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Editorial: Runoff battle serves up red meat more than issues
Primary candidates with similar views rely on attacks, scandals, endorsements to lure voters
Republican candidates for Georgia governor, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, left, and Secretary of State Brian Kemp. shake hands July 12 after an Atlanta Press Club debate at Georgia Public Television in Atlanta. The two face off Tuesday, July 24, in a primary runoff for the Republican nomination. (AP Photo/John Bazem

The three-ring circus of the Georgia primary season folds its tents this week when those voters who haven’t already voted, and who aren’t at the beach, will settle the remaining races in Tuesday’s runoff.

This round of voting will lock in the nominees for the fall race, when candidates are separated more by ideology and the campaigns may be able to focus more on substance than we’ve seen thus far.

The problem with the primary system is that Republicans are mostly in lockstep on most major issues, as are Democrats. So to gain voters’ attention and separate themselves, they highlight personalities, endorsements, scandals and missteps instead of issues. And there have been plenty of those to go around.

The run-up to the GOP primary in May featured big guns, trucks and chain saws, a “Deportation Bus” and candidates trying to “out-tough guy” each other by cozying up to the president, immigration enforcement and the Second Amendment.

Since then, the Big Top has added a secretly recorded audio tape, questions about lobbying influence and business deals and the usual spate of dueling endorsements. The biggest of those came Wednesday when President Donald Trump tweeted his support for Brian Kemp in his mano-a-mano with Casey Cagle. Two days earlier, Gov. Nathan Deal backed Cagle as the man most able to carry on his legacy of economic growth.

In the past week, Cagle got the nod of NRA chief Ollie North while Kemp got the backing of Newt Gingrich and former primary foes Clay Tippins and Hunter Hill. The latter two came as no surprise, but his nod from the White House was a lightning bolt from the blue. Some suggest Trump may have backed Kemp largely because the “SEC primary” the secretary of state orchestrated in 2016 gave Trump a huge boost toward his own GOP nomination.

In a race that appears squeaky tight, endorsements could be enough to tip the scales. Such is the case when there are barely wafer-thin differences among the contenders in each party on issues that matter most:

To stir up interest in primaries that tend to draw 20 percent turnout or less, and maybe half that for the runoff (though early voting numbers in Hall were up), candidates must play to emotional pleas and stir up a froth over topics sometimes only marginally linked to the office they seek. In the Democratic primary, that lack of policy diversity led to a contest tinged by race.

It doesn’t help that the runoff process drags on for weeks since the courts ruled Georgia must increase the time span between primary and runoff to accommodate absentee ballots. We’re not sure why turning those ballots around quicker isn’t an option in today’s connected world, but the state was bound to comply. Now the drawn-out process further drains candidates’ war chests, exhausts voter patience and leads to minuscule turnouts in the middle of summer vacations.

It’s worth considering whether this primary system best serves voters and the democratic process with such a lengthy, costly process to select nominees. Some states have gone to an “instant runoff” system system in favor of ballots that rank candidate choices in the primary, allowing voters to choose their second option when voting. When one candidate doesn’t win outright, the second choices are counted and a winner is chosen without requiring an extra trip to the polls. It’s an intriguing idea Georgia should look into to shorten the process and give voters a break.

But for now, this is the system we have, and short of returning to nominees chosen at state conventions in smoke-filled rooms — even if some feel that system produced better candidates — that toothpaste isn’t going back into the tube.

The result is a campaign that only dances around the big issues —“it’s all on my website,” they’ll often say — while giving more play to sound bites and scandals, assuming that’s more in line with voters’ attention spans.

Kemp’s main topic of discussion, in fact, has been the gift Cagle wrapped for him in a bow, his ill-fated recorded remarks to Tippins about pushing legislation for political gain and admitting the race has been over who is the “craziest,” which will get no argument here. Cagle’s admission in a separate recording that he wants to cut poverty, seen as a positive by many, was spun into painting him as a mushy liberal and not a true hard-core conservative. As always in politics, if you’re not controlling the message, someone else’s message controls you.

Once the nominee is chosen, the GOP will try to stitch up its wounds, come together and brace for the fall race against Democrat Stacey Abrams. That contest also won’t be gentle, but the hope is it will at least focus more on policy differences and less on personalities. That would give voters more of a choice on the ballot than this current game of “Who Do You Trust More?”

We’ll find out Tuesday if all this drama, and occasional comedy, has kept voters’ attention. The May primary brought out only 18 percent of registered voters in Hall, and even with more interest seen during early voting, the choices for each party will be made by a mere handful of the most engaged voters statewide.

Note there are a few other contests on the ballot as well, with GOP runoffs for lieutenant governor and secretary of state and a Democratic contest for school superintendent. Whatever the results, we look forward to a spirited debate for the fall election that gives Georgia voters a real choice in who they decide should lead our state. 

Warts and all, our election system is still the best way for the people to let elected leaders know what matters most to them.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Executive Editor Keith Albertson and Director of Content Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.