If you had told me a year ago that Gov. Nathan Deal would essentially be tied at this point in his re-election campaign with an inexperienced Democratic legislator, I would have asked if you were smoking some of that stuff that is now legally on sale in Colorado. Anyone familiar with the Georgia elections of 2010 and 2012 would have reached a similar conclusion. In those two cycles, Republicans swept every statewide office, retained a U.S. Senate seat and won two-thirds control of both legislative chambers. That’s about as bad a whipping as you’ll ever see. One of my associates described the carnage in these words: “I think this is the official end of the Democratic Party in Georgia.”
As 2014 approached, it seemed that Deal would cruise to a second term in office. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed hinted at one point that Democrats shouldn’t even bother to field a candidate against the governor. That same logic applied to the U.S. Senate race, where it was assumed that whoever the Republicans nominated would easily dispatch the sacrificial lamb that came out of the Democratic primary. But here we are, about a month away from the general election, and both races have turned out to be much closer than predicted. When polls first started showing earlier this year that a close race was developing between Deal and state Sen. Jason Carter, Republicans scoffed that such a thing could not be possible. Mike Hassinger, for example, wrote on a GOP website: “Carter tied with Deal? Maybe in Unicornville.”
If you look at the numbers for the past few weeks, however, you might have to conclude that unicorns are real. In two recent polls of the governor’s race, Deal led Carter by 45-44 percent in one survey, while Carter had a 46-45 percent edge over Deal in the other one. If you aggregate the polling data for the past month, Deal’s average lead over Carter is about one-half of 1 percent.
Republican David Perdue has put a little more daylight between himself and Democratic opponent Michelle Nunn in the Senate race. Over the past month, his average polling lead over Nunn has been somewhere between 3 and 4 percentage points.
No candidate in either race, at this point, has the 50-percent support needed to avoid a runoff after the general election, thanks to the presence of Libertarian candidates. This performance by Democrats does not mean that Georgia has become a two-party state. When the ballots are tallied in November, Republicans will still have an iron grip over the General Assembly and will hold either nine or 10 of the state’s 14 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Given that partisan leaning, it’s possible that as election day gets closer, conservative voters who have been disenchanted with Deal and Perdue may decide they’re going to vote for the Republicans after all and “come home” to them. On the other hand, Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s efforts to shut down minority voter registration drives could motivate African American voters to turn out in larger numbers than expected, which would work against Republican candidates.
If Deal and Perdue fall short of getting 50 percent of the vote and are pushed into runoff elections, the advantage lies with the Republicans. There have been at least five statewide general election runoffs since 1992, and in each of them the Republican candidate won, because GOP voter turnout was stronger than Democratic turnout.
The recent history of Georgia politics and the state’s conservative inclinations suggest that Deal and Perdue, even as close as their races currently are, could still end up winning. No matter what, it has been a much more interesting election than most people thought possible a year ago. Who knows how it will end?