Crowded GOP field fights for Broun’s seat

This is the fourth in an occasional series analyzing Georgia’s five competitive congressional primary races ahead of the May 20 vote, as the state’s delegation to Washington is set to go through a historic shift. Still to come:

  • 12th District: Two Augusta Republicans, Rick Stone and John Allen, are vying to compete against incumbent John Barrow, the last white southern Democrat in Congress.

For the past seven years, this northeast Georgia district has been represented by U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, whose outspoken conservatism and reputation as a frequent “no” vote earned him national attention. The race to replace him, though, has been anything but a contest to take up his mantle.

Broun is running for the U.S. Senate, and his family name — his father was a longtime state senator who represented a part of Athens — still carries weight. Yet in debates and at events, only one of the crowded field of seven Republicans seems eager to trade on Broun’s name.

Instead, it's a muddied fight with no clear front-runner among candidates trying to build their name recognition and burnish their GOP credentials ahead of the May 20 primary. Awaiting them is Democrat Ken Dious, an Athens lawyer who is his party's nominee for an upset in this staunchly conservative district.

Only Jody Hice, a pastor and conservative radio talk show host, has loudly sought to be heir to Broun’s unabashedly archconservative record. At debates and campaign events, Hice tells audiences he would proudly adhere to Broun’s four-part litmus test to judge legislative proposals, a filter that led to a flurry of “no” votes in Washington.

It holds that any bills he votes to approve must meet the original intent of the Constitution’s Framers, fit the “Judeo-Christian biblical principles” that form the nation’s foundation, is necessary and affordable.

Two of the other top rivals have taken different approaches. Mike Collins is a trucking company executive who plays on his business background and often brings his dad, former U.S. Rep. Mac Collins, on the campaign stump with him. And former state Rep. Donna Sheldon highlights her voting record and does little to distance herself from her legislative background.

Four other candidates round out the field. Stephen Simpson, a retired U.S. Army officer who was trounced by Broun in 2012, has revived his campaign. Athens lawyer Garry Gerrard, businessman Mitchell Swan and tea party acolyte Brian Slowinski are also trying to cleave off enough support to get into a runoff.

Broun’s legacy

Broun’s legacy weighs heavily on the 10th Congressional District, which was redrawn to make way for a new GOP seat after the 2010 census. It sprawls just east of metro Atlanta and ends on the outskirts of Augusta, stretching far enough north to splice off part of Athens.

Although it’s home to the University of Georgia and the largely liberal community that surrounds it, the district’s conservative roots are deep-seated. Republican Mitt Romney earned more than 60 percent of the vote here in the presidential race two years back, and Republicans control the local levers of power in most of the district’s roughly two dozen counties.

Broun, an Athens physician, handily won re-election in these parts even as he faced criticism for his rhetoric. His videotaped remarks that evolution and the Big-Bang theory were "lies straight from the pit of hell," for one, sparked national jokes and led to fears that he would lose to a Democrat if he wins the GOP Senate nomination.

With no major urban center to anchor the district, voters in rural counties play an outsized role. Walton and Barrow counties form much of Hice’s base, and it’s where he led the charge in 2003 to raise funds to offset Barrow’s legal costs in a bruising battle with the American Civil Liberties Union over posting the Ten Commandments at the Barrow County Courthouse.

He parlayed that into a conservative radio program, TV appearances and a 2010 bid for Congress against Rob Woodall, who won that contest in a runoff. But a redrawing of the district and Broun’s decision to join the crowded contest to succeed U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss gave Hice an opening to launch a new campaign.

“We’ve been in the trenches for a long time. If there are any three words that describe me it’s that I’m a Christian, I’m a constitutionalist and I’m a conservative,” Hice said at a recent forum. “And I’m unapologetic about any of those positions.”

Most local analysts predict Hice is in a three-way race for the runoff with Collins and Sheldon, who haven’t been as vociferous about taking up Broun’s cause. Collins, who owns a midsize trucking company, is quick to emphasize his business background on the stump.

“I’ve been out there creating jobs for the past 20-something years. Chasing our version of the American Dream,” Collins said. “But small businesses are being threatened, not by competition but by the federal government. I believe that my kids don’t have the same opportunities that I did when I was their age.”

At a time when being an outsider is a positive for GOP contenders, Sheldon has embraced her public career in a way that no other candidate can. Sheldon, who stepped down from the state House to run her campaign, reminds audiences of her role as one of the top Republicans in the chamber.

“Anybody can promise you a conservative voting record,” she said at one recent event. “But I have a proven track record.”

Seeking separation

Few clear policy distinctions have emerged in all the campaigning, as none of the candidates want to risk being labeled as the most moderate in the race. Each is eager to attack the health care overhaul, pledge to oppose tax increases and support expanded gun rights.

That’s led to campaign maneuvering — some would call it gimmickry — as the candidates try to carve out an identity.

Slowinski's meandering video announcing his candidacy earned instant attention in political circles for its awkward production. Gerrard's refusal to take a salary until Congress passes a balanced budget has proved a mighty talking point.

But the most attention was heaped on Collins, who created a parody video that simultaneously invoked Jean Claude Van Damme, knocked President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and reminded viewers of his business background. That video, which riffed off a popular Volvo commercial, quickly earned tens of thousands of hits.

Still, interest beyond the most fervent supporters has been low. Blake Aued, the news editor of the liberal Athens Flagpole, said while Hice is seen as a “natural successor” to Broun, it hasn’t led to much talk about the contest.

“There’s been like zero buzz around this race in Athens,” Aued said. “I’ve hardly heard anyone talking about it. It’s overshadowed by the governor’s race, the Senate race.”

With no major media market dominating the district, the candidates must rely more heavily on direct-mail campaigns and voter turnout drives. That gives places such as Walton County, with about 85,000 residents and a hefty chunk of the district’s GOP primary voters, a prominent say in the outcome.

“It’s all about the ground game, and you can’t underestimate Walton County,” said Martha Zoller, a conservative commentator who lost her own congressional bid for a nearby district in 2012.

That point isn’t lost on John Sauers, who heads the Walton County Tea Party Patriots. Sauers, who has endorsed Hice, said he expects the pastor to drive up his margin enough in Walton to safely land in a runoff.

“I’m going to do my part. I know what’s going on,” Sauers said. “Hice is a force to be reckoned with, there’s no question. He articulates who we used to be as a nation.”

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