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GOP Senate primary could beg national concern over 'Turnout Bug'

Posted: May 18, 2014 - 12:07am

The national media continue to tout Georgia’s soon-to-be-open U.S. Senate seat as one of just a few “swing” states that could end up going Democrat in a year that otherwise seems to look great for the GOP nationally. And the current outlook for Tuesday’s Georgia contest might tell us a great deal not only about Georgia but about trends that are developing across the nation.

In a crowded field, three candidates have emerged, but none of the three fits the “right wing extremist” category that Democrats were hoping to see win the Republican nomination. The Democrats’ candidate, Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is waiting with strong polling numbers, plenty of cash and a virtually guaranteed nomination against marginal Democratic opposition.

The good news for the Republicans is that their three individuals who are pressing to make an almost certain runoff in July are considered attractive candidates and, at the same time, are strong conservatives in a state where moderate-to-conservative views still dominate the political landscape.

Businessman David Perdue leads in the polls. He’s running the “I’m not a career politician” message, and it has gone over well.

Congressman Jack Kingston, who has been a loyal Republican since his college days, has the backing of the state’s business community and many longtime GOP activists. He is locked in a battle for second place in the polls with former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel. Handel came close to edging out Nathan Deal in a GOP runoff for governor in 2010. But Handel’s campaign tactics against Deal rubbed some, including Deal, the wrong way. Nathan Deal is now, of course, Governor Deal.

Based on all estimates, turnout for the primary will be extremely tepid. Georgia’s fire-breathing, flag-waving, tea-party-enamored Republican electorate of 2010 has all but disappeared. That means that television commercials designed to air to the masses won’t have as big of an impact as they did just four years ago. That’s helpful to Handel because she is airing her TV spots primarily through social media.

Some rather clumsy early ads by Kingston, combined with Handel’s dogged use of alternatives in communication -- such as automated phone calls and Facebook -- have kept the two in a tight battle for the right to take on Perdue in a July showdown.

But the lackadaisical attitude of voters toward this primary should give Republicans around the nation pause for concern. Is it possible, with President Obama’s approval ratings slowly creeping up a bit, that the GOP could be bitten by the same “turnout bug” that left Mitt Romney in Obama’s dust in 2012? Republicans must ask why a state such as Georgia is polling with as many or more voters identifying themselves as Democrats or “independent voters” as they do as Republicans.

Republicans need to examine Georgia’s unenthused Republican electorate and determine if “the turnout bug” could bite them again this year, and what role social media could play in avoiding a 2012 repeat.

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