The five incumbent Republican state lawmakers from Hall County all are running unopposed this election year, and whether that’s surprising depends on who you ask.
Since the election of President Barack Obama, Georgia Republicans have faced a barrage of challenges less from the political left than the tea party-fueled right. Even some party-line GOP officials have taken the approach that if you can’t beat them, join them.
Republican U.S. Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey both are using their newfound credibility among the right as members of the tea party caucus in their campaigns this year to replace Saxby Chambliss in the U.S. Senate.
So perhaps it is a little surprising that no one is trying to out-conservative the conservatives when it comes to local General Assembly races.
But perhaps the biggest surprise is the absence of Democrats or independents in local state races this election season, leaving ballot choice wanting in Hall County.
So does voter and political apathy explain the lack of opposition?
“I think it does” to some extent, said Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, adding that he tries to bridge the apathy gap by working on bipartisan legislation that appeals to a wide swath of constituents.
Lack of interest
Douglas Young, political science professor at the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus, said apathy is exacerbated this year because it is not a presidential election cycle, when more voters typically turn out at the polls.
In addition, Young said Georgia, in general, suffers from a lack of a political activism. Campaigns for state office here are some of the least competitive in the nation, he added.
Whereas Republicans have squared off with tea party candidates in recent primaries across the country, local conservatives have been able to stave off any challenges from the right.
“The job is not an easy job, especially these days with all the advocate groups,” said Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville. “I think some of the tea party activists understand ... and see how overwhelming the process is.”
Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia, said he expects lower voter turnout this year as a result of the candidates running unopposed. But the lack of a primary challenge may also drive more Democrats to the Republican primary, he added, voters who might cast a ballot just to see their least preferred candidate fall by the wayside.
Of course, whatever disinterest in local politics may exist among the electorate, perhaps it’s simply the case that no one believes they can win without name-brand recognition and a sign off from conservative groups.
The barriers to entry are a concern of Arturo Corso, a Gainesville lawyer who ran an unsuccessful campaign for the state Senate as a Democrat in 2006.
“If you run for state office, sad to say, you either need to be independently wealthy, politically connected or selflessly dedicated to public service for the sake of public service,” he said. “This is why most people would never run for office, and why often times people can’t be bothered to exercise the most precious of our freedoms: the right to vote.”
Bullock said that like with most national races, more than 90 percent of incumbents in Georgia win re-election.
“If you’re aware of those kinds of odds and don’t have some kind of issue which you think you can exploit ... you may say this just isn’t the time” to run, he said.
It also doesn’t help that the Hall County Democrats have been rendered virtually inactive.
But there are forces in the works, larger than any political machinations can control, that are slowly turning the electoral tide in favor of the Democrats, at least outside Hall County.
At the state and national level, Democrats are working hard to turn Georgia blue. They’ve got some name-brand recognition this year in the likes of Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter who is running to unseat Gov. Nathan Deal. Michelle Nunn, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, is running to replace Saxby Chambliss in the U.S. Senate.
But perhaps more significantly, the nation’s demographic swing toward more younger and nonwhite voters is beginning to show in Georgia as well.
After decades of ruling the General Assembly, the old-time Dixiecrats of Georgia gave way to a sweeping conservative Republican agenda over the past 15 years. But in a few decades, the nation’s minorities will make up the majority, presenting a daunting prospect for Republicans who have failed to make significant inroads with minority voters.
“I think things will become a lot more electorally competitive in Hall County in the coming years,” Young said, adding that as the Hispanic population grows and becomes more politically active, Republicans will be facing an unprecedented challenge to their leadership.
“Right now, it would be easy for Republicans in Hall County to think they’ve got it made,” Young said, adding that conservatives will have to improve their appeal among minorities or else face a “long, bleak winter.”
Yet some of Hall’s lawmakers say that running unopposed is a sort of validation of their time in office.
“I don’t think it speaks to voter apathy,” said Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville. “I hope it’s more a result of them being pleased with the work I’m doing.”
Rogers said the local state delegation works well together, and that this might explain why they are running unopposed.
“I think it’s an issue that hopefully most people feel like we’re doing a good job,” he added. “You always have some that are unhappy with something.”
It may also be the case that the delegation is representative of Hall County’s politically conservative nature.
“That’s democracy, too,” Young said.
Dunahoo said he felt confident that voters knew what they wanted, and that a challenger could pony up anytime.
“Anytime that people feel I’m not doing a good job, they’re welcome to run against me,” he said.
Without having to campaign this year, state lawmakers said they would use the free time to get a head start on the 2015 General Assembly session.
“It does allow us time to look at our legislative agenda for the following year,” said Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville.
Hawkins said he’s already planning his summer schedule around bills that might come up next year.
“Without opposition in this race, I can engage in some of the study committees that will be formed,” he said.
Lawmakers said the downtime would also be filled with community events and projects, answering constituent requests and, as always, doing a little fundraising.
“You still have to raise some money,” Dunahoo said, adding that making donations to local charity groups, the state Republican Party and other candidates’ campaigns is part of the job detail.
Barr said he enjoys meeting with constituents and addressing their concerns while out of session.
“There’s a lot of community involvement that comes along with the job,” he said.
The truth, however, is that running unopposed comes with the added benefit of not having to give so many speeches, raise so much money and do so much of the glad-handing and baby kissing at meet-and-greets or town halls that often comes with campaign season.
But that also doesn’t mean lawmakers can take voters’ support lightly.
“Is it as intense as when you have an opponent? Probably not,” said Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. “But you have to make sure that people realize that you respect and appreciate their vote. That’s important.”