I had this post about half written when we got word that Secretary of State Karen Handel would be resigning her office to concentrate full time on her bid to become Governor. In the grand scheme of events that have already occurred – The front runner dropping out because of medical problems only to run for reelection to another state wide post; campaign money laundering charges and charges of pay for play by the current poll leader; a surprise entry into the race by a sitting Congressman; that same Congressman making unfortunate remarks then being buried by ethics charges of abuse of power; and the collateral damage still yet to be measured from recent revelations at the General Assembly – the resignation of Handel, similar to the same by Eric Johnson, will be largely forgettable in the grand scheme of things. Yet it signifies that when we begin the new year in a couple of weeks, we will have begun a whole new Governor’s race. As such, it’s time to throw away all previous analysis and start fresh.
The revelations that have come out of the Georgia General Assembly have made this an election on ethics, and the (absolute) power of the majority party in Georgia. Georgians only enjoyed a two year transition from absolute Democratic rule to absolute Republican rule.
The ethical lapses showcased this month in the General Assembly are making many Georgians question why they spent so much energy to replace corrupt Democrats with corrupt Republicans. Many party faithful are now starting to understand that the election is not over with the primary, but that this contest will go all the way to November. We’ll deal with the general election in a follow up post, but for now, we’ll concentrate on the race for the Republican nomination.
Bluntly, John Oxendine and Nathan Deal’s campaigns are dead in the water. While there are still many party regulars who are sympathetic to both men, most realize that having either at the top of the ticket in November spells death for the Governor’s race, and possibly for other statewide races as well. There is no way that a Republican gubernatorial candidate can point to the abuse of power charges in the General Assembly and say “that was a small, self-contained problem” if they too are dogged by the same charges.
There are a large number of party officials and electeds that will not campaign for or with Oxendine. While not viewed as harshly, Nathan Deal is still viewed as “Radioactive” in a general election. The fact that these two currently run first and in a virtual tie for second in most polls to date is now irrelevant. The amount of negative earned media they will continue to receive makes them a gamble Republicans will be unwilling to take. For the good of the party, both men should leave the race now.
There are two others in the Governor’s race who have virtually no chance at the nomination. Ray McBerry continues to be Ray McBerry. His supporters will continue to back him until we retake Ft. Sumter, but their mile deep support is barely an inch wide. His public blow up with former campaign manager Jenny Hodges only reinforced the notion that his campaign is for entertainment value and bears no further serious discussion.
Jeff Chapman, meanwhile, is a ghost on the campaign trail and in earned media. I have seen almost no evidence of a campaign for him. He’s a good man, and has a message of bucking the powers that be when needed. That message would sell in this cycle. He’s waited too late to start selling it.
That leaves three remaining contenders in the race for Governor: Karen Handel, Eric Johnson, and Austin Scott.
I had previously written off Scott, possibly rightfully so. But, it’s a whole new election cycle, and circumstances have changed. Scott and Eric Johnson will be battling for the “anti-Atlanta” vote, which will still make up almost half of the July electorate. While we gave little press to his walk of Georgia (o.k, we covered it, but we mocked it), it seems to have resonated with rural voters based on some of my visits to GOP events beyond the 770 area code. He has a record of pushing for ethics reform before it was cool to do so (i.e., before early December), and his message of conservation before building new reservoirs and efforts to help change the state’s flag may even earn him some votes in Atlanta that would normally look another direction.
Scott likely will be far behind the others in fundraising and will be further handcuffed by his inability to raise money during the General Assembly session. Scott must figure out how to generate earned media in metro Atlanta if he is to become viable. Scott’s path to victory must also include successfully tapping his network of peers in the GA House to help spread his message. If ethical issues remain in the headlines, Scott’s chances improve every day.
Eric Johnson will probably be the money leader of these three candidates when new fundraising numbers are released in early January. Yet, his name ID outside the Savannah/Brunswick media market is still virtually unknown. He will have to spend much of his funds branding himself with Georgia voters at the same time, fairly or unfairly, he is being defined by earned media as the man who gave Glenn Richardson an ethical pass 3 years ago. While no direct ethical charges are being made against Johnson, he is suffering some collateral damage from the blasts of others’ transgressions. It appears that the longer ethics issues are in the headlines, Johnson has difficulty moving out of the mid-single digits in the polls.
Karen Handel has a runoff spot that is hers to lose. She has a history of ethics reform at both Fulton County and the Secretary of State’s office. She has already been elected statewide, and has a decent favorables/unfavorables ratio. She is not hindered by even the hint of scandal.
Her critics point to her underwhelming fundraising numbers from her first disclosure, and are whispering about another similar performance. Meanwhile, they also want to brand her as the third term of Sonny. I look at her fundraising numbers as evidence that she is not the third term of Perdue, as the rent seekers who play follow the leader, or worse, expect play for pay, were not early adopters of Team Handel. And thus, her weakness may be her biggest strength. As I remain convinced this new Governor’s race is all about ethics, the source of funds from candidates can and will be used against them. (see, Oxendine)
When fundraising numbers are released in just under a month, I expect a trend analysis is also worth watching more than raw dollar amounts. The General Assembly scandals most likely put the brakes on all big donor giving. Big money freezes up during periods of uncertainty. Giving money to Oxendine and Deal is now no longer just a risk, but may also bring media scrutiny to the donor. And I can say anecdotally that the feedback I’m hearing from fundraisers across the board is that folks are pretty tight with their wallets this year.
So, we’ll cover the disclosures in January with our usually hype. But the reality is, they just don’t matter. With the resignation of Richardson and all that followed, we have a whole new ballgame. Those are old bets, and donors will spend most of the upcoming session trying to read tea leaves before they either double down or wager on a new horse.
So, at the outset, I read the new race like this:
Handel: virtual lock on a runoff slot.
Oxendine: 50-50 on the other runoff slot, ZERO chance of the nomination
Johnson: 30% chance of runoff slot, odds steady.
Scott: 20% chance of runoff slot, odds improving.
Deal: Retirement isn’t so bad. Sonny built you some nice boat ramps while you were in D.C.
These are my thoughts, your mileage may vary.