Only Republican leading in Ga. runoffs is a former Democrat named Bubba

Georgia Public Service Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, shown here in 2013, sought to retain his elected statewide seat in a runoff. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Georgia Public Service Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, shown here in 2013, sought to retain his elected statewide seat in a runoff. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

With most votes counted, Lauren “Bubba” McDonald is the only Republican who appears to have won out of three statewide runoffs. And many Georgians hadn’t even been aware his race was on the ballot before they went to the polls.

Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the campaigns of U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, McDonald — an 82-year-old former Democrat — landed more votes than either.

Wednesday, it appeared he had won another six-year term on the Georgia Public Service Commission.

McDonald has served nearly 40 years in elected office, the last 17 on the PSC. The five-member body isn’t widely known even in Georgia. Among its biggest duties is deciding how much consumers and businesses must pay for utilities provided by Atlanta Gas Light and Georgia Power, including whether ratepayers will swallow billions of dollars in overruns on the company’s nuclear expansion of Plant Vogtle.

McDonald, who lives in Clarkesville, said he had “no idea” why his vote totals had trended higher than those for Perdue and Loeffler, both of whom he supported.

He had a 51% to 49% lead over Democrat Daniel Blackman, having captured more than 2.2 million votes, ahead by about 68,000. The Associated Press called the race in McDonald’s favor Wednesday. His advantage exceeded the 0.5% or less margin that would entitle Blackman to a recount.

“I hope that my work has proven to be appreciated by the people of Georgia,” McDonald said.

But he and his Democratic challenger say his name probably helped at the polls.

“They like ‘Bubba,’” McDonald said of the nickname a sister bestowed upon him when he was a child.

McDonald and Blackman often struggled to bring attention to the PSC race as the nation focused on Georgia’s two Senate races.

Some voters said they knew nothing about either PSC candidate or what the commission does. But, when President Trump mentioned McDonald at a rally for Perdue and Loeffler earlier this week, the crowd chanted “Bubba. Bubba. Bubba!”

Blackman pointed out that McDonald has been on voter ballots in Georgia for decades.

“Name recognition and money in politics take you a long way,” he said. “... Maybe they have heard his name so much they felt safe checking it off.”

McDonald said those who voted for him, including some “thinking Democrats,” may have remembered things he’s done in office, such as encouraging utilities to address fallen lines in neighborhoods.

He’s known in political circles as the first statewide elected Republican in Georgia to endorse Trump’s 2016 campaign. He also pushed Georgia Power to sharply increase solar power and resisted a portion of Georgia Power requests for higher rates. He also supported the Vogtle nuclear expansion without initially requiring a firm cap on how much consumers might be liable for. He’s praised the project’s potential to provide a reliable and long-term source of carbon-free energy.

Glenn Carroll, coordinator of Nuclear Watch South, a critic of the Vogtle project, wrote in an email that the organization “once held high hopes for McDonald, an intelligent, informed and a bold actor, to be a folk hero and lead the Commission to cancel the Vogtle project.” But, she said, he has shown a “complete lack of initiative to rein in the Vogtle boondoggle.”

Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft wrote that the company’s priority “will always be to productively work with our elected officials to promote good public policy that positively benefits our customers, our state and our employees.”

McDonald, who owns three funeral homes with his family, was elected to the Jackson County board of commissioners when he was 28 years old. He later served 20 years in the state legislature, running 10 times as a Democrat. He was appointed to the PSC in 1998 and eventually lost re-election as a Democrat. He ran again and won as a Republican in 2008.

McDonald said he expects to remain an independent and conservative voice on the PSC. In the past, he has dismissed questions about his age. He pointed out that he still has his pilot’s license. “I’m going to go flying Sunday.”