Battle for Georgia’s U.S. Senate race could go to runoff

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Left to right, U.S. Senate debate between incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Libertarian Allen Buckley and Democrat Jim Barksdale on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016 at Georgia Public Broadcasting. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

You’ll have to pardon us for feeling like this election has become somewhat of a slog in recent weeks. There are only so many campaign-related headlines, tweets and talking points a person can read before turkey, football and family time begins to beckon.

In Georgia, however, there’s a chance we might not get a respite from the mudslinging until well after Nov. 8.

Georgia law stipulates that if candidates for Congress are unable to secure more than 50 percent of the vote on Election Day, the top two vote winners must do battle in a runoff. And thanks to a 2014 ruling from a federal judge, that contest would have to wait until Jan. 10, 2017.

That means our fall and winter holidays could be served with a cold side of politicking.

None of Georgia’s 14 U.S. House contests appear to be competitive, much less subject to an overtime battle. But with a third-party candidate in the race, recent polling suggests a runoff in Georgia’s U.S. Senate race is still a possibility.

October surveys have shown Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson with a double-digit lead over his two opponents, Democrat Jim Barksdale and Libertarian Allen Buckley. But the polls differ on whether Isakson has enough support to avoid a runoff.

Our own poll had Isakson at 47 percent support among likely voters – well within runoff territory. A recent Quinnipiac survey indicated Isakson was 4 points above the threshold, although it notably did not ask its respondents about Buckley, and a poll commissioned by 11Alive had the Republican right at the 50 percent mark.

Runoffs used to be held just three weeks after an election, but a federal judge in 2014 ordered changes to the state’s election calendar to allow more time for military residents and other Georgians living overseas to return their absentee ballots.

A relic from the early 20th century, when Democrats ruled the South, the system was designed to keep control of the party out of the hands of small factions.

In reality, runoffs are a costly and time-consuming process for counties and the candidates involved. They’re also usually plagued by low turnout, since it’s hard to keep voters’ attention after a year-plus of campaigning, particularly during the holiday season.

The system has benefited Republicans in Georgia’s two general election runoffs for U.S. Senate, according to University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, who wrote the definitive book about runoffs in 1992. Such elections tend to attract the party faithful, as well as a generally older and whiter crowd, playing into the hands of the GOP.

On the other hand, runoffs tend to draw more attention and outside money to the state, a circumstance Barksdale hopes could aid his cause, particularly if control of the Senate is at stake.  Barksdale has spent weeks rebuilding a campaign infrastructure so that he’ll be better positioned for contests in November — or January.

“While a run-off is certainly a possibility given recent polling, our attention is on the finish line that’s one week away,” said Greg Minchak, a Barksdale spokesman. “If it does get to that point, we like our chances because the more folks get to know Jim, the better we perform.”

Isakson has also projected confidence he can win outright on Nov. 8, but his team has also sent out fundraising notices warning about the possibility of a runoff. They say they’re prepared for an overtime battle should it be required.


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