Drama-filled presidential race obscures state races, issues in Georgia

65 days until vote

Sunday marks 65 days until Americans vote in federal and state races on Nov. 8. All year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has brought you the key moments in those races, and it will continue to cover the campaign's main events, examine the issues and analyze candidates' finance reports until the last ballot is counted. You can follow the developments on the AJC's politics page at http://www.myajc.com/s/news/georgia-politics/ and in the Political Insider blog at http://www.myajc.com/s/news/political-insider/. You can also track our coverage on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GAPoliticsNews or Facebook at https://facebook.com/gapoliticsnewsnow.

Politicians see Labor Day as the unofficial start of the election season, but no presidential race in recent history has made that idea seem so quaint.

In Georgia, as in other states, the presidential contest has held voters spellbound for more than a year, leaving most down-ballot candidates wondering whether anybody will pay attention to them as they stump for votes. And with good reason.

The U.S. Senate race has attracted little attention, despite the fact that polls show incumbent U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson with a less-than-overwhelming lead over unknown Democratic challenger Jim Barksdale. There are no real competitive congressional races on the ballot and only a handful of closely watched legislative races in Georgia.

Trump vs. Clinton has simply sucked all the political oxygen out of the room this campaign season.

“I’m not paying attention down-ballot at all,” said Jacki Frye, an east Cobb resident who works for a beer distributor. “I’m so busy and there’s just not enough time in the day. But you can’t help but get involved in the presidential race.”

Georgia candidates will spend the coming weeks fighting to be heard against a presidential race that will only get louder and more sensational in the final stretch.

"Most people don't think about local politics, and we've been going to a lot of events, churches, doing canvassing. And most people have not been engaged at all," said Michelle Jones, a stay-at-home mom from Hall County trying to upset state Rep. Emory Dunahoo.

An enthusiasm gap

That lack of interest extends to just about every race beyond the top of the ballot

Isakson, once thought to be a shoo-in against a Democratic newcomer, is hoping to prevent a down-ticket drag from voters skeptical of Trump by pitching the U.S. Senate as a fiercely independent bastion of conservative values.

And supporters of Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign for a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to take control of persistently failing schools are readying an advertisement push to make sure friendly voters don’t skip over the question.

It’s been especially tough to get attention for candidates in state legislative contests — and the slew of judicial and local races — further down the ballot.

State Rep. Taylor Bennett, a Democrat in a Republican-leaning Brookhaven district, went on the offensive early with a polished TV ad trumpeting work in this year's legislative session that "hasn't had anything to do with party politics — which is the way it should be."

“I know that the top of the ticket is on the news every single night, but there are serious state and local issues that I talk with folks about, day after day,” said Bennett, predicting high turnout in his district.

He touched on a worry that has left candidates even in the safest seats agonizing over national poll numbers: the possibility that Trump’s gaffes, Clinton’s email problems or the overall nastiness of the race will keep voters at home on Election Day.

“What every candidate is really worried about is turnout,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist. “Some Republicans who oppose Trump may not show up at all. And if Trump voters who are only there to vote for Trump ignore the rest of the ballot, you could have a real problem.”

There are about 45 contested state House and Senate seats up for grabs in November. But election watchers say one, maybe two state Senate seats are actually in play, along with three to five House seats.

The lack of competition can be traced, in part, to the voting districts that state lawmakers drew earlier this decade. Legislators decide which Georgians specific U.S. House members and members of the General Assembly serve. They divide up constituents into districts so that most represent solidly Republican or solidly Democratic regions, meaning the party primaries, and not fall general elections, often matter most.

State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has a Democratic challenger this fall. But McKoon, a lawyer, plans to spend time campaigning against a proposed constitutional amendment to remake the state panel that investigates accusations of misconduct by judges, a measure critics call a legislative power grab.

His district should be solidly Republican, like about two-thirds of all House and Senate districts created by the General Assembly.

“Truthfully, we have a U.S. Senate race that is not really competitive, we don’t have any competitive congressional districts,” McKoon said. “So then you are down to a small handful of state legislative seats that could go one way or the other, and frankly, I don’t think that affects enough people for that to bubble up in a statewide kind of way.”

Local candidates will have to compete with a torrent of news from presidential candidates this fall, with blockbuster presidential debates likely to shatter TV ratings records and a steady stream of campaign controversies, policy speeches and battleground visits to feed voters’ appetites. Some of the action will take place in Georgia, and that could help candidates here.

Trump’s Georgia campaign is reviving the network of volunteers that helped him win the state’s presidential primary, and each will be instructed to tout Isakson and other down-ticket Republicans.

The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, is sending its southern political director to Georgia on Monday to build an army of volunteers to boost Clinton and other Democratic candidates in November.

Republicans, who make up the vast majority in both chambers of the General Assembly, will have a huge financial advantage. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of campaign reports shows that a dozen top House and Senate leaders who face no opposition, and their chamber political action committees, had more than $4 million in their accounts as of June 30, a giant bankroll to help them steamroll underfunded Democratic hopefuls.

‘Trump has swallowed them’

Bennett and Republican challenger Meagan Hanson are running in one of few hotly contested legislative districts. Bennett won the Brookhaven-area seat in 2015 despite the fact that the district went for Republican Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama in 2012. It has the highest median income, percentage of residents with college degrees and white population, percentagewise, of any district held by a Democrat.

More than a quarter of the residents in the Hall County district Jones is running to represent are Hispanic, which should help a Democrat. But Romney won three-fourths of the vote in the district in 2012, and, as of June 30, the incumbent Republican Dunahoo had almost $100,000 in his campaign account, while Jones barely had $1,000.

Jones has worked on the campaign nearly full time and gone to as many civic events, churches and even football games as she could to speak and talk to voters. “We’re not really focused on national politics. We’re focused on community issues,” she said.

However, the best bet for long shots like Jones may be voters like Cresia Sapp, a retired educator from Swainsboro, who said she’s going to vote “three-quarters of every incumbent out of office,” sparing only local candidates she knows personally.

Or Pam Franklin, a former teacher from Midville, who went a step further with the kind of statement that keeps veteran politicians up at night.

“If they are an incumbent, I am not voting for them. Democrat or Republican. Not even in the U.S. Senate — not even for Johnny Isakson,” Franklin said. “You know, that’s how we got in this trouble in the first place.”

But if down-ballot challengers are counting on catching the attention of a wide swath of voters this fall, they may be out of luck.

Mike Carter, a retiree from Warner Robins, was among the Republicans trying to fill in a cavernous exhibition hall in Perry last week for Mike Pence’s first campaign rally in Georgia.

Trump may have packed the place. But his running-mate was fortunate to attract a few hundred people on a sweltering weekday afternoon.

“I saw a program the other night about a guy who was a stunt rider his whole life. He was one of the best in the country, but he never got any attention, never got any notoriety, because Evel Knievel got all the fame,” Carter said.

“That’s exactly what’s happening here to everyone else on the ballot. Trump has swallowed them all up.”