Georgia voters to decide GOP Senate nominee, other key runoff races

A bruising nine-week runoff hurtled to a halt on Tuesday as Republicans decide their nominee for a nationally-watched open U.S. Senate seat and voters from both parties select their picks for the top schools job.

At the top of the ballot is the heated contest between Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue, a former Fortune 500 chief executive. The two emerged from a bruising seven-way GOP primary in May and Tuesday's victor will face Democrat Michelle Nunn's well-financed campaign, as well as Libertarian Amanda Swafford.

Both Kingston and Perdue differ more in tone and experience than policy, and they have crisscrossed the state in the final days offering Republican voters their closing arguments. Kingston, elected to 11 terms, contends that his long record in Washington makes him a reliable conservative vote. Perdue stresses that only an outsider with business experience can right Washington's wrongs.

The Senate seat was left open by Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ retirement, which had a ripple effect in Georgia’s political world. Kingston and two other congressmen - Marietta’s Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun of Athens - left their seats open to run for Senate. And GOP contenders for all three of those races are locked in runoffs.

In Kingston's district, which stretches across coastal southeast Georgia, state Sen. Buddy Carter faces Bob Johnson, a Savannah surgeon with tea party support. Another internal GOP clash is unfolding in Broun's northeast Georgia district, where Mike Collins, a businessman with establishment support, faces pastor Jody Hice, who has cast himself as a cultural warrior.

And former Rep. Bob Barr, known for leading the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, faces ex-state Sen. Barry Loudermilk in his comeback bid for Gingrey's seat, which stretches from Buckhead to Atlanta's northwest suburbs.

Voters from both parties will decide their picks to replace Superintendent John Barge, who launched a failed bid to oust Gov. Nathan Deal in the primary.

Republicans will choose between Mike Buck, a high-ranking state Department of Education official, and Richard Woods, a veteran educator and administrator from Irwin County. Much of the rhetoric in the contest focuses on Woods' opposition to Common Core standards, which has alienated some school administrators.

The Democratic contest is even more contentious. Valarie Wilson, a Decatur school board member with much of her party's backing, faces state Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan, who upset many partisans with her support for a charter school amendment that passed with overwhelming support.

Voters must also decide key local races. In DeKalb, Sheriff Jeff Mann will try to halt former county CEO Vernon Jones bid to return to office. And in Cobb, voters will decide if chairman Tim Lee, an enthusiastic backer of the relocation of the Atlanta Braves, will get more support on the board.

Polls were open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and voter turnout is expected to be light, partly because of rainy forecasts and the barrage of negative ads that mark the Senate contest. Only about 3 percent of the state's roughly 5 million active voters cast early ballots, and analysts predict voter participation to hover below 10 percent.

The vote will mark the end of the longest runoff in Georgia history, and many top officials never want this nine-week slog again. More than $5 million was spent by Senate candidates and their supporters on TV ads alone since May 20, an array of ads meant to boost, distort and confuse voters.

The spending does have one benefit, said Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who oversees state elections.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that an active voter is not getting contacted,” he said.