A campaign framed in disintegrating celluloid

By Tom Baxter

(Dear Readers: The results are in now, and there will be plenty for everyone to chew on for a week or two, which is about how long I plan to be gone. See you again in June.)

U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey has not had an easy time in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, but in his last, desperate ad of the season, his campaign produced the image which, far more than crying babies or old station wagons, best expresses what this year has been like.

One by one, Gingrey’s rivals appear as shaky celluloid images which disintegrate as the charges against them are recited: Karen Handel’s vote for Youth Pride, “that promotes teenage homosexuality,” David Perdue, “championing Common Core with Obama,” and Jack Kingston, “siding with liberals, surrendering to ObamaCare.”

Without intending to, the somewhat creepy vibe of Gingrey’s ad captures very well the volatility of this race, as well as the ephemeral fortunes of its contestants. The Senate race will have disintegrated several political careers by the time it’s over, and like Gingrey’s overblown charges against his opponents, almost none of the substance of it will be remembered.

This year will be remembered instead as the one in which disassociated negativity found its full First Amendment expression under the new campaign rules, with the super PAC ads attacking Gingrey, Kingston and Democrat Michelle Nunn. Increasingly, it’s going to be harder to figure out where the shots are coming from in multi-candidate races like these, and with the loosening of the rules for contributions there will be plenty of artillery.

It will be remembered also as the year these and other political messages came as frequently on digital devices and laptops as the family television set. Handel hasn’t had the money to compete equally with Perdue and Kingston on television, but I can almost recite her spiel about how she “beat the odds” because it seems to start every time I pull up a new website. We’ll see more and more of that, for sure.

So far there has been nothing in Georgia as bad as politics in Mississippi, where a blogger supporting Sen. Thad Cochran’s primary opponent was arrested for sneaking into the nursing home room of Cochran’s wife to record unauthorized footage. But that’s a low bar. Politics has been plenty nasty here as well, particularly in many of the mail pieces which have gone out, and it could get worse.

The election year now enters an asymmetrical phase, with Gov. Nathan Deal and state Sen. Jason Carter squaring off against each other at the beginning of a long general election campaign, while the primary battle for the Republican Senate nomination drags on into July. That stands to be a tricky period for all concerned, not least Deal, who has to transition to a general election message while his Republican colleagues in the Senate race, and possibly some of the Congressional races, will still be gnawing on primary red meat.

Already, concerns are being raised about an anemic turnout and who that helps or hurts. Imagine how much patience the voters are going to have when the runoff is settled three months from now.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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