The Karen Handel-Nathan Deal GOP runoff offers many contrasts: female versus male, former county official versus ex-congressman.
Here’s a third contrast that should sound familiar to Georgians: urban versus rural.
A (very helpful) map of Tuesday’s primary election results on ajc.com shows some geographic patterns of support among the four leading Republican candidates for governor. Third-place Eric Johnson captured Southeast Georgia; tops for fourth-place John Oxendine were the sparsely populated counties below the gnat line.
Deal, as expected, was strong in the North Georgia counties he represented in Congress. But his support also forms a kind of exurban ring around metro Atlanta, loosely defined.
The counties won by Handel, on the other hand, represent the state’s urban and suburban areas.
Besides metro Atlanta, Handel’s wins mostly form pockets around cities like Augusta, Columbus, Macon, Albany and Valdosta.
And that kind of pattern is largely reflective of the issues that the Handel and Deal campaigns have respectively pushed.
Deal has portrayed Handel as liberal on social issues such as gay rights and abortion, and that plays best in the areas where he’s strongest.
Those issues may also have an outsized impact in the runoff, when turnout for the Republican races could dip as low as the single digits and only the most hardcore members of the GOP base can be relied upon to show up.
That will be especially true if, as I expect, Johnson and Oxendine throw their support behind Deal. Had Deal captured just one-third of Johnson’s and Oxendine’s voters, he would have finished ahead of Handel.
For her part, Handel has hammered away at Deal on ethics, pointing repeatedly to an investigation into his use of congressional staff and resources to protect a contract he held with the state.
People everywhere care about honesty in government, but the ethics storyline probably plays best in markets with media outlets large enough to have reported on the Deal investigation.
And in the days of media retrenchment, our reach doesn’t extend as far beyond the population centers as it once did.
How it might play out (or not)
An urban-rural split between Handel and Deal might not be very pronounced on issues like the economy, the size and role of state government, or water.
Both candidates are lukewarm, at best, on shaking up the education establishment by introducing school vouchers — an idea that’s more popular in more populated areas.
On transportation, Handel voices support for transit when she asks, “25 years from today, what will it look like if we haven’t embraced the 21st century in a bold way?” And Deal didn’t sound like an anti-transit ruralite when he told me, “We still have the problem of breaking people of the habit of wanting to get into their cars.”
With Roy Barnes now definitely waiting in the wings, Handel can’t afford to alienate the rural voters who twice delivered the state to Sonny Perdue. Likewise, Deal must run strong in metro Atlanta to have any shot against Barnes in November.
As each candidate looks for an advantage over the other, that’s something for both to keep in mind.