If you had told me a year ago that Gov. Nathan Deal would essentially be tied at this point in his re-election campaign with an inexperienced Democratic legislator, I would have asked if you were smoking some of that stuff that is now legally on sale in Colorado.
If you had said a year ago that a Democrat who had never been a candidate for office before would be running competitively for the Senate seat being vacated by Saxby Chambliss, I would have given you the same skeptical response.
Anyone familiar with Georgia’s elections in 2010 and 2012 would have reached a similar conclusion. In those two cycles, Republicans swept every statewide office by comfortable margins, easily retained a U.S. Senate seat and won roughly two-thirds’ control of both legislative chambers.
That’s about as thorough a political whipping as you’ll ever see. One of my journalistic associates described the carnage in these words: “I think this is the official end of the Democratic Party in Georgia.”
As 2014 approached, it was a foregone conclusion among the experts that Deal would cruise to a second term — Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed hinted at one point that Democrats shouldn’t even bother to field a candidate against his good friend the governor.
That same logic applied to the Senate race, where it was assumed that whoever the Republicans nominated would easily dispatch the sacrificial lamb that came out of the Democratic primary.
But here we are, a little more than a month away from the general election, and both races have turned out to be much tighter than predicted.
When independent polls first started showing a close race was developing between Deal and state Sen. Jason Carter, some Republicans scoffed that such a thing simply could not be possible. Mike Hassinger, for example, wrote on a GOP website: “Carter tied with Deal? Maybe in Unicornville.”
If you look at the poll numbers for the past few weeks, however, you might have to conclude unicorns are real.
In two recent independent polls of the governor’s race, Deal was ahead of Carter by 45-44 percent in one survey, while Carter had a 46-45 percent edge over Deal in the other. If you aggregate the polling data for the past month, Deal’s average lead over Carter is about one-half of 1 percent.
Republican David Perdue has put a little more daylight between himself and Democratic opponent Michelle Nunn in the Senate race. Over the past month, his average polling lead over Nunn has been somewhere between 3 and 4 percentage points.
None of the candidates in either race, at this point, has the 50 percent support they would need to avoid a runoff after the general election, thanks to the presence of Libertarian candidates on the ballot.
This surprising performance by Democrats in the two biggest races does not mean Georgia has suddenly become a two-party state. When the ballots are tallied in November, Republicans will still have an iron grip over the General Assembly and will hold either nine or 10 of the state’s 14 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Given that partisan leaning, it’s entirely possible that as Election Day gets closer, conservative voters who have been disenchanted with Deal or Perdue may decide they’re going to vote for the Republicans after all and “come home” to them.
On the other hand, the efforts by Secretary of State Brian Kemp to shut down minority voter registration drives could motivate African Americans to turn out in larger numbers than usual, which would work against the Republican candidates.
If Deal and Perdue fall short of getting 50 percent of the vote and are pushed into runoff elections, the advantage lies with the Republicans.
There have been at least five statewide general election runoffs since 1992, and in each of them the Republican candidate won because GOP voter turnout was stronger than Democratic turnout.
The recent history of Georgia politics and the state’s conservative inclinations suggest Deal and Perdue, even as close as their races currently are, could still wind up as the winners.
No matter what, it has been a much more interesting election year than most people thought possible a year ago. Who knows how it will end?
Tom Crawford is the editor of the Georgia Report.