Runoffs, overshadowed so far, could be key to both parties’ future

By Tom Baxter

In an era when campaigns never really end, some races get lost in the shuffle. So far that’s been the case with a couple of important races here in Georgia.

Early voting begins next Monday, Nov. 26, for the Dec. 4 runoff election between Republican Brad Raffensperger and Democrat John Barrow in the secretary of state race, and the Public Service Commission race between Republican incumbent Chuck Eaton and Democrat Lindy Miller. The early voting period ends Friday, Nov. 30.

Given how much attention the secretary of state’s office got in the governor’s race, this should be an especially important race for both parties. The runoff should be attracting a lot of attention, but so far, not so much. Before Stacey Abrams’s non-concession or “acknowledgement” speech last Friday, the spotlight remained on the governor’s race.

A lot of Republicans appear to believe, based on their track record, that the runoff races are in the bag. And while Abrams exhorted Democrats to turn out for the runoff candidates, the headlines from her speech were about her plans to form a new organization and file a federal lawsuit alleging gross mismanagement in Georgia’s elections.

Barrow doesn’t have the same appeal Abrams has to women and African-American Democrats, and Raffensperger doesn’t have Brian Kemp’s folksy appeal to the Republican base. Getting voters to the polls will be a lot harder for the runoff, but this race will have a lot to do with their respective parties’ future over the next few years.

The spark which ignited the modern Republican Party in Georgia was Paul Coverdell’s runoff victory over Wyche Fowler in the 1992 U.S. Senate race, just weeks after Bill Clinton had carried the state in the presidential election. The party has reliably turned out its voters in a few runoffs since, but the circumstances this year are the reverse of what they were in 1992.

This year it’s the Democrats who have something to prove after a narrow loss. Their two runoff candidates have different bases of support, which could be a benefit in a low-turnout race. Barrow’s race has the greatest symbolic significance for the Democrats, but Miller gives their best chance in years to regain a place on the PSC, which should be a major goal.

There’s also the early voting factor. Each county can decide whether it will have early voting and how many polling places it will open. It appears from a quick check that all the Metro Atlanta counties will be voting early, but the Secretary of State’s office doesn’t have a compilation of what counties around the state are doing. If some smaller counties have decided to forgo early voting next week, or have sharply reduced the number of polling places, it could make a difference. This won’t be a big election compared to the general election, and a few votes could count.

Another race which has gotten lost in the fuzz after election day is the 7th District Congressional race between incumbent Republican Rob Woodall and Democratic challenger Carolyn Bourdeaux.

Bourdeaux said Friday she will ask for a recount in the race, in which she currently trails by 419 votes out of 280,441 votes cast. It’s rare for recounts to overturn election results, even with margins this narrow. Assuming Woodall survives the recount, however, he will still have a target on his back for the next two years.

It took two whacks — Jon Ossoff’s close call in last year’s special election and Lucy McBath’s even narrower victory over Karen Handel this month — for Democrats to capture what had been a reliably Republican district next door in the 6th Congressional District.

On paper, the 7th looks like an even more promising pickup opportunity for the Democrats, and there will likely be a sense of urgency about taking the seat before the next congressional reapportionment gives Republicans the opportunity to draw a more favorable district map.

McBath, incidentally, was part of what in another year would have been a much bigger story, and perhaps is still the most historically significant result of the last election. There will be nine new African-American Democrats in the next Congress, and all were elected from majority-white suburban districts. This amounts to a sea change, all the more remarkable because it happened when racial tensions are said to be on the rise.

The 6th District’s 62-13 white-black split was one of the narrowest, demographically, far narrower than the 79-3 percent split in Illinois’ 14th District, which was won by Democrat Lauren Underwood. With those victories, African-American Democratic women will be representing the districts once held by Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert.

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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