Freshman Broun Facing Hard Georgia Contest

Posted February 27, 2008 at 6:37pm

In his bid to knock off Rep. Paul Broun in Georgia’s 10th district GOP primary, state Rep. Barry Fleming is studying the lessons of a couple of recent Peach State Congressional elections so he can make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

Lesson No. 1 comes from an obvious source: the special election race that brought Broun to Congress less than eight months ago.

Broun won a narrow, and surprising, 394-vote victory over former state Sen. Jim Whitehead in a July 17 runoff to fill the seat of the late Rep. Charlie Norwood (R), who died Feb. 13 after a battle with lung disease.

But by most accounts the race never should have gone that far.

Whitehead, who was based in Augusta and had close ties to the Norwood family, entered the race as the acknowledged frontrunner and expected successor to his old friend.

But a series of missteps by Whitehead served to alienate Republicans in Broun’s Athens base and stir up an old Athens vs. Augusta regional rivalry that proved to be alive and well. Georgia political observers say Whitehead’s inability to gain traction outside Augusta played a large part in allowing Broun to sneak into the two-way runoff by edging out Democratic candidate James Marlow by 198 votes and finishing second in the open special election.

Although Fleming, like Whitehead, also is based in suburban Augusta, “you’re not going to hear us pitching a regional battle” this cycle, said Fleming campaign manager Cam Kirbo. “That’s a real mistake in the last campaign. … Barry is running for the entire 10th district.”

To emphasize the point, Kirbo noted that Fleming this week named 21 county chairs to his campaign team whose job it will be to lead grass-roots efforts on the ground in every county across the 10th district.

And a key message those county chairs will be carrying to voters is the fact that Fleming is trouncing Broun in the fundraising battle. Fleming ended 2007 with $488,000 in cash on hand to Broun’s $125,000. Broun also still held more than $270,000 in debts, mostly from loans he made to himself to fund his previous campaign.

When Broun “got into office in July, he decided he was going to do his job. So he was concerned with hiring staff, opening up our three district offices and getting down to work,” said spokeswoman Jessica Morris. “His focus has not been on the campaign. Right now, of course, we are turning our focus that way but [the fundraising disparity] has not concerned us.”

Don’t forget, Broun was outraised and outspent in his 2007 campaign and still emerged victorious.

Morris said one of Broun’s biggest strengths has been his voter contact efforts.

Anecdotally, Morris pointed to one recent district tour in which Broun put 900 miles on his car in a two-day span. For more statistical evidence of Broun’s efforts to stay connected, one might point to the 163,513 pieces of mass mail he sent out in the fourth quarter of 2007 at a cost of about $35,500, according to House disbursement statements.

“Congressman Broun has worked really hard at staying in the face of the people in the 10th and he is trying to be omnipresent and he is working very hard,” acknowledged one Georgia Republican insider.

But that source also pointed out that Broun has cast a few maverick votes where he has broken with the Georgia Republican delegation. Not long after he entered office in July, Broun voted in favor of legislation that barred the federal prosecution of people who use marijuana for medicinal purposes in the states that allow it.

“We’ll see if [Broun’s] political skills match up to his shoe leather,” the source said.

Jonathan McGinty, an Athens-based political blogger, said turnout — and not necessarily Republican turnout — will be the key to Broun’s re-election chances.

“When it got to Broun and Whitehead, the Democrats got behind Broun,” McGinty said. During the runoff, Athens Democrats saw Broun as “the lesser of two evils.”

Those same Democrats could be a voting bloc again for Broun in the July primaries because Georgia election law allows crossover voting.

Which brings up history lesson No. 2, courtesy of controversial former Georgia Congresswoman — and current Green party presidential candidate — Cynthia McKinney.

After her 2002 Democratic primary loss to Denise Majette, McKinney claimed to be the victim of “malicious crossover voting” and her supporters filed a federal lawsuit. The suit claimed Republicans, in a targeted effort to oust McKinney, helped Majette to a 20,000-vote margin of victory by participating in the Democratic primary. (Incidentally, the suit also charged that Majette was a Republican disguised as a Democrat.) The suit was dismissed in 2003, but Georgia pols are now well-aware of what crossover voting can do to a campaign.

In his runoff, Broun won Democratic- leaning Clark County with about 90 percent of the vote.

McGinty said it will be interesting to see where those moderates and Athens Democrats will chose to vote come primary day, especially since Iraq War veteran Bobby Saxon (D) so far is uncontested in his primary.

“I don’t want to tempt Democratic voters to turn out to offset [the Republican primary race] but the likelihood of [Democrats] turning out en masse again for [Broun] is lower,” Kirbo said. “In general, you don’t see the same amount of support in a primary of a different party as you would in a special election that is open to everyone.”

Of course, with Atlanta political blogs reporting Wednesday that the two-way battle between Broun and Fleming could soon expand to a three-way race, there may still be more lessons to learn before the race is over.

State Sen. Nancy Schaefer (R), who is based in the northern part of the 10th district, acknowledged to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she conducted a poll on the Congressional race and would make a decision on whether to enter “in the next few days.”

Morris seemed unconcerned about the possibility of a second Republican primary foe.

“In last year’s election, Congressman Broun was outspent 10-1 and he won,” she said. “He can certainly do it again, regardless of who enters the race. It’s not about the money. It’s about the minds and hearts of the people, and Broun has already shown himself to be a leader.”