A suburban blue wave dries up in Georgia runoffs

The suburban wave that nearly swept Democrat Stacey Abrams to Georgia's highest office last month all but evaporated in Tuesday's runoff for secretary of state and Public Service Commission.

Democrats only narrowly held Gwinnett County after winning it by about 15 percentage points in November's general election. And Cobb County, the long-time Republican stronghold that Democrats easily carried four weeks ago, appeared to have flipped back to the red column.

The struggles in the close-in suburbs contributed to stinging defeats for John Barrow, a former U.S. House member running for secretary of state, and Lindy Miller, the businesswoman seeking a PSC seat. So did tepid Democratic turnout on the heels of a record-shattering race for governor.

The result was an election as polarizing as the general election – with the same conclusion: A GOP sweep.

Republican Brad Raffensperger outdid Brian Kemp's margins in a spate of counties, from Clinch to Coweta, on his way to a 52-48 victory over Barrow. And Barrow narrowly topped Abrams' 84 percent margin in all-important DeKalb County.

But the big margins in DeKalb and next-door Fulton weren’t nearly enough for Democrats to break the GOP grip on every statewide office.

As Raffensperger waged a low-key campaign focusing on rural Georgia, Barrow tried to drive out turnout in the east Georgia district he long represented in the U.S. House. He captured two sparsely-populated counties that voted GOP in November but it wasn't enough.

The PSC race largely mirrored the secretary of state race, and there was little evidence of vote-splitting. Republican incumbent Chuck Eaton, aided by $1 million in outside spending from a pro-nuclear group, declared victory shortly before 11 p.m.

The results were not unexpected. Republicans have long dominated fall general election runoffs, which are necessary if no candidate gets a majority of the vote in the general election because of a third-party contender.

But Democrats hoped that swirl of voting rights issues that dogged the November vote would energize liberal voters still seething from Kemp's victory and eager to prevent another Republican from overseeing state elections.

Republicans have cause for concern, too.

The last statewide runoff in Georgia came in 2008. That’s when U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss was drawn into a runoff against Democrat Jim Martin. In that race, the incumbent secured a hefty 57 percent of the vote.

Tuesday’s results more closely resemble the 1992 runoff for U.S. Senate, when Democrats controlled state politics and Republicans were clambering for a foothold. In that contest, GOP challenger Paul Coverdell stunned Democratic incumbent Wyche Fowler, 50.6 to 49.4 percent.

Had Abrams forced a runoff – she came within about 17,000 votes – it would have transformed the contest into another nationally-watched contest and presidential proxy battle. But Barrow's centrist policies and mild-mannered approach didn't lend themselves to a lower-profile vote without her.

The two Republican victories mean that Republicans will retain control of all constitutional offices in Georgia, including all five PSC seats, as well as a majority of the Georgia Legislature and both U.S. Senate seats.

Democrats will now shift their attention to 2020, when U.S. Sen. David Perdue is up for a second term and a slate of U.S. House and state legislative seats are back on the ballot.

“There was a significant drop in enthusiasm after the general election,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb. “That was true on both sides, but it was greater for Democrats. These were winnable races, but instead we came up short.”