In the days after the May 20 primary elections, candidates who advanced to the runoffs made the usual scramble to secure endorsements from opponents who didn’t make it out of the primary.
The most widely publicized of these post-primary developments was Karen Handel’s decision to endorse Rep. Jack Kingston in his Senate Republican runoff campaign against businessman David Perdue.
Handel appeared at an Atlanta news conference and made a short speech declaring Kingston was really a great guy, probably the greatest thing since sliced bread.
“What I’ve seen in Jack is a man of integrity who is devoted to his family,” Handel said. “A man who is fiercely dedicated to the conservative principles that are the foundation of the Republican Party. A man who has represented the people of the 1st Congressional District honorably and effectively for more than 20 years.”
Kingston’s campaign is hoping that Handel, who had significant support among tea party activists, will be able to deliver those votes to him in the runoff fight with Perdue.
Will her endorsement actually bring supporters back to the polls on July 22 to vote for Kingston?
It could be that Handel’s words won’t be all that helpful.
If you look at voter turnout figures in recent election cycles, it’s clear that a large percentage of primary voters don’t bother to return for the runoff. The number of ballots cast in a primary election usually declines by 40 percent or more in the runoff — sometimes by more than 60 percent.
In 2006, voter turnout for the Republican primary declined by 59.1 percent in the runoff. The decline was 52.8 percent in the Democratic primary and runoff.
In 2002, Republican primary turnout declined by 65.1 percent in the runoff. The decline in Democratic voter turnout after the primary election was 64 percent.
In 1998, Republican primary turnout declined by 44.3 percent in the runoff election.
The decline in Democratic voter turnout was 44.6 percent.
It’s a matter of human nature. Voters whose candidate was eliminated in the primary have much less incentive to turn out for a runoff election than those who voted for a successful candidate. They simply stay home on the day of the runoff.
Setting aside the question of how many supporters will bother to vote in the runoff, there is the issue of how credible an endorsement can be when the candidate was so harshly critical of the person she is endorsing.
From the moment Handel announced she was running until the primary ballots were counted 11 months later, she said over and over again that Kingston, Rep. Phil Gingrey and Rep. Paul Broun were unfit to be senator because they had failed to accomplish anything as House members.
“When Jack Kingston was elected to Congress, the debt was $4 trillion,” Handel said at one point. “Today, our debt is $17 trillion — and climbing. In fact, in 2003, Jack Kingston and Phil Gingrey both voted to raise the debt ceiling by nearly $1 trillion dollars. In 2004, they both voted again to raise the debt ceiling by nearly another trillion dollars.”
Here’s a similar Handel quote from a debate:
“We have three members of Congress who are running and together they have 42 years in Washington. That’s a lot of Washington, too much. Everything that they talk about tonight, they have had every opportunity to do. And they haven’t — look at the results.”
She said this in a campaign speech:
“Even though they are nice people, results matter. Do you like where we are in this country, are you happy with the way Washington is functioning? Well, the surest way to get more of the same is to keep electing the same people.”
These weren’t random comments that Handel made in the heat of the moment and later regretted — they were deliberate criticisms of Kingston she repeated on numerous occasions throughout the campaign.
If Kingston is really as bad as Handel contended for so long, then it’s difficult to take her seriously when she now says he’s really a man of integrity who deserves everyone’s vote.
Do you believe what she said a month ago, or do you believe what she is saying now? That’s the eternal question of politics.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.