At 1 a.m. Wednesday, the secretary of state’s website showed 99 percent of precincts reporting and Nathan Deal leading Karen Handel in the GOP runoff for governor by a mere 2,489 votes.
Handel isn’t conceding, and Deal isn’t declaring victory. But don’t look for an impasse to last more than a few hours into Wednesday – the state GOP can’t afford to give Democrat Roy Barnes any more of a head start.
This morning, for instance, became yet another opportunity for Barnes to appear by himself on local morning TV shows, while his Republican opponents stayed cautious and out of sight.
Let’s first look at what will happen regardless of whether Deal is declared the winner, or Handel.
What comes next:
There’s the mess in Washington, and the mess in the state Capitol.
Decide which one worries you most, and you’re halfway to solving the riddle of the November race for governor of Georgia.
Whether the Republican nominee is Deal or Handel, the message will be the same. Look for one or the other – today – to place the albatross of President Barack Obama’s low approval ratings around Barnes’ neck.
The favor has already been returned.
Hours before Tuesday’s last voter had slammed home the last electronic ballot card, Barnes was on television with an ad that directed the gaze of viewers to Gov. Sonny Perdue and the Republican-controlled state Legislature.
“Do we continue down the same path with the same team that gave us ethics violations, teacher furloughs, tax breaks to special interests, homes foreclosed, and misplaced priorities,” the 30-second spot asked. “Or do we work our way back?”
Believe it or not, the recession has kept your TV relatively free of nasty negative ads. That’s about to change.
Millions of dollars are about to be spent to help you identify the nightmare that keeps you up at night, whether it be classroom size or health insurance mandates.
Georgia has one of 37 races for governor this November, and is one of a dozen or so rated as toss-ups.
On June 30, Barnes reported having $1.1 million on hand to finish out the July 20 primary. You can assume that both Deal and Handel are broke, or nearly so, after an extra three weeks of campaigning in the GOP runoff. But do not grieve for either.
With 2012 redistricting at stake, national Republicans and Democrats – both with tens of millions of dollars at hand — have identified Georgia as their playground. “A top-tier pickup opportunity,” says the Democratic Governors Association.
But keeping Georgia in “R” column may be more important to the Republican Governors Association, whose executive director, Nick Ayers, is a former aide to Perdue. And keep in mind that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the RGA, is making noises about a presidential run in 2012.
“Continuing the legacy of Sonny Perdue — it’s going to be important that we have a conservative Republican leading our state,” said Eric Tanenblatt, Perdue’s former chief of staff. “I do know that Georgia is a priority.”
Look for the RGA to enter the Georgia fray as early as this week, to keep Barnes pinned down while Deal and Handel sort things out.
Dysfunction in Washington and Atlanta will be the overriding themes.
“This is about Georgia and issues,” said Barnes campaign manager Chris Carpenter.
“[The federal] government is now led, both chambers and the White House, by the Democratic party. And Roy Barnes is part of the Democratic party. It’s going to be hard not to for that not to be an issue,” said Tanenblatt, a Handel supporter.
Then there’s the feat that Barnes will attempt in November. Gov. Eugene Talmadge was booted out of office by voters in 1942. Talmadge was re-elected in 1946 – but died before he could take office.
That was the last time Georgia voters forgave a governor – and gave him his job back.
Memories of Barnes’ style remain. “It’s very difficult to say, ‘I wasn’t a good listener eight years ago, but I’m a good listener now.’ It’s a tough sell,” said Chip Lake, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland and a major Deal supporter.
Let’s consider the alternatives. First, the shape of the contest should Deal retain his slim lead:
– Given the current climate, don’t look for either President Barack Obama or even former President Bill Clinton to make appearances for Barnes, whose pursuit of independent voters this fall won’t let him utter the words “Republican” or “Democrat.”
– Deal comes from a family of public school teachers and educators. But look for Barnes to force Deal to say whether he agrees with John Barge, the GOP nominee for state school superintendent – who says the following:
“I believe that, constitutionally, the federal government has no role in education. It is best administered by state and local elected officials and by education professionals closest to our schools and our classrooms.
In my view, the amount of money we could receive from Race to the Top does not justify yet more federal government intrusion and bureaucratic micromanagement of our local schools.”
– Because both Handel and Deal were cash-challenged, most of their TV ads were focused on metro Atlanta. “The majority of the vote is in metro Atlanta, but middle and south Georgia are going to be critical,” said Carpenter, the Barnes campaign manager. Look for the Democrat to test Deal’s appeal south of I-20.
– Look for the Barnes, like Karen Handel, to focus on that congressional ethics investigation of Deal that ended when the north Georgia congressman resigned his seat this spring – but with a twist.
Several Democratic strategists have pointed out that Barnes is likely to begin targeting both Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican up for re-election, who helped arrange Deal’s meetings with state officials that attracted the attention of congressional investigators. You’re likely to see a combined attack on both figures at the near top of the Georgia GOP ticket.
And if Karen Handel should survive to fight another day:
– Look for Sarah Palin to be replaced by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer – who has more general election appeal than the former Alaskan governor.
– Again, the Barnes campaign would test the appeal of the first female Republican nominee for governor south of I-20.
– Southern accents are likely to get thick. Nathan Deal hinted at Handel’s non-native status. Democrats would find a way – who knows how – to emphasize the fact that Handel grew up in Maryland. Then there’s Handel’s lack of college education – Deal was delicate in his approach to the topic. But Barnes or his fellow Democrats would find a way to tap it.
— As secretary of state, Handel had a slim voting record when it comes to major state policy issues, and she’s on record against the “sex, lies and lobbyists” at the state Capitol. To compensate, Barnes would wed Handel to Gov. Sonny Perdue, whom Handel once served as deputy chief of staff, and his policies that – according to Democrats — led to teacher furloughs and a muddled state transportation policy.
– On the other hand, Handel’s suburban roots in metro Atlanta would neutralize a natural advantage by Barnes’ ties to Cobb County. Two metro Atlanta candidates battling it out would be an interesting dynamic, as one Republican leader pointed out.