4 intriguing metro primary races

Election challenges against some of the Legislature's biggest names have brought unusual heat to the July 31 primary in metro Atlanta.

Voters especially in four districts across the region will see contested races that could drastically alter leadership under the Gold Dome. Among the top issues: taxes, transportation, ethics and school choice.

Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers of Cherokee County, Gwinnett County Republican Don Balfour — the longtime chairman of the Senate's powerful Rules Committee — and Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, all face opponents going into the primary.

Atlanta's Buckhead community will likely cast the deciding votes in the race against Doug Stoner, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. Three GOP challengers are on the primary ballot, making a play for the Cobb County Democrat's seat.

Voters seem pleased to see contested primaries dotting the region.

"The system has been in place for elections every two years; that pretty much eradicates complacency," said Kevin Jackson, who lives in Cherokee County in Rogers' district.

As a result, Jackson said, legislators "have to work for that office, and they need to make sure their constituents are satisfied."

Most-watched among the four races is the 21st Senate District challenge. Rogers' 10-year rise to leadership at the Capitol has put him in one of its highest — and high-profile — positions. He touts a conservative outlook and has established ties to groups that include the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Republican-leaning policy group.

His perch helped last year, when legislators went through the once-a-decade process of redrawing the state's political district lines. The result could favor creation of a Milton County based on the impact redistricting is expected to have on the Fulton County delegation, with more legislators based outside Fulton likely to represent parts of it. Rogers picked up portions of Fulton for the election this year, with the eastern half of Cherokee, a presumed home base for the Woodstock Republican, also part of his district.

The change, however, gave rise to his opponent, Brandon Beach, president and CEO of the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce.

"I think he's lost touch with the local voters," said Beach, who has been vastly outspent by Rogers and instead has concentrated on the "shoe-leather politics" of door-to-door home visits and social media.

As of June 30, Rogers reported having more than $290,000 in cash in his campaign account, 13 times more than Beach. Rogers also reported spending almost $389,000, although he said more than $300,000 of that went to expenses in the context of his role as state senator and were not related to the primary.

The biggest area of disagreement between Beach and Rogers centers on a proposed change to the state constitution that would restore the state's power to approve charter schools, which will be on the November ballot.

Beach, who supports charter schools in general, opposes the amendment, saying it would take control away from local officials. Rogers championed the change in the Legislature, a position that angered the Cherokee's school board, among others. He also recently bucked Gov. Nathan Deal to oppose a proposed regional 1-cent sales tax for transportation, which will be on the July 31 ballot.

"One thing is for certain: When conservatives are successful they will be targeted," Rogers said. Voters "know I will stand against every tax increase and make sure government stays out of our personal lives and our wallets," he said.

Ethics in spotlight

In the 9th Senate District, which stretches across Gwinnett from Mountain Park in the west to Dacula in the east, 20-year incumbent Balfour, R-Snellville, appeared vulnerable.

Balfour has endured months of ethics complaints that accuse him of falsely claiming mileage and per diem reimbursements from the state. He has repaid the state for what he deemed as paperwork errors, but the Senate Ethics Committee continues to investigate.

Balfour is also accused of failing to perform audits of senators' reimbursement requests as state law requires the Rules chairman to do.

Balfour's troubles didn't prevent Georgia's top companies and political action committees from contributing to his re-election. The veteran lawmaker received money from Coca-Cola, Turner Broadcasting, SunTrust Banks and many of the top law firms and special interest PACs.

As of June 30, Balfour reported having nearly $800,000 in cash in his campaign account, a huge advantage over his two Republican opponents, who combined have about $5,000 in cash.

Balfour did not respond to requests for comment.

Steve Ramey, 62, a former Marine and executive with Olan Mills Studios, said he was encouraged to run by voters sick of Balfour's ethics problems.

"They said they wanted someone with ethics who would not do the same thing," Ramey said. "It's going in and trying to clean up."

A tea party leader in Gwinnett, Ramey ran against state Rep. David Casas, R-Lilburn, in 2010 and believes that experience boosted his name recognition with voters.

The third candidate in the primary, 30-year-old Travis Bowden, has been active in Young Republican groups and the Gwinnett GOP.

"Don is not going to work as hard as me," Bowden said. "He's going to try and buy this election."

Well-financed competitors

The race for the Republican nomination in the 6th Senate District is one of the more competitive and expensive. Three well-funded candidates are vying for the chance to take on incumbent Stoner of Smyrna in a district that was redrawn to include heavily Republican sections of north Fulton.

Josh Belinfante, Hunter Hill and Drew Ellenburg have each raised more than $175,000, and all had more than $100,000 in cash on hand at the first of the month.

Belinfante, an attorney who served in Gov. Sonny Perdue's administration, has been a lobbyist and vice chairman of the state ethics commission. He has endorsements from Attorney General Sam Olens and House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta.

He has emphasized such experience on the campaign trail and in a television spot running on local cable systems. "People understand there are real issues out there. ... We're offering real solutions," he said.

Ellenburg calls himself the only self-made businessman in the race. He said his background as the founder and owner of a wholesale furniture business gives him a perspective increasingly needed in Atlanta.

"I run a successful business and I manage people every day," he said.

But Ellenburg said he's also focused on the need for ethics reform, an issue that has dominated much of the campaign.

Hill supports limits on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. Belinfante does as well, while Ellenburg said he'd rather strengthen enforcement of existing laws and beef up the state ethics commission.

A former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hill said he considers himself the front-runner with just more than two weeks to go.

"I don't mean that to brag, but it's based on numbers," Hill said. "We did a poll that had us in the lead by 18 points. ... Yard signs, cash on hand, total money raised. There are a lot of indicators."

Nasty fight

Redistricting has also changed the 31st Senate District in west metro Atlanta. Bartow County has been dropped, while the district added a substantial part of Paulding County as well as Polk and Haralson counties. Haralson is home base for the incumbent, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bill Heath, who carried Deal's tax overhaul through the Senate this year.

Paulding is home to Heath's main challenger, Bill Carruth, a former chairman of that county's Board of Commissioners who served on the state Department of Natural Resources board until he stepped down to run against Heath.

The race has turned nasty, including a challenge to Carruth's residency and publicity about a $2.3 million federal judgment against Carruth that involved a loan for a private bank that failed. Carruth is challenging the judgment, and a representative said he is up to date on payments.

"We hope to rise above it, but we're not going to unilaterally disarm, either," Carruth consultant Chip Lake said. "We've got a very, very strong base in Paulding County. We're hoping we've got a geographic base we can build on."

Heath, meanwhile, has faced attacks about his commitment to conservative values, including accusations that he voted to raise taxes — a reference that includes his vote to put the transportation sales tax on the July ballot. But, with $112,000, he has nearly twice as much cash on hand heading into the primary.

Carruth has spent "more money during this campaign so far in a desperate attempt to falsely attack me and distract voters from his massive defaulted debt, irresponsible behavior and unpaid taxes," Heath said. "I have always been and continue to be a rock-solid conservative leader."