In the race to be the newest member of Georgia’s congressional delegation from Northeast Georgia two candidates who see themselves as the other’s chief rival might be their own worst enemies.
Both from the district’s most populous county, Doug Collins and Martha Zoller are likely to divide the most powerful voting bloc in the district.
Exactly how that division shakes out in terms of chances for the third candidate, retired White County principal Roger Fitzpatrick, could make the July 31 Republican primary more interesting.
Hall County residents age 18 and older make up nearly 25 percent of the people in the new district comprising all or parts of 20 counties.
The county’s voting population is nearly three times that of the second-largest county in the new 9th District.
Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, said the contest throws a wrench into the accepted theories of the classic “friends and neighbors politics” in the South.
The theory is that voters are likely to support their hometown candidate. Back in 2010, Bullock said the same idea helped Nathan Deal — once considered a marginal candidate in Georgia’s gubernatorial Republican primary — land a spot in a runoff election and eventually in the governor’s mansion.
“We vote for the hometown boy,” Bullock said.
Deal, who had represented the 9th District (as it was drawn then) for nearly two decades, had strong support from nearly every one of his old district’s counties, except in Forsyth, where his chief Republican opponent Karen Handel had a 1,000-vote lead over him.
Again, in the runoff, Deal’s old congressional constituents came through for him. And in the general election, as Deal beat Democrat Roy Barnes, voter participation in his home county of Hall outpaced the rest of the state by four percentage points.
The same idea would apply to any candidate running for Congress from Hall County, which for the last two years has been represented in the U.S. House by Republican Tom Graves of Ranger.
But the boost of friends-and-neighbors votes likely isn’t going to have the same effect this year.
“Both (Collins and Zoller) have something of a base there in Hall County,” Bullock said. “So by splitting that base, it’s much worse for either of them.”
They each have their advantages. Collins, as a former member of the Georgia General Assembly, represented part of the county for six years. Zoller, as a former radio host, had her own presence on the district’s airwaves.
While Bullock said a person with previous political experience usually has an advantage, candidates with media careers and no prior political experience have repeatedly won elections.
While Collins also represented parts of Lumpkin and White counties, Zoller’s media career likely gave her a greater reach in the southern part of the district than Collins, Bullock said.
“We know voters are reluctant to vote for somebody about whom they know absolutely nothing,” Bullock said.
And that’s why spokespersons for the two candidates say they’ve spent the last several weeks trying to get their names in front of the voters.
Loree Anne Thompson, who leads communications efforts for Collins, said his campaign’s goal is, clearly, “to win as many counties as we can.”
Likewise, Ryan Mahoney, Zoller’s campaign manager, said their strategy “is to win over as many voters as we possibly can.”
“Where they’re from doesn’t matter,” Mahoney said.
To do that, the Collins campaign has installed a point person to rally support in each of the district’s 20 counties.
“We feel like we’re running a race in 20 different counties,” Thompson said. “We’ve had him all over. We were in Fannin (County) one day and then we were in Elbert (County) later on that same day. Another day, we went from Rabun to Forsyth. We have him all over this district.”
The Collins campaign is also relying on help from friends and family who live in other counties in the district.
One of the campaign’s county chairmen served in the Georgia State Patrol with Collins’ father.
Both former Gov. Zell Miller and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston have campaigned on Collins’ behalf, introducing him to their own former constituents.
Mahoney doesn’t fear Collins’ legislative connections in Hall, he said.
While Collins represented parts of three counties for six years, voters in his old Georgia House district never had to make a decision between him and another Republican. And Mahoney questions whether those ties have any edge over Zoller’s community service and media reach.
Several national political action committees have taken on Zoller’s cause, offering money and star power to her campaign.
Just last week, Zoller’s team got a boost from former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who recorded a message on her behalf. The message was sent to district voters via a massive robocall.
Still, the Zoller campaign spent the early days of the campaign touring the district in a caravan of minivans “to make sure we got in front of people from all 20 counties,” Mahoney said.
But the success of either strategy depends on which of those voters show up July 31.
Fitzpatrick did not return a call seeking comment Friday.