Republican efforts to hold the governor’s office in Georgia may well rest on the shoulders of former secretary of state Karen Handel, who became the leading vote getter in Tuesday’s primary after she received an endorsement from Sarah Palin. Handel won 34 percent of the vote and will now face former congressman Nathan Deal in an Aug. 10 runoff.
The two are vying for the chance to succeed Gov. Sonny Perdue, the first Republican governor of the state since Reconstruction. Perdue cannot run again due to term limits.
Palin picked Handel on July 12, calling her a “common-sense conservative” even as the former Alaska governor acknowledged Handel was an underdog. Handel also does not have the backing of some Georgia conservatives. Sadie Fields, chairman of the Georgia Christian Alliance, questioned whether Palin “did her homework” before making the endorsement. Regardless, Palin’s nod boosted Handel’s campaign. Though news of it came too late to be included in television ads, the candidate used automated phone calls from Palin to reach out to 400,000 Republican voters, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported.
Deal has the support of Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and an early contender for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. He also has the backing of Georgia Right to Life, which has called Handel “extremely liberal” on abortion because she would accept it in cases of rape or incest. Deal will try to make up ground against Handel in the coming weeks, likely to result in GOP infighting as Roy Barnes, the former governor who lost to Perdue in 2002, focuses on the general election. Barnes won nearly two thirds of the vote on the Democratic side.
Leaving aside the gubernatorial race, Tuesday' Georgia results do not have analysts buzzing about potential swing seats for the November midterms. Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat looks safe, at least according to a Rasmussen poll this spring. Another runoff will decide whether Rob Woodall or Jody Hice will succeed retiring Republican Rep. John Linder in Georgia’s Seventh Congressional District, but that heavily Republican district is already an uphill battle for Democratic challenger Doug Heckman. In the Ninth District, no Democrats are on the ballot, and a runoff will decide whether Rep. Tom Graves (49 percent of the vote Tuesday) keeps his seat.
Most Georgia districts saw turnouts that strongly favored one party. Democratic voters in the districts of Reps. John Barrow and Sanford Bishop, both incumbent Democrats, exceeded Republican voters by about 6,000 and 1,500 ballots, respectively. Barrow, who bucked his party and voted against health-care reform, won two thirds of the vote in 2008, while Bishop took his district that year by nearly 70 percent. It remains to be seen whether Republicans will spend resources to try and reverse those landslides.
But as the GOP tries to keep the governor's chair in Georgia as well as end Democratic majorities in Congress, Tuesday's turnout must be encouraging. Nearly 680,000 Republicans voted in the statewide governor's race, compared with about 394,000 Democrats.