An interesting coincidence

My last post laid out reasons why Rep. John Barrow ( D-GA12 ) may have difficulty getting reelected in 2014. I didn’t mention a local race that may have helped elect Rep. Barrow in 2012.

By local race, I mean Augusta, Georgia. When the Georgia 12th Congressional District was redrawn after the 2010 Census, Savannah was excluded from it leaving Augusta-Richmond County ( the two governments consolidated in 1995 ) as the largest city in the district. Because the population of Augusta is large in comparison to the rest of the district, local elections in Augusta can have a bigger effect on turn out than those in Dublin or Milledgeville ( the next larger cities in the 12th District ).

What was the local election which may have made a difference? It was the Democrat primary for the Augusta-Richmond County Sheriff race to pick the successor to long time Sheriff Ronnie Strength. At first glance, there wasn’t much here to entice voters to pick the Democrat ballot over the Republican one. The four candidates in the Democrat primary were more alike than different. All four of them were local law enforcement veterans. Three of them were serving members of the Augusta-Richmond County Sheriff’s Department and the fourth served in the Sheriff’s Department previously. One of the candidates was the protégé of the serving Sheriff and another was his brother-in-law.

Looking a little deeper, one candidate stood out from the others. Richard Roundtree was disciplined for some ethical lapses at the Sheriff’s department in 2008 and later left. Some voters who might normally have voted in the Republican primary were worried that he hadn’t changed and may have voted the Democrat ballot this time.

Here’s where it gets interesting: under Georgia law, primaries are “open” meaning that you don’t have to be a registered party member to vote in either party’s primary. Once you commit, however, you can only vote in the run-offs for that same party. What most of these voters switching to the Democrat ballot didn’t consider is that in a four person race with no incumbents, it’s likely that a run-off will be required. Even if a candidate in a hypothetical Republican run-off gave you heartburn, there’s no way to switch party ballots in the run-off and vote against him.

As it turned out, that’s what did happen. In a four way race in the 12th Congressional District Republican primary, the choices reduced to Rick Allen, an Augusta businessman, and Lee Anderson, a member of the Georgia House of Representatives. Allen would probably have been the choice of voters wanting to switch as Anderson didn’t come across well in the televised debates. His down home demeanor was a little too unsophisticated for voters looking forward to the general election and imagining how he would fare against Barrow.

With many of the more motivated, nominally Republican voters stuck with a Democrat run-off ballot, both Allen and Anderson lost votes in the run-off. The two had collected nearly 36,000 votes in the primary but at least one in five of those voters failed to return for the run-off. The final outcome was extremely close with the worrisome Anderson winning by less than 170 votes.

As a result, Rep. Barrow lucked out with an opponent he could easily frame as a hayseed out of his depth. Even Anderson may have bought into this characterization as he dodged all opportunities to debate Barrow. With this advantage and an NRA endorsement, Barrow managed a 7 point win. It’s doubtful he’ll be so lucky again.

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