The cooling towers for Plant Vogtle Reactors 3 and 4 rise above the construction sites. AJC file

A down-ballot contest that could lead the way for Georgia Democrats in November

Political revolutions often begin with down-ballot beachheads on Election Day, at the intersection of enthusiasm and complacency.

Name by name, bored supporters of entrenched political power drift away before they reach the end of their party’s list of nominees. But insurgents have energy. They are more likely to finish the job, checking that last box on the ballot.

That’s how it happened in 1992. Most Republicans focus on the election of Paul Coverdell, who beat incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler in the race for U.S. Senate. But a pincer movement was at work that year.

At the top of the November ballot, Coverdell earned a place in Congress. But far down below was the name of Bobby Baker. By winning a largely ignored spot on the state Public Service Commission, Baker became the first Republican to win a state constitutional office since Reconstruction.

The flip side of history could show itself this year.

Eight days ago, Republicans cast almost 607,000 votes in their race for governor. They have an enthusiasm problem, which began before President Donald Trump, but has grown. Their May 22 vote total was only 1.6 percent more than in 2014 – and down 11 percent from 2010.

Last week, Democrats cast 553,738 ballots in their race for governor — double digit increases over both 2010 and 2014. The fact that only 53,000 ballots separated the GOP and Democratic contests has fueled talk that Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor, could achieve that long-sought November breakthrough.

But Democratic chances may be even better down-ballot. With two exceptions last week, one of them being a state school superintendent race involving GOP incumbent Richard Woods, a larger percentage of Democrats made it from the top of the ballot to the end. GOP voters were slightly more likely to fall away.

Close to the very bottom of statewide races: Last week, 470,873 Republicans endorsed incumbent Chuck Eaton for another six-year term on the state Public Service Commission. Participants in the Democratic primary, who named Lindy Miller to challenge Eaton, numbered 476,425. That’s a 5,552-vote margin – in favor of the Democrat.

There are caveats, naturally.

In the 1992 PSC contest, Baker was helped by the fact that Democrats misfired in their primary. Incumbent PSC member Cas Robinson was knocked off by John Frank Collins, a perennial candidate and gadfly. (Complacency is a factor, remember.)

In this year’s contest, by contrast, Eaton is a 12-year veteran of the state utility board. But he has also been isolated, in a sense, by his own party. He will be the only member to face voters this year following a unanimous PSC vote to continue the construction of two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, a project that is well over-budget and behind schedule.

Georgia Power ratepayers, of course, have been picking up much of the cost of financing in advance.

Stan Wise, the chairman of the PSC, was also up for re-election, but chose to resign in February. Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Tricia Pridemore of Marietta, a member of his administration, to finish out Wise’s term. She won her own GOP primary race last week, and now will be on the November ballot — but without the baggage of a Plant Vogtle vote.

Eaton told me that he’s not worried about the Republican-Democratic voting gap that showed up in his race last week. “I was unopposed. It’s natural for a lot of people to skip over an unopposed race,” he said. “The better indicator is to look at the Pridemore race.”

The District 5 member of the PSC faced a surprisingly strong challenge from the lightly funded Republican John Hitchins, but Pridemore beat him with 53 percent of the vote. The GOP contest generated 62,000 more votes than the Democratic primary, which resulted in the nomination of Dawn Randolph.

Nonetheless, Eaton said he’d be redoubling his efforts now that the general election season has begun. “I think we’ve had a great record at the commission, when it comes to taking part in recruiting business to this state,” he said. “One of the things that businesses look at when they come here is utilities – specifically, electricity.”

I asked Eaton if he felt exposed by his Vogtle decision. “Anecdotally, people express appreciation for what they know was a tough vote,” he said. “Overall, bills are lower than they were seven years ago. I think people understand. I’m for diversity in generation. So I’m not anti-solar or anti-coal or anti-wind. I’m for as many options as possible, ‘cause that’s what protects us in the future.”

Lindy Miller will disagree. Last December, she attempted to speak at a PSC hearing on the Vogtle issue, but was blocked by the commission — on the grounds that she was an announced PSC candidate.

She’ll get her say over the next five months. “Our bills are going up. We don’t know why. We all feel we have no freedom to meet our energy needs the way we want. Our families and small businesses are looking for an advocate, for a champion on the Public Service Commission,” said Miller, the co-founder of a solar energy firm — but now recused from the enterprise. She intends to go after Republican voters.

“This is not an ideological seat. This seat is not a political seat. In most states, it’s a non-partisan seat. This seat is about high bills holding back our communities. It’s about utility bills,” she said.

So we have a statewide, down-ballot contest with one side showing measurably less enthusiasm than the other. More than that, we have a male-female contest in a season in which gender could prove important. (And a Libertarian candidate, besides.)

Then pile on the fact that lesser statewide races are often buffeted by forces beyond their control — such as Donald Trump’s Twitter feed or a volatile gubernatorial contest at the top of the ticket.

With all that in mind, I asked my friend Steve Anthony, a retired political scientist and onetime executive director of the state Democratic party, whether I was seeing things in this District 3 race for PSC.

“It will be a bellwether,” he agreed — but noted that the advantage, at this point, still lies with Republicans and Chuck Eaton. The game is still theirs to lose. But at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 6, if Lindy Miller is ahead in the vote count, that bodes well for those Democrats whose names come before hers. “She is the one that could break it, absolutely,” Anthony said.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.

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