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The contest for Georgia’s newest Congressional district is shaping up to be a Republican showdown between the tea party and the establishment, and a battle between two of the state’s top consultants.
A Republican will almost definitely win the Peach State’s 9th district, a new seat created as a result of reapportionment and anchored in northern Georgia’s Hall County with Gainesville as its population center.
In the primary are Martha Zoller, who hosts a syndicated three-hour conservative talk-radio show, and state Rep. Doug Collins, who is close with Gov. Nathan Deal (R). Both are unequivocally conservative, so the race may come down to narrative.
“He is running as the conservative who is part of the establishment. She is running as the conservative who is not part of the establishment,” said Georgia GOP consultant Mark Rountree, who is unaffiliated in the race.
Zoller, 52, and Collins, 45, each have top strategists working for their campaigns.
Zoller brought on Joel McElhannon as her general consultant, Rob Autry at Public Opinion Strategies for polling and Nick Everhart from the Strategy Group for Media. Collins nabbed Chip Lake, the former chief of staff to Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), as his general consultant. John McLaughlin is heading up polling for Collins, with Sonny Scott at Rising Tide doing media.
Deal won’t endorse anyone in the race, but many vendors who worked for his 2010 campaign have signed on with Collins, who is the governor’s floor leader in the state House. The governor’s daughter-in-law, Denise Deal of Southern Magnolia Capital, is helping Collins with fundraising.
The 9th district, drawn by the GOP-controlled Legislature to be one of the most Republican districts in the country — 76 percent of voters would have cast their ballots for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential election, will hold its GOP primary on July 31, 2012.
Zoller, who has never held political office, will work to leverage her outsider status and emphasize Collins as an Atlanta insider. Collins will emphasize his biography — he’s a Baptist preacher, a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves who served in Iraq and a lawyer. He’ll tell voters about his political, business and military record, which he says demonstrates “an experience factor you can’t deny.”
“We’re going to be fairly similar in a primary,” Zoller said in a recent interview at Tortilla Coast in Washington, D.C. “The biggest difference, I think, between us, is he has shown, through his voting record, that he tends to vote with the leadership rather than with his constituents.”
Collins said he always votes his conscience and that Zoller’s characterization of his record is inaccurate.
“We have a good record to tell, we have a good story to tell,” Collins said. “People want, in the end, people of principle and people to stand up for something. But also not just be able to say, ‘I’m going to do this,’ actually look back and say, ‘I have done this.’”
The tea party movement is strong in northern Georgia and will undoubtedly play a role in the race. It appears that Zoller has the early edge with those groups, having a long history with certain activists.
“Martha Zoller has been involved in the tea party movement since its inception,” said Julianne Thompson, the coordinator for Georgia Tea Party Patriots and a Zoller supporter. “She’s been at every tea party event that we have ever organized.”
Thompson said “grass-roots activists all across north Georgia are very excited about her candidacy. ... She’s one of us.”
Collins said he also has tea party support and said his values are in line with the movement.
All the dynamics at play make for a genuinely competitive field.
“I make no bones about it: This is a race,” Collins said.
“We have a long row to hoe,” Zoller agreed. “This is going to be a tough race.”
Although there may be other candidates who jump into the primary — perhaps several — Georgia strategists see this field as already set with the outsider-insider narrative of both candidates mostly defined.
“What’s really interesting about this race is both sides have positioned themselves where they want to be,” McElhannon said. “The question is: where are the voters going to be?”