serving Republican in the Senate. The Waffle House executive and once powerful Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee faced a criminal trial last year on corruption charges stemming from accepting reimbursements for legislative business when he wasn't doing legislative work. A jury cleared him of all criminal wrongdoing, but serious challenges from Gwinnett County Commissioner Mike Beaudreau and Lawrenceville City Councilman P. K. Martin could end Balfour's legislative career after 22 years.