GOP hopes not to repeat bloody 9-week runoff


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Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. today in Georgia’s primary runoff. To see what you need know when you go to cast your ballot, go to Page A10. To see a video where AJC political reporters Greg Bluestein and Daniel Malloy break down the key races, go to MyAJC.com.

As Georgia’s first-ever nine-week primary election runoff draws to a close, state Republican leaders already are looking for a way to never have to do it again.

This year’s rejiggered election calendar, the result of a court order to allow enough time to process overseas ballots, cut short the annual legislative session and elongated the costly battle among the Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate.

U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue face off Tuesday in the Senate runoff vote, and many Republicans are lamenting the time wasted and $5 million spent on TV ads — time and money that could have been used to pummel Michelle Nunn, the well-financed Democratic Senate nominee.

Still, the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn faces a challenging battle in a red state with low approval ratings for President Barack Obama, and a breezy primary season leaves the first-time candidate untested for the fall.

Gov. Nathan Deal said in a recent interview that he was disappointed by low turnout levels in the primary, and that the nine-week lag needed to be “re-examined.” But he said Georgia might have to wait until the feds move first.

“Unfortunately, it might have to start at the federal level,” he said. “It’s an issue that needs to be re-examined, but it requires the federal authorities and the Justice Department to be engaged.”

Secretary of State Brian Kemp wrote a letter to the governor and lawmakers a few weeks ago noting that changing the vote-counting system isn’t as easy as it would seem.

“I think it’s too long, too. I knew people weren’t going to like the nine-week runoff, but it’s what we had to do,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday. “But it needs a real thoughtful discussion. It’s more complicated than many people realize.”

Kemp’s office is still pressing its legal appeal with the federal government after issuing 572 overseas ballots in the May primary, compared with 20,168 in the 2012 general election. It’s also searching for potential administrative solutions.

Many lawmakers enviously pointed to Mississippi, which had a similar legal fight with the feds. Mississippi was able to cut a deal with the Justice Department for a three-week runoff through a temporary system of instant contests.

Kemp said such a solution won’t come as easily in Georgia, partly because the electronic voting system used here cannot be reprogrammed to handle an instant runoff or a ranked voting. He’s said a secured, Internet-based voting system now being used by West Virginia to tally votes of overseas military personnel costs about $3,700 per ballot.

“There’s always a legislative option of doing away with a federal runoff,” Kemp said. “But the question is whether the policy-makers want to get rid of runoffs. There are ways to get away from it, but some people might not like it.”

The impact of the nine-week slog can be measured in dollars: According to a breakdown of advertising spending obtained by the AJC, Kingston and allied political action committees — including the deep-pocketed U.S. Chamber of Commerce — spent at least $3.02 million on television ads during the runoff. Perdue and his allies spent at least $2.22 million on TV in the nine-week span.

Much of that spending has come in the form of increasingly personal attacks.

“It wasn’t three times as nasty; it was just three times the amount of nastiness,” said Mike Hassinger, an Atlanta-area GOP consultant who is not affiliated with a Senate campaign.

Democrats eagerly await the opportunity to use the losing Republican’s words against the winning nominee. Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington, said the runoff elicited damaging information about Perdue and Kingston. In addition, he said, the contest brought out more strident conservative rhetoric, such as when both men hinted at a willingness to impeach Obama.

“So many of their vulnerabilities were exposed in the primary and the runoff,” Barasky said. “The shine is completely off on David Perdue. We know a lot of things we didn’t know about him before. And Jack Kingston is a member of the most unpopular House Republican caucus in modern history.”

Some Republicans fear that the negative messaging will further drive down voter participation.

“I think we’re going to be surprised by the turnout,” said Rock Feeman, a Jefferson real estate agent. “I’m worried that people are just giving up, that they won’t vote.”

One of them is Jerod Panian, who plans to steer clear of the polls Tuesday.

“It’s been a bit much. It’s turned me off some, honestly,” said Panian, who specializes in construction sales in Atlanta. “I think it hurts the Republican Party in general for them to be spending so much money while Nunn just raises more and more and more.”

Nunn has raised $9 million since entering the race and had $4.75 million in her campaign account as of the end of June. Either Kingston or Perdue will have little remaining cash come Wednesday.

But the kickoff of the general election likely will bring many Republican donors in from the sidelines. And Super PACs raising unlimited sums can fill in the breach.

The conservative Ending Spending PAC, founded by Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, is spending $204,000 on TV airtime to attack Nunn this week, to provide some competing negative programming. The ad's theme of tying Nunn to Obama is likely to be repeated by others through the general election.

“She’s not taken any hits yet, but she’s going to take a lot of ‘em in the next several months,” University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said. “By the time we get to November, her reputation will be besmirched, too.”

Georgia Republican Party spokeswoman Leslie Shedd noted that Tuesday’s Republican winner “will have gone through the wringer.”

Some polls show Nunn leading either Kingston or Perdue at this point, which Shedd predicted is a temporary condition.

“It’s easy for someone to like a candidate that says absolutely nothing,” Shedd said of Nunn. “She seems real nice and helps poor kids, that’s great. But she is eventually going to have to answer questions and tell people her stance on things and not give these same dodgy answers.”