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Editorial: Voters, brace for Round 2 of state primary
Tuesday vote produces some surprises, but how will it all affect the runoff?
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Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle talks about his record with the media Tuesday, May 22, during his primary election party at The Chair Factory in Gainesville. - photo by Nick Bowman

With the state primary races done and July runoff looming, the analysts now begin looking into the tea leaves to determine what it all means and what comes next. Calling the shots in politics is no easier than in football or horse racing, so best take it all with a grain of salt.

In poring over the numbers, we seek answers to these questions:

Was Tuesday a win for Casey Cagle?

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle entered the Republican field for governor after 12 years in office with name recognition, a rich war chest and support of most major Republican backers statewide.

But these days, being the establishment Top Cat is a liability. As the frontrunner, Cagle became the target of others aiming to reach a runoff. He was painted as the “career politician” soft on conservative issues compared to those driving a “Deportation Bus” and wielding shotguns, despite the fact he was endorsed by the NRA.

On primary day, Cagle finished with 39 percent of the vote, Brian Kemp with 26 percent, likely a tighter margin than many expected, though Cagle himself had said winning outright was next to impossible. More surprising is that Cagle won just 49 percent in Hall, a baffling total in his home county, even in a multicandidate field. Perhaps ads by Kemp and others had an effect among many conservative voters.

In 2010, Nathan Deal’s first primary race for governor, some 19,000 Hall Republicans cast votes, 64 percent (more than 12,000) for Deal. On Tuesday, Cagle got 7,623 votes out of 15,488 cast. So there was an enthusiasm gap there, for sure.

Will turnout decide the runoff?

Tuesday’s turnout in Hall was about 18 percent, a percentage point lower than four years ago when Deal was unopposed in the primary for re-election. Turnout was weaker despite a contested race involving another Hall County native. Part of that could be blamed on the rainy weather, or perhaps having a primary the last week of school before Memorial Day vacations when people are distracted by other priorities. 

It’s traditionally harder to get folks to the polls a second time. In 2014, 19 percent came out for the primary, 14.5 percent in the runoff. That always depends on the races left to be decided; that year, a U.S. Senate race on the Republican side still drew interest, with only about 1,000 fewer casting votes in Hall between May and July. Most major Democratic races that year were decided in the primary and drew scant interest.

Since Georgia was forced by the courts to move its runoff further from the primary, the races now will be settled July 24, just weeks before the start of school in the midst of summer vacations. Thus, it may be difficult to get people who already may be fed up with political ads, robocalls and the like to muster the inspiration to head back to the polls.

Are Democrats gaining ground?

The 2014 primary had about 600,000 votes cast on the Republican side, 328,000 for Democrats. On Tuesday, the number of GOP ballots was a few thousand higher, but the Democratic votes swelled to 550,000, an increase of more than 200,000.

Part of that may be attributed to a governor’s race between Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, two popular, well-funded candidates. How that will play out in November remains a wild card in a state that has trended heavily Republican for nearly two decades.

To say Hall is the reddest of Georgia’s Republican counties isn’t exaggerating. Even with a high profile contest, only about 3,500 Democratic ballots were cast for governor, compared to more than 15,000 for GOP candidates. But while Republican votes were up a bit from the 13,597 cast four years ago, that Democratic increase was more than double the 1,254 Democratic votes in the 2014 Senate race. Thus, it appears Democrats may be increasing their numbers and support, but slowly.

When will young people begin voting in bigger numbers?

For years, the talk nationwide and in our state has been how a tide of young adults, many of them minorities, would swell the voting ranks and boost Democratic fortunes. So far that trend has yet to match the tidal wave seen in 2008 and 2012 when Barack Obama was on the ballot.

In 2014, the turnout of voters younger than 30 in Hall was miniscule, about 3 percent among Republicans and less than 1 percent among Democrats (fewer than 100 total), and they were no more inspired in the runoff. But those older than 50 continued to vote, particularly Republicans; 31 percent of voters older than 65 cast more than 10,000 ballots in the Hall GOP primary, well above the overall turnout numbers.

We don’t yet know the demographic breakdown of Tuesday’s primary vote, which will indicate whether that millennial “bump” has arrived. Yet until young people become more involved, get registered and show up to vote, Georgia elections will remain decided mostly by seniors who stay engaged while interest among their younger peers peaks and wanes.  

OK, let’s blink back into focus here as we look away from the microscope. While the numbers might show certain tendencies, they don’t weigh the true deciding factors in any race: The candidates themselves. Endorsements aside, what Cagle and Kemp do and say between now and July 24 in their campaigns, on the airwaves and in debates can best sway voters their way. After that, the cycle begins again when the winner faces Abrams.

Voters should watch carefully, evaluate and stay plugged in. This yearlong ride has just passed the first turn and there’s a long way left to go in this race.

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, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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