By Tom Baxter
Pop quiz: Who got the most votes in the Republican primary the last time there was an open-seat race for governor eight years ago?
Your first thought might be Nathan Deal, who went on to win the primary runoff that year and went on to win two terms as governor. Sharper memories will recall that the congresswoman currently representing the 6th District, Karen Handel, was the leader in the first primary election. There may be some lessons from that race that could be helpful in figuring this year’s contest for governor.
Deal trailed Handel in the 2010 general primary by a margin of 39-26 percent. Secretary of State Brian Kemp trailed Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in last week’s Republican primary by a 34-22 percent margin. The fact that a second-lace finisher with similar numbers was able to overtake the frontrunner in 2010 should be enough to give Cagle cause for concern, as we head into another of those sizzling summer runoffs. On the surface, he has more advantages than Handel had when she was attempting to hold off Deal, but that still has to be proven.
The only significant race Cagle has faced within his party up to now was in 2006, when he defeated Ralph Reed to win the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor. Running unopposed, he got 535,243 votes in the primary in 2010, and 495,243 votes in 2014.
There’s not much to say about unopposed races, but that trajectory does seem to indicate some cooling among Republican primary voters as Cagle has become more identified with the political establishment. The Kemp-Cagle matchup has the looks of another very close finish like the one in 2008. An interesting side competition is the one between the National Rifle Association, which has endorsed Cagle, and GeorgiaCarry.org, which has endorsed Kemp.
Deal’s runoff victory over Handel — he won by less than 3,000 votes out of more than 568,000 votes cast — would prove to be the closest call in his political career, much more so than his general election race later in 2010 against former Gov. Roy Barnes. It also serves as a watershed in the process we talked about last week, by which the parties’ candidates have become increasingly separated by gender.
It’s an historic first that an African-American woman, Stacey Abrams, will lead the Democratic ticket as the party’s candidate for governor, with another woman, Sarah Riggs Amico, as her running mate for lieutenant governor. But the Democrats had women lieutenant governor candidates in 2010 and 2014, and African-American candidates of both sexes have been on the Democratic ballot throughout the last several elections.
You could have predicted this year’s Democratic ticket based on the way things were trending at the beginning of the century, but not necessarily the Republican ticket, whatever all-male combination it turns out to be. Handel’s 2010 candidacy wasn’t a novelty, after all. In the 2002 Republican primary, Linda Schrenko polled second behind Sonny Perdue. Nancy Schaefer finished 3rd in the 1998 GOP primary. So the absence of Republican women contenders in this open cycle represents a change, not a reversion to any contemporary norm.
Obviously, the surge in energy around women Democratic candidates across the country has something to do with the chemistry here in Georgia, but since so many of the important races have been Democratic women running against each other and Republican men running against each other, it’s hard to say what the national mood foretells for the race in the fall.
Since the number of primary votes does measure intensity to some extent, however, it’s worth pointing out that Abrams got 423,250 almost twice as much as Cagle or Kemp, and more than two-thirds of the total number of votes cast in the Republican primary.
This doesn’t tell us how far she can extend her appeal or how well she can do in November. But she begins with a lot of energy and a nine-week head start over her eventual Republican rival.
Lieutenant governor’s races don’t usually generate much news, but this year’s could be interesting. Amico is a newcomer with a business background, which makes her an interesting running mate with Abrams. Former state Senate majority leader David Shafer came close to winning the Republican primary with a clear majority, but he fell short a faces a runoff with state Rep. Geoff Duncan.
The Senate Ethics Committee dismissed charges of sexual harassment against Shafer, lodged as he was beginning his campaign by a woman lobbyist, and he doesn’t seem to have been affected much in the primary. The larger question is how a candidate with a ton of endorsements from the Republican old guard and a lot of experience under the Gold Dome fares against the second-generation CEO of a trucking company with an MBA from Harvard.