Doug Collins was never the presumed winner of the Republican runoff election for the U.S. House 9th District seat.
Collins, who advanced to the next round in the quest to become representative of Georgia’s newest U.S. House district with a nearly 10 percentage point margin, came into the final primary round with little room to breathe.
His only opponent on Tuesday, Martha Zoller, had ended the July 31 contest within spitting distance of Collins, falling a mere 734 votes — seven-tenths of a percentage point — behind the former state representative from Gainesville.
The vote count, by most accounts, was expected to be a nail-biter.
Instead, Collins took a lead early in the night, ending with a 6,600-vote lead over Zoller, a longtime radio presence in the area.
He regained leads in Jackson, Hall, Hart and Lumpkin counties — all counties where Zoller had gotten at least a plurality of the votes just three weeks before.
Collins also won a majority of the vote in White County, where he had placed third on July 31. White had been the only county where former contender Roger Fitzpatrick was the top recipient of votes in the July 31 Republican primary.
Fewer than half of White County’s original primary voters showed back up for the runoff, and 55 percent of them chose Collins over Zoller.
Collins now turns to a campaign against Democrat Jody Cooley, also an attorney from Gainesville, for a November election to ultimately decide who will represent the 20-county district in Northeast Georgia.
At least two political scientists living in the district weren’t surprised at Collins’ win in the Republican primary.
“I did think that Collins would win for several reasons,” said Douglas Young, a political scientist at Gainesville State College in Oakwood. “But I did not think he would win by anything like 10 points.”
Carl Cavalli, a political scientist at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, also said he did not expect such a “lopsided” vote tally.
“But I’m also not surprised,” Cavalli said.
While Zoller had endorsements from national conservative superstars, Collins got a little last-minute help from Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who represented much of the 20-county district for nearly two decades. Deal recorded a call that went out to 9th District voters on the weekend before the election.
Young thinks the association could have impressed a lot of people.
“Gov. Deal is very popular in this part of the state,” Young said, noting the governor’s support in the 2010 election from voters in the 9th District.
And while Cavalli said the call could have helped, neither man seems to think it was, as Cavalli calls it, “the be-all and end-all” of the election.
Both men attribute the win to Collins’ ability to get his supporters back to the polls three weeks after they cast their original ballots.
“(Endorsements) have their place, but runoff elections are notoriously low turnout events, and in that case, whoever can get their people out to the polls is going to win,” Cavalli said.
About 65 percent of the voters who cast a ballot in the 9th District GOP contest returned to the polls. And while that’s a pretty good rate of return for a runoff, the group of 71,388 voters made up fewer than 18 percent of the district’s active registered voters.
“You’re still talking about a very small number of people,” Cavalli said.
Young attributes the successful Collins turnout to the campaign’s spending on advertising and direct mail sent to voters. Collins spent nearly $400,000 on the primary campaign, compared with Zoller’s approximate $263,000.
Collins also had more to spend, outraising Zoller in nearly every quarter the two were in the race, and as a general rule, Young says the better-funded candidate is often the victor.
Early on, the Collins campaign said its focus was on fundraising and on sending direct mail; in the days leading up to the July 31 vote, his camp sent at least four pieces of mail to voters districtwide.
“My mailbox got flooded with Doug Collins’ materials,” Young said.
But both men attribute Collins’ win in part to his experience as a candidate.
Before this year, Collins, a three-term state House member, had never faced serious opposition in an election. But both Cavalli and Young say even that experience as a candidate helped.
“I just think he was the closest thing, by far, to having an incumbent in this race,” Young said. “And the fact that the general consensus is that he has been a consistently conservative Republican, that made it a lot more difficult for a challenger to unseat him.”
Neither Young nor Cavalli saw much difference in the two candidates ideologically. The two candidates tried to outconservative each other from different directions: Zoller focused on fiscal issues, targeting Collins’ vote in favor of a hospital providers’ fee and a decision to put a sales tax referendum on the ballot, while Collins’ focused on social issues, hammering Zoller on statements she previously made about civil unions, marijuana and abortion.
Young thinks those issues may have struck a chord with GOP primary voters, who he says are generally more conservative than those Republicans who show up in November.
But whatever the message, Cavalli and Young both agree that the results came down to returning support.
Zoller admitted as much, saying Collins had done a better job of getting his voters back to the polls.
Cavalli calls it “the ground game.” Young attributes the returned voters to what he called an “advertising blitz.”
Neither said the win was particularly about the message.