Georgia primary stops anti-establishment movement in its tracks

One incumbent is seen as the very embodiment of Georgia’s Republican Party establishment. Another defended the Ku Klux Klan.

A third was arrested on charges of drunken driving in the middle of the day, a gun on his hip and four teenagers in the car. A fourth, a House banking chairman, is currently trying to settle a lawsuit that followed the 2012 failure of a bank where he was a director.

The fifth was a wealthy, unpolitician challenger taking on a Republican incumbent who had voted for a huge tax hike.

The four incumbents won their primaries handily on Tuesday. The rich guy got clobbered.

A Donald Trump-style anti-incumbent insurgency at the polls? Not in Georgia on Tuesday.

"I have not seen the Trump throw-out-the-bums effect people were talking about," said state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. "If you were going to see it, it would have been in the primaries."

The folks who won last time, and the time before, won again Tuesday.

“What we saw primary night was a very traditional outcome,” said Brian Robinson, a spokesman for a big business political action committee and former communications director for Gov. Nathan Deal. “The candidates that won ran on the same issues they ran on in 2010, 2012 and 2014.”

A Congress cakewalk

Congress is roundly criticized by Georgians, as it is by voters throughout the nation. But all Georgia congressmen, and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., one of the legends of the state’s modern Republican Party, steamrolled opposition in their path.

“The more experience the better,” Gabriel Gonzales of Atlanta said in explaining his support for Isakson. “He knows what he’s doing. Or else you get someone who isn’t prepared at all.”

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, whose North Georgia district is one of the state’s most conservative, won more than 60 percent of the vote. So did U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, who drew four challengers.

U.S. senators and congressmen have seen similar results nationally, despite Trump’s success winning Georgia and locking up the GOP nomination by running as an anti-establishment candidate.

“People tend to hate Congress but love their congressman,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist. She said Georgia voters sent a message Tuesday to ideological purists who refuse to compromise across the aisle.

“What we’ve seen is a polarized environment is an unwillingness to meet people halfway. And at some point, that becomes untenable,” she said. “You can’t go in with the idea that you’re not going to compromise ever and expect that’s always going to be a winnable electoral strategy.”

At the same time, the three biggest self-funding “outsiders” aiming to shake up the status quo in Congress struggled.

Jim Pace, a real estate investor and political rookie, came in third in the wide-open race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland. Eugene Yu, an Augusta businessman, barely got one-fifth of the vote in his bid to oust Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Allen.

And Democrat Jim Barksdale, an investment manager who pumped more than $1 million into his Senate campaign and was his party leadership's handpicked choice, narrowly escaped a runoff against a little-known opponent who raised less than $10,000.

Republican voters in Georgia may be drawn to Trump’s outsider bravado, but that doesn’t mean they’ll support down-ticket candidates trying to latch themselves onto his coattails.

"If you don't have the microphone to be able to say why voters should be riled up about what's going on, it's difficult to get traction," said Republican state Sen. Josh McKoon of Columbus, who has been vilified for trying to upend business as usual at the statehouse.

A money gap

Getting the microphone isn't easy without money. In state House and Senate races, several members of the leadership team faced Republican primary opposition. But most had huge campaign war chests, so they could outspend their challengers 20-to-1, 30-to-1 or more.

In addition, outside groups such as the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Georgia Coalition for Job Creation pumped big money into races to help defend incumbents who had sided with business interests on issues including the $900 million tax hike for transportation projects.

Still, even the one incumbent the Coalition for Job Creation worked to defeat, Republican state Rep. Scot Turner of Holly Springs, creamed his opponent despite negligible fundraising.

GOP state Rep. Tommy Benton of Jefferson, a House committee chairman who defended the Klan and was rebuked by party leaders, got nearly three-fourths of the votes in his primary race.

State Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody, who got lots of financial help from Republican House leaders after his highly publicized DUI arrest in April, cruised with nearly 73 percent of the vote in his race. State Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia, the banking chairman, did better Tuesday than he did in 2014 against the same opponent.

And the self-funder, Aaron Barlow, got hammered by state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who not only backed the transportation tax hike but angered some by pushing legislation to allow MARTA to expand.

Despite the outcome, some analysts say the anti-incumbency mood will eventually take hold. Before Republicans swept to power across the state in the 2000s, Georgia voters had a history of voting for Republicans on the presidential ballot and Democrats on the state level. Now, there’s a different sort of split.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll this month found that three-quarters of Georgia voters disapproved of the way Congress is doing its job, but that a plurality approves of the way the state Legislature is performing. That divide grows even wider among Republican voters.

“The split is real. Personally, I keep thinking at some point that dam will break and the anti-Washington sentiment will overtake the state level,” said Joel McElhannon, a veteran Republican strategist in Georgia. “I have feared that for several election cycles, but it has yet to happen.”

Even with the virtual sweep of incumbents Tuesday, some voters, like Chris Brown, a Decatur lawyer, sense an anti-establishment mood.

“In general the vote against the establishment stems from the frustration many of us have had with our federal government for over a decade,” said Brown, who voted against many incumbents Tuesday. “It was a bridge too far to send people back to institutions to only vote against their constituency’s wishes.

“I think that sentiment exists now for a lot of current GOP leadership, now we’ve gotten ourselves in a Trump pickle.”

‘A status quo election’

Backers of the current Georgia leadership say voters on Tuesday rewarded state lawmakers for making tough decisions, such as the transportation tax hike.

“Leadership, forward-thinking public policy and tough votes that actually do something to make people’s lives better still matter, especially as compared to the dysfunction that is crippling our nation in D.C.,” said John Watson, once a top aide to Gov. Sonny Perdue.

But again, campaigns cost money, and incumbents raised millions of dollars from statehouse and Washington lobbyists and the people they represent, and they usually faced underfunded opposition on Tuesday.

That dominance may only continue into the fall, when Trump will be on the ballot for president but few if any Georgia Republican incumbents are likely to have to sweat out re-election in districts drawn specifically for them to win.

Democrats point hopefully to recent polls, including the May AJC survey, that show a tight presidential contest in Georgia as proof that the Trump effect could be bigger in the fall.

"As the campaign develops, more and more people will realize that Trump has no substance. He flip-flops on so much, and the outrageous things he says isn't going to help the country," said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson of Tucker. "And it's really going to hurt turnout for the Republican Party, which will only help us."

Robinson, the governor’s former spokesman, said that’s wishful thinking by Democrats.

“The only line on this year’s ballot that Trump will impact is the presidential line,” he said.

“There is no evidence Trump is going to hurt down-ballot races in Georgia,” Robinson said. “I am confident we are going to have a status quo election.”

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