Open congressional seat draws crowded field in primary

Coming Sunday

Find your guide to Tuesday’s primary, including the hot races to watch from Georgia’s congressional seats to contested county races in Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties. We’ll have what you need to know before heading to the polls.

Tuesday’s primary

Voters will go to the polls Tuesday to select party nominees for congressional, legislative and local seats across the state. For information about key races and the issues driving them, check out The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage on and

Tuesday’s primary

Voters will go to the polls Tuesday to select party nominees for congressional, legislative and local seats across the state. For information about key races and the issues driving them, check out The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage on and

The race to win Georgia’s only open congressional seat is a crowded one: seven Republican candidates and two Democrats will be on the ballot Tuesday in the 3rd District.

The bevy of candidates seeking to succeed retiring Republican Lynn Westmoreland has produced its share of tangled and more often than not unfocused moments. With no incumbent on which to fixate, lots of competition and a litany of policy issues to discuss, the contenders have scrambled to stake out unique political ground — many on the right — with mixed results.

“It’s surprising. We’re less than a week away and I still run into multiple people every day who don’t really know who’s running,” said Will Kendrick, the chairman of the Upson County Republican Party. “People want somebody who’s going to go in there and really get things going for the district.”

The sheer number of Republican contenders virtually guarantees a runoff on July 26, so the goal for candidates Tuesday will be placing in the top two. The winner of the Republican nomination is highly favored to win the seat in November in this deep-red congressional district, which voted 2-to-1 for Mitt Romney in 2012.

If there is one unifying theme in this race, it's the same that's percolated throughout the presidential contest and many of Georgia's other congressional primaries: dissatisfaction with the status quo in Washington.

But in this economically diverse district, which stretches from Peachtree City to the northern suburbs of Columbus and north along the Alabama border, the frustration does not appear to be as uniform as it does in other parts of Georgia.

Top contenders

The localized divides that exist between the Atlanta exurbs and the former textile towns in the west, for example, could be some of the biggest defining factors in the 3rd District race. And the three contenders who appear to have the most money, momentum and name recognition — Newnan-based state Sen. Mike Crane, Peachtree City businessman Jim Pace and West Point dentist Drew Ferguson — reflect those regional distinctions.

Undoubtedly, the candidate with the highest name recognition is Crane.

He currently represents a portion of the 3rd District in the state Senate, where he made a name for himself as a conservative firebrand cut from the same cloth as Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. He most recently called on the Legislature to convene a special session to override Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto of “religious liberty” legislation, and he’s carved out the political ground the furthest to the right in this race.

“I think people are finally beginning to recognize that if one liberty can be compromised by government, then what’s to stop the next one?” Crane said during a recent interview in his Newnan campaign headquarters, an old Sears storefront decked out in red, white and blue. During a Thursday afternoon it was occupied by nearly a dozen volunteers calling voters while children played in a back room.

The scene reflected Crane’s core constituency: socially conservative grass-roots groups and evangelicals. He’s racked up endorsements from groups respected by the right such as the National Rifle Association, Georgia Right to Life and the Club for Growth, and Crane frames himself as the kind of lawmaker who would not bend on his campaign promises should he be elected to Washington.

“What differentiates me is that I’m in that 10 percent (of candidates) that does exactly what they say,” he said.

Crane’s rabble-rousing personality, however, has earned him enemies in the past. He also angered a key constituency, the law enforcement community, with comments earlier this year about no-knock warrants.

Crane’s fundraising has also lagged behind Pace’s and Ferguson’s.

Ferguson, in particular, surprised many when he posted the best fundraising numbers in the race, money he’s funneled into building name recognition elsewhere in the district.

The charismatic former West Point mayor has used the uplifting story of his hometown’s economic turnaround as a main tenet of his campaign. (Ferguson came on board as mayor in 2008, shortly after the ink had dried on a massive deal with Kia that brought thousands of jobs to the area.)

“We reunited the community, we reloaded, we rebuilt, and if we can do that here at the local level …. we can take those same leadership skills to Washington,” Ferguson said in a recent interview a short walk from his former office in City Hall. One of his biggest challenges lies in expanding his name recognition beyond the small, 4,000-person enclave that knows him well.

That is less of a problem for Pace, a longtime resident of Peachtree City. His ties in Fayette County run deep, ones he helped bolster by bringing Pinewood Studios to the region in 2013.

On the surface, Pace appears to be cut from a similar mold as Donald Trump — a wealthy businessman and political outsider who loaned himself $250,000 to get his campaign off the ground. Pace, however, is not nearly as bombastic and lacks that same type of flair, instead quoting stories from the Bible in a recent interview.

Political civility in Congress is a chief concern to him.

“I’ve been a CEO for 27 years, so the business background and the experience that I have I think is a clear delineator,” Pace said. “I also think the biggest delineator is to hear this heart, the tone, the willingness to not polarize the situation but to try and find common ground.”

Like U.S. Sen. David Perdue, another political rookie with a corporate background, Pace has advocated for term limits for members of Congress.

Other candidates

Also in the race is Richard Mix, a film producer and owner of a vintage toy store in Newnan who was the race’s first Trump supporter. All seven GOP candidates have now vowed to back the billionaire for president.

There’s also Sam Anders, a U.S. Air Force master sergeant raised in England; Chip Flanegan, a small business owner; and Arnall “Rod” Thomas, a former educator and master gardener who mulled running as a Democrat.

On the Democratic side of the ballot, Tamarkus Cook, a Newnan pastor who also works at his family’s funeral home, and Angela Pendley, a Grantville volunteer with a background in the health care field, are vying for their party’s nomination.

Ultimately, which Republican wins a slot in a potential runoff may depend on turnout Tuesday.

For starters, awareness of the race does not appear to be high. Many other likely GOP voters say they’re undecided.

“I would like to see someone who’s first judgment when any issue comes up is not ‘how will this affect my re-election?’ That’s the business they’re in,” said Republican Hamilton Arnall, an undecided Newnan retiree who said he was pleased overall with Westmoreland.

Ann George, a teacher from LaGrange who’s also undecided, said Republicans in Congress have yielded too much political ground to Democrats.

“We wanted them to repeal Obamacare and all that. I feel like they’ve caved into his agenda too much,” she said of President Barack Obama. “I want somebody that’s going to stand up for us. It’s our government — we elected them. It’s not theirs.”

Coweta County GOP Chairman Brant Frost, an aide to Crane in the state Senate, said early voting numbers so far show a relatively low turnout in the district.

“At the rate they’re going, I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw about 80,000 votes cast. … I would think that should favor Mike Crane because he’s favored by the very active conservative voters who vote all the time,” he said.

Frost says the candidate who can best demonstrate he will not change his tune should he ultimately be elected has the best shot of winning in the 3rd.

“I think a candidate who can connect with voters, who can give the greatest assurance that he’s not just blowing smoke in their face like so many others have in the past, I think that candidate will probably have a good chance of making the runoff and winning the runoff,” he said.