The national media continue to tout Georgia's soon-to-be-open U.S. Senate seat as one of just a few "swing" states that could end up going Democrat in a year that otherwise seems to look great for the GOP nationally. And the current outlook for the May 20 Georgia contest might tell us a great deal not only about Georgia but about trends that are developing across the nation.
In a crowded field, three candidates have emerged, but none of the three fits the "right wing extremist" category that Democrats were hoping to see win the Republican nomination. The Democrats' candidate, Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is waiting with strong polling numbers, plenty of cash and a virtually guaranteed nomination against marginal Democratic opposition.
The good news for the Republicans is that their three individuals who are pressing to make an almost certain runoff in July are considered attractive candidates and, at the same time, are strong conservatives in a state where moderate-to-conservative views still dominate the political landscape.
Businessman David Perdue leads in the polls. He's running the "I'm not a career politician" message, and it has gone over well. Perdue has been highly successful in the private sector and has the active backing of his cousin, former Gov. Sonny Perdue. In Georgia, the backing from a popular former Republican governor, who is also a cousin, is valuable.
Congressman Jack Kingston, who has been a loyal Republican since his college days, has the backing of the state's business community and many longtime GOP activists. He is locked in a battle for second place in the polls with former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel. Handel came close to edging out Nathan Deal in a GOP runoff for governor in 2010. But Handel's campaign tactics against Deal rubbed some, including Deal, the wrong way. Nathan Deal is now, of course, Governor Deal.
Fortunately for Handel, Deal can hardly play kingmaker this year, given that his approval ratings are anemic and he faces a tough reelection battle against state Sen. Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter. But the damage and ill will created in her race against Deal has left Handel cut off from big money. And that's where this story gets interesting.
Based on all estimates, turnout for the May 20 primary will be extremely tepid. Georgia's fire-breathing, flag-waving, tea-party-enamored Republican electorate of 2010 has all but disappeared. That means that television commercials designed to air to the masses won't have as big of an impact as they did just four years ago. That's helpful to Handel because she is airing her TV spots primarily through social media.
Some rather clumsy early ads by Kingston, combined with Handel's dogged use of alternatives in communication -- such as automated phone calls and Facebook -- have kept the two in a tight battle for the right to take on Perdue in a July showdown.
But the lackadaisical attitude of voters toward this primary should give Republicans around the nation pause for concern. Is it possible, with President Obama's approval ratings slowly creeping up a bit, that the GOP could be bitten by the same "turnout bug" that left Mitt Romney in Obama's dust in 2012? Republicans must ask why a state such as Georgia is polling with as many or more voters identifying themselves as Democrats or "independent voters" as they do as Republicans.
Much of the national media is convinced that Michelle Nunn, who is currently running ahead of each of the potential GOP nominees in the polls, is set to take Georgia's Senate seat and provide a possible barrier to a Republican Senate takeover. But the bad news for her boosters is that Nunn has yet to face the brutal attacks that will attempt to link her to President Obama and other prominent liberal Democrats. And even if Nunn outperforms her Republican opponent in November, she must win a majority of the vote -- with a Libertarian in the race -- in order to avoid runoff with the Republican. She would stand little chance of winning that runoff.
That being said, Republicans need to examine Georgia's unenthused Republican electorate and determine if "the turnout bug" could bite them again this year, and what role social media could play in avoiding a 2012 repeat.