OEDEL: Parsing the primary

May 23, 2014 

Georgia’s May 20 primary provided few surprises. Statewide, Gov. Nathan Deal, Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn won their primaries outright. David Perdue and U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston will meet again in a runoff, allowing more deliberate, focused voter review of the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate. Despite Nunn’s considerable personal strengths, odds are that a Republican will prevail in November.

This primary proved again a stubborn American political truth -- that incumbency tends to prevail, at least if the gerrymanderers don’t change the field at halftime. With no redistricting this time around, local incumbents Rep. James Beverly, Dorothy Black, Sen. David Lucas, Rep. Allen Peake, Judge Billy Randall, Rep. Nikki Randall and school board member Wanda West won their contested races handily, and will proceed unopposed.

As to the open seats, the winning candidates’ prior reputations and vigor in campaigning counted most. Open seats went to Sam Hart for Macon Water Authority chair, Dwight Jones for MWA, District 3 and Daryl Morton for school board, Post 7. Each of them had previously earned respect in the community, then poured the most energy and money into their respective contests.

The closest, most intriguing race locally was the Republican primary for the open District 18 state Senate seat, pitting Spencer Price, a Thomaston doctor who nearly beat now-retiring Sen. Cecil Staton two years ago, against John Kennedy, a Macon lawyer. Kennedy’s 57 percent to 43 percent defeat of Price offers useful lessons for students of politics.

First lesson: Going negative, as Price did in the final weeks, is generally problematic, despite political handlers telling everyone who’ll listen that negative ads are the only things that will move the meter. Unfortunately, if you need to move the meter, you’re already in trouble.

Better advice? Go positive early, and if you start losing, reconsider why your positive message isn’t winning instead of trying to smear the leader to move the meter.

Price also illustrated lesson two. Address issues that arise. When The Telegraph and voters were questioning Price on his past financial troubles, Price didn’t get out in front. Moreover, after The Telegraph eventually called Price out in its editorial endorsing Kennedy, Price didn’t immediately, effectively respond.

The third lesson from this race is not to take for granted the opponent’s supposed strengths. Kennedy ventured into Price’s bases of Thomaston, Fort Valley and Forsyth more than Price ventured into Kennedy’s base in Macon. Not surprisingly, Kennedy did better on Price’s turf than Price did on Kennedy’s turf.

Kennedy’s victory is meaningful beyond the local, parochial interests of District 18 constituents. Assuming Kennedy remains true to his roots, commitments and personal character, Kennedy should perform well in office, and could eventually end up making broader impacts.

Overall, the primary voter turnout in Bibb County was only about 27 percent of all registered voters. One can lament the fact that 73 percent didn’t get around to voting. The flip side of that equation, though, is that the voting citizens had more sway proportionally. Assuming that the actual voters were in fact more knowledgeable and committed than the nonvoters and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Consider, for example, that results in the primary exactly matched The Telegraph’s endorsements that were issued only after a laborious interviewing process of many candidates. The Telegraph’s endorsements may have had some sway on some voters’ ballots, but it’s probably also true that the majority of voters in this primary came to independent conclusions that were not unreasonable, as measured by the board’s endorsements.

Given the particular choices the voters were presented with, the small group of the voters who did vote in the primary apparently made well-considered choices.

So long as no particular segment of the citizenry is excluded, democracy doesn’t need everyone participating to work. Still, for democracy to work, the voters who do participate need to take their roles seriously. In this case, the voters, though few, seem to have been conscientious, thereby helping to reassure us that democracy can work -- as it apparently did here. Congratulations to the winners.

David Oedel teaches at Mercer Law School and has served as counsel to political candidates of both parties.

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