Notable primary challenges
May 20 features a number of high-profile legislative primaries. Here is a look at a few of them:
District 7 (R): Speaker David Ralston vs. Sam Snider
District 22 (R): Rep. Sam Moore vs. Meagan Biello and Wes Cantrell
Note: Moore angered fellow Republicans by sponsoring bills that would ease restrictions on sex offenders.
District 34 (R): Rep. Charles Gregory vs. Bert Reeves
Note: Gregory is often the only “No” vote in the House and consistently opposes his own party.
District 58 (D): Rep. Simone Bell vs. Erica Long
Note: Bell is openly gay; Long’s husband is a former House member.
District 74 (D): Rep. Valencia Stovall vs. Yasmin Neal and Roberta Abdul-Salaam
Note: Both challengers are former House members.
District 97 (R): Rep. Brooks Coleman vs. Dahlys Hamilton and Jef Fincher.
Note: Coleman is chairman of the House Education Committee, and the committee’s move to block an anti-Common Core bill has become a major campaign issue.
District 141 (R): Rep. Allen Peake vs. Bradley Moriarty
Note: Peake sponsored the medical marijuana bill this past session.
District 180 (R): Rep. Jason Spencer vs. Nancy Stasinis
Note: Spencer is a tea party favorite and authored a major anti-Obamacare bill this year.
District 9: Sen. Don Balfour vs. Mike Beaudreau and P.K. Martin
Note: Balfour was acquitted last year of criminal charges that he improperly claimed travel expenses.
District 27: Sen. Jack Murphy vs. Jack Schiff, Lauren McDonald III and Michael Williams
Note: Murphy faces stiff tea party opposition.
It’s been 10 years since David Ralston had to work the hills of the Georgia’s 7th District to ask for votes in Gilmer, Fannin and Dawson counties.
The gregarious Republican speaker of the state House, Ralston, 60, has not had a primary opponent since 2004 and no Democratic challenger since 2002. But now the veteran lawmaker is working hard as he faces not just a popular local challenger but tea party groups and others who have moved their operations into the district in order to bag their first big buck in state politics.
When Sam Snider, the longtime wrestling coach at Gilmer County High School, announced in October that he would run against Ralston in the May 20 Republican primary, it set a number of wheels in motion. Ralston broke out the oil can and lubed up a dormant campaign machine while those who have come to view the speaker as part of the problem in Atlanta — not conservative enough, not ethical enough — descended on Blue Ridge and Ellijay.
With no Democratic opponent in November, the winner will take a seat in the House in January. With no November obstacle, the race has turned nasty. Many groups and individuals from across the state, who have long targeted Ralston, are loudly questioning his fitness for re-election.
Debbie Dooley, a director of the Tea Party Patriots, created a group called the Georgia Integrity Project, which has run local television ads and paid for telephone calls accusing Ralston of abusing a state law that allows lawmakers to postpone court appearances. The ads are careful not to advocate for his defeat or Snider’s election — which would require Dooley’s group to disclose how it raises and spends its money with the state ethics commission — but are clearly anti-Ralston.
Ray Boyd has been less circumspect. The political activist from Morgan County has run full-page ads in local newspapers that have accused Ralston of violating his oath of office as well as his marital vows, a charge for which he provides no proof.
The rhetoric has become even more personal. Snider, Boyd and Dooley all attended an event Sunday at Poole’s Barbecue, a famous political spot in Ellijay. Phil Neff, a former Whitfield County GOP chairman, said Ralston’s father — the late clerk of court in Gilmer County — “was a snake from the word go. David is the same way,” according to an audio recording of the event obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Ralston’s only response has been a television ad that hits at those from outside the district trying to sway the election.
“Growing up here, I was raised on some good, solid conservative values,” Ralston says in the ad. “That’s why I’ve run a positive campaign. Sadly, we’ve seen a bunch of crazy radicals from outside our district talking sleaze and nonsense. You deserve better.”
Some of Ralston’s opponents who actually live in the district have begun to agree.
Oscar Poole, the colorful owner of the Ellijay barbecue emporium, said Wednesday on Facebook that he is “distraught over tactics used by ‘outside influences’ coming into the area to campaign against any candidate. These tactics are repugnant to me.”
Those comments, however, had been deleted by Thursday morning.
Whether the attacks and subsequent fallout will have an impact on the race is unclear. Blake Collins, a fixture of Republican politics in Fannin County, said people he talks to are not focused on the loud noises coming from outside forces.
“I don’t think it’s having the effect they thought it would,” said Collins, the first vice chairman of the county GOP. “I think David has his support. David is one of us. People that know David — it won’t make a difference.”
Ralston takes none of it for granted. He prefers to assume the worst and work for the best.
“I subscribe to the Vince Dooley theory of competition,” Ralston said, invoking the legendary University of Georgia football coach who could make the weakest of opponents sound like a conquering armada.
“He prepared his teams that way,” Ralston said. “You have to prepare anytime you have an opponent that anything can happen.”
Ralston, who has raised nearly $1 million, said in an interview that it’s no surprise he faces a primary opponent for the first time since Democrats last ruled the House.
What he doesn’t understand are the outsiders who are pumping more money into the race than Snider is.
“I think people sometimes just look for reasons to try and be relevant,” Ralston said. “I think there are those out there, (but) I don’t think there are very many, that are so consumed with anger and bitterness that it has blinded their ability to reason.”
Over the course of more than 20 years of teaching and 13 state wrestling championships, the 50-year-old Snider has become a community leader. He said he’s been asked about running for office for four or five years.
“At that time I was right where God wanted me, and I didn’t feel like that was where I should go,” he said.
Over the past two years that began to change. He became a grandfather and sought a way to contribute to his community on another level. He discovered, he said, that Ralston has not paid as much attention to the 7th District since becoming speaker in 2010. He looked deeper and said he found Ralston’s leadership style in the House objectionable. Instead of raising others up, Snider said, Ralston fought to keep them down.
“And I swear, since I announced to run we have seen Mr. Ralston,” Snider said. “I mean, it has been amazing how much we’ve seen him.”
Ralston hasn’t just been around lately, he’s suddenly promising new state spending, Snider said, including $500,000 for ball fields and untold millions for a new college campus.
Snider, who has raised just under $16,000, knows he’s the underdog but believes his deficit is shrinking. Win or lose, he expects a positive outcome.
“If I win, it will change the politics there at some level,” Snider said. “If I run and still don’t win, it’s going to bring our representative back to our district to really look at whether he’s been here.”
Snider is also not oblivious to efforts by Dooley, Boyd and others to influence voters. But, he said, they’re on their own.
Those outsiders, he said, are not the foundation of his campaign.
“Who’s been carrying the load since October?” Snider said. “Family, friends, and Gilmer and Fannin counties.”
As speaker, Ralston represents the entire state. The speakership, however, is a political position elected by the House of Representatives. As a state representative, he is answerable only to the people in his district. And, as is typically the case, local politics is ruled by local relationships and experiences.
Carolyn Pierce, the owner of the Antique Show store in downtown Ellijay, said she’s supporting Snider, who taught her kids.
Pierce said that “David” — note the familiarity that local elections breed — hasn’t always been responsive.
“I’ve had some problems with David,” she said. “He didn’t always do what he says. I just didn’t like his attitude.”
Just down the street, Terry Ellis had a different experience.
“I had the privilege of talking with Mr. Ralston,” Ellis said as he left a local lunch spot. “I placed a phone call. He returned my call. I was impressed with that. He steered me in the right direction. I’ve never forgotten that.”