The Dalton-based Senate seat up for grabs in a special election should be a safely conservative district. But Democrats are hoping an independent candidate can squeak by in a low-turnout vote.
Former Whitfield County GOP chairman Chuck Payne and Debby Peppers, an ex-county commissioner running without party affiliation, on Tuesday emerged as the two top vote-getters in the race to replace Charlie Bethel in the Senate. They both will square off in a Jan. 10 runoff.
Payne nabbed about 36 percent of the vote in the four-person race, while Peppers earned about 27 percent of the vote in part with help from local Democrats.
Bethel won a fourth term in November without opposition, but a day later Gov. Nathan Deal tapped him for a Court of Appeals judgeship. That left vacant the 54th District, which includes all of Whitfield and Murray counties and parts of Pickens and Gordon counties.
Many local GOP leaders quickly consolidated support around Payne, a retired juvenile court probation officer who worked as a Ben Carson campaign operative this year.
Democrats have quietly supported Peppers, who is on the county's zoning board and served on the commission in the 1990s. She received national attention in the late 1990s for a lawsuit she brought against the Dalton Regional Youth Detention that exposed overcrowded conditions and healthcare problems.
During the monthlong campaign, Payne focused on his GOP bona fides and work for conservative causes while Peppers said her decades-long record in Whitfield County "reflects the kind of leadership our community needs."
Expect the divisions to sharpen now that the race is down to two.
Peppers thanked her supporters and urged them to "keep the momentum going" late Tuesday, while Payne adviser Justin Tomczak drew battle lines. He said the Republican is in a formidable position against a "life-long Democrat" who he tied to Michelle Nunn, Jason Carter and Hillary Clinton.
"Northwest Georgia has little in common with those liberal politicians," Tomczak said.
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