If you needed any proof that Republicans are worried about a looming runoff, look no further than Sunday’s gubernatorial debate.
That’s when Gov. Nathan Deal, instead of lobbing a softball at his Libertarian rival, unloaded a double-barreled attack questioning his support for a Medicaid expansion and criticizing the millions of dollars in federal grants his technology firms accepted.
Georgia Democrats and Republicans are warily eyeing the third-party candidates in the two races atop the ballot, mindful that voters could be headed to two more grueling contests if no candidate tops 50 percent on Nov. 4. They are worried for very different reasons.
The Democratic candidates know their best shot at victory likely lies in November and not beyond. No Democrat has won a statewide runoff in Georgia since 1992, even though three of the candidates had the lead in the general election. That’s a track record Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn aren’t eager to test.
For Republicans, another round of voting could expose them to a shocking upset and a flood of outside money seeking to influence the race. And it could weaken them if they manage to hold on. Deal wouldn’t be able to claim a second-term mandate and David Perdue would enter the U.S. Senate with less seniority than the newcomers elected in November.
As the Senate race has tightened in recent weeks, both Democrats and Republicans have pushed more money into the state in an attempt, they say, to push their side over the edge on Nov. 4.
“I will not be be in Georgia for New Year’s Eve,” said Brian Baker of the Ending Spending Action Fund Super PAC, which is about to announce an additional $1 million in spending on behalf of Perdue.
The Libertarians, meanwhile, aren’t pretending they’re in it to win it. Andrew Hunt, the candidate for governor, wants to push his support to the 20 percent threshold, which would help guarantee his party access to down-ballot races such as lieutenant governor and attorney general.
“This will be a runoff,” Hunt posted on his Facebook site. “The more votes for Hunt means the more our views are important to you and the less you approve of what Deal and Carter represent.”
The runoff calculus is changed this year with two separate election days, the result of a federal court decision last year elongating runoff times for federal races — but not state contests — to allow enough time for overseas ballots to arrive.
Turnout always plunges between the general election and the runoff, but the awkward January timing of the Senate contest — and the potential that control of the chamber could be on the line — would bring a frenzy of added attention and outside spending on the race.
“When you include all the money the campaigns, parties and outside groups spend, it could be a $50 million runoff,” Republican consultant Chip Lake said. “And that might be low-balling it.”
The top candidates are publicly confident that Libertarian support will drop off as November draws nearer, yet Deal’s attack on Hunt on Sunday suggested otherwise. The governor noted that Libertarians are “fierce opponents” of government spending, and he pointedly asked how Hunt reconciles his support of Medicaid expansion with his party’s platform.
(Hunt, a technology entrepreneur, said he opposed the Affordable Care Act but as long as it’s the law, Georgia should reap the benefits. “We have to get our tax dollars back,” Hunt said.)
Another indication is their bank accounts. Deal has collected more than $110,000 in campaign contributions that would be available to him in case of a runoff. Carter had roughly $4,000 for that purpose, according to campaign finance reports released this month.
“We know the governor is planning for a runoff. The governor expects a majority of this state to come out and vote against his leadership, which I think is telling,” Carter said. “But we plan to win on Election Day.”
Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson, who is advising the Nunn campaign, said internal discussions about a runoff have been going on for the past month — particularly on how to raise money locally and nationally. Johnson said the Democrats would reach out to Libertarian voters and even Democrats who did not turn out for November.
And Johnson said Democrats would be energized by the mere fact that there is a runoff, enough so that they would come out again.
“If and when we go to a runoff, I think historical trends will not play as big a role in this race as it has in the past because it’s a victory within itself that two Democrats made it to a runoff in what we thought was a red state,” Johnson said.
The last general election runoff in Georgia came in 2008, when U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss easily prevailed over Democrat Jim Martin after coming up just short of 50 percent on Election Day.
National money and surrogates flooded into a race that could have given Democrats a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. (They got it later with U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s belated win in Minnesota and a party switch by U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.)
Lake, then chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Coweta County, pitched in. He now recalls a frenzied scene.
“There’s a lot more people that have a stake in the election,” he said. “They want to protect their investment. There’s a lot more people who want to give advice. It really does turn into — at best — organized chaos.”
Fatigue plays a role, too, for candidates, staff, family and surrogates. A Jan. 6 runoff would disrupt holiday seasons for many.
Former Gov. Sonny Perdue was in a buoyant mood earlier this month at the state fairgrounds, glad-handing voters and back-slapping supporters as he vouched for his cousin’s Senate bid. But one prospect quickly darkened his day.
“I like politicking,” he said. “But not over Christmas.”