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Handicapping the 10th District race

Posted: Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Republican state Rep. and Majority Whip Barry Fleming recently announced his entrance into the race to be the next congressman for Georgia's 10th Congressional District.

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The seat is currently held by Dr. Paul Broun, who narrowly snatched the seat from underneath Jim Whitehead this past July. The district was redrawn in 2005 and pits its two largest urban areas, Athens-Clarke County and Columbia County, head to head.

Whitehead hails from the more conservative (and more populous) Columbia County. He was the favorite to win but was eventually beaten by a combination of a backlash from Athens' liberal community and poor turnout in Columbia County for Whitehead. After his defeat, Whitehead bowed out of politics - for the time being, at least - and Fleming, also from Columbia County, is increasingly considered to be the front-runner against Broun in next year's Republican primary.

So, what does the political landscape look like for this upcoming match? Innumerable factors will decide the election but there are a few that will do so a bit more than others.

The Republican Field

In a race against only Broun, Fleming, supported by Columbia County Republicans, is likely to carry the day. The special election that vaulted Broun to Washington, D.C. provides an excellent example of why.

In the first round, Whitehead received 43.5 percent of the votes - not enough to prevent a run-off. However, Republicans made up a stout 70.3 percent of the total number of voters who participated in the election. Had the first round been a primary election, Whitehead would have won the nomination with a comfortable 61.9 percent.

But unfortunately for Whitehead, Georgia does not hold primary elections prior to special elections. The election of July 19 was a wide-open race and, as a result, Whitehead had to share the Republican pie with at least five others - most importantly, Broun.

In next year's primary, however, Republican and Democratic voters will vote in what will be essentially separate elections. Any votes for candidates of a different party will not count towards the total number of votes that a partisan hopeful must receive to win his or her party's nomination.

In other words, all other things being equal, if Fleming performs as well as Whitehead did in the first round, he will win the Republican nomination. And in the general election, Fleming has a very large advantage with an electorate that is roughly 70 percent Republican.

In sum, if another Columbia County Republican with the potential to channel votes away from Fleming (e.g., Whitehead) does not enter the race and the field remains limited to Broun and Fleming, then Fleming will almost certainly come out on top in the primary. Remember, Broun received only 29.4 percent of the Republican vote in this year's first round.

Granted, Broun is now a national incumbent and is much more likely to have access to greater and more important resources for next year's race. Even so, he faces a hostile Columbia County and will have a difficult time making up the required ground. However, a helping hand could once again come from the Classic City. The Republican field does not exist in a vacuum, and the make-up of the Democratic field could greatly influence whether Broun or Fleming (or any other candidate not yet to announce) represents the Republican party in the general election.

The Democratic Field

Interestingly enough, the make-up of the Democratic field has the potential to significantly influence who the Republicans toss into the ring next year. If there is only one Democrat, the primary is little more than a formality. As a result, the Democrats, specifically those who showed their organizational skills in Athens, have the luxury to cast their vote for other purposes. And under Georgia law, anyone can vote in either primary (i.e., Republicans can vote for the Democratic nominee and vice-versa).

The only caveat is that no voter can vote in both, but that restriction means little to the Democratic voters of the 10th Congressional District if they have only one candidate from which to choose. The machine that organized against Whitehead might turn its attention to Fleming if he is perceived to be the bigger threat in the general election. And the leaders of the Democratic Party may see a weak spot in the Republican Party based on the results of the special election run-off.

In short, Columbia County Republicans did not return to the polls for Whitehead. Democrats might conclude that this means that Columbia County Republicans tend to come out less if their candidate loses in the primary - and they would probably be right. Assuming that Democrats prefer the situation that maximizes their chances of winning, they will likely prefer Broun as their opponent in the general election. And if they have votes to spare, they lose nothing by voting for him in the primary.

Due to the nature of Georgia's primary elections, the composition of the two major parties' fields can, and will, influence who competes for Broun's seat in November of next year. Broun will benefit from the addition of another candidate similar to Fleming and a lack of competition in the Democratic Party. Conversely, Fleming will benefit from a showdown between only himself and Broun and a competitive Democratic primary. And, of course, voter registration and "Get Out The Vote" campaigns will play important roles.

Elections 101 tells us that an increase in the number of potential and actual voters amenable to a particular candidate only works to increase that candidate's chances of being elected. These factors will likely be among the most important to affect the outcome of the Republican primary election, but there are undoubtedly many more. Which element will have greater influence is far from clear.

We might find that Columbia County Republicans are simply unable to vote for Paul Broun. Or, Democrats may not be able to vote in the Republican primary in sufficient numbers, increasing Barry Fleming's chances of winning in the primary. Either way, both candidates should be aware of what can influence their chances and to what degree their campaigns will be positively or negatively affected by those factors.

(Matthew Duncan is an Augusta resident.)



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