By David Beasley
ATLANTA, Georgia (Reuters) - A judge's order moving up Georgia's federal primary elections next year pulls into play a closely watched U.S. Senate race to fill the seat of retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss.
The new schedule means that a likely runoff race would last two months, instead of the current 28 days, giving lesser-known Republican candidates and even Democrats a better chance in solidly Republican Georgia.
Republicans need to pick up six seats in the 2014 congressional elections to win a majority in the U.S. Senate and cannot afford to lose Chambliss' seat.
Georgia's crowded Republican primary field - with at least half a dozen people expressing interest so far - likely means a long, costly and bruising runoff between the top two vote-getters. This could drain Republican money and benefit Democrats and independents, said Charles Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Georgia.
"To the extent that one party's candidates are tearing one another down and the other side gets to sit on the sideline and watch, that candidate is somewhat better off," he said.
U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones on Thursday ordered the primary elections for U.S. Senate and House of Representative contests to be moved from mid-July to June 6. He ruled in a federal lawsuit that required Georgia to have 45 days between the primary and runoff to allow for military and absentee ballots.
Any runoff election will be held on August 5, a full two months after the primary.
A long Republican primary race in Texas last year is widely believed to have helped political newcomer Ted Cruz beat the favored U.S. Senate candidate in a surprising upset.
Cruz, who went on to win in the general election, had much more time than expected to raise money and get his name in front of voters, usually a hurdle for challengers.
Even with a damaging runoff, it is considered a long shot for a Democrat to win in Georgia.
One name frequently mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate is Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn. Branko Radulovacki, an Atlanta doctor, has already announced.
The Republican candidates include former Secretary of State Karen Handel, as well as three congressman: Phil Gingrey, Paul Broun and Jack Kingston.
(Editing by Karen Brooks, Greg McCune, Doina Chiacu)