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Columns Tom Baxter

The Republicans, all of them, gather for final primary debate

By Tom Baxter

The last of the three big Republican gubernatorial primary debates — the Atlanta Press Club debate Sunday night — was the first in which Gov. Brian Kemp and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue had to share the stage with any of their less noticed competitors. This was a good thing.

Catherine Davis, Kandiss Taylor and Tom Williams, the three other candidates in the Republican primary, have no chance of winning. They could take enough of the total vote to force a runoff between Kemp and Perdue, although even that looks doubtful.

But their presence changed the chemistry of this last debate in interesting ways. In the WSB-TV debate in Atlanta and the WTOC-TV debate in Savannah, Kemp and Perdue were free to swing at each other directly. In this final meeting, they had to pick their way around the other candidates to get at each other.

“There’s four of us up here who want to see him replaced,” Williams said of Kemp, and of course that was self-evident. But if Kemp could have put more opponents on stage to take air time away from Perdue, he would have.

This is a ticklish time to be a Republican politician with a long-term perspective. The belief that the last election was rigged has gotten baked into standard GOP dogma. Not one of the nine candidates for the open 6th District congressional seat were willing to say in a debate earlier Sunday that Joe Biden had been fairly elected.

“We have a fraudulent pedophile in the White House because Gov. Kemp failed,” Taylor said in the gubernatorial debate.

Yet for all that heated language, and widespread Republican acceptance of Donald Trump’s version of what happened in the last election, there’s no sign from polls that Republican primary voters have been convinced to dump a conservative incumbent. Kemp’s argument that the voting bill he supported was an effective answer to the problems of 2020 appears to be getting traction.

There was somewhat grudging agreement from all five contestants that they would support their party’s nominee against Stacey Abrams, whoever that might turn out to be. That could be taken as a faint sign the party can get to the place where it can move past the divisions of 2020, but not until this primary, now in the early voting phase, is settled.

Conducting these primary elections won’t be nearly as difficult as the general election in November, but with the new law and a great deal of churn in election offices around the state since 2020, this voting period is the first real test of how much the last election changed things.

Are we going to see less early and mail-in voting, or will these trends continue past the end of the pandemic? Is the ban on private sector funding of voting operations going to result in some areas not having fair access? Are we going to see a sharp increase in rejected ballot applications? Just how serious are the problems with filling key positions in election offices?

There’s a good deal to be learned. There also are a lot more observers, their attention sharpened by the excitements of two years ago, ready to pounce on any irregularity.

This busy debate day also featured the Democratic and Republican secretary of state primary debates, races which will have a lot to do with how these questions are answered.

An 11Alive poll taken last week showed Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger leading in a four-candidate field but likely headed to a runoff with U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, who left Congress at Trump’s urging to challenge Raffensperger. State Rep. Bee Nguyen was a narrow leader in a five-candidate Democratic field. The Republican race had undecideds at 40 percent, with undecideds in the Democratic race at 60 percent.

If Perdue doesn’t make the runoff and Hice does, does Trump return to Georgia to appear for a down-ticket candidate?

 

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Tom Baxter

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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