Battleground: Ballot Box | On the high-stakes primary runoff debates for key Georgia elections
The slate of candidates for Georgia’s 2022 general elections is almost set, with a few notable exceptions. Crowded fields for key races have led to June runoffs with high stakes.
But not everyone showed up to important debates. Meanwhile, Republican runoff debates for congressional seats turned ugly as candidates made their pitches about why they should move on to the general election.
This week, we look at Georgia’s primary runoffs.
It seems like it’s always election season in Georgia, and that the 2020 election cycle never quite ended before 2022's began. In many ways, that’s true: Candidates are still making false claims about the election system, Donald Trump’s endorsements still hang over outcomes and national attention seems permanently affixed on the Peach State.
After the dust settled on the May 24 primary election, there are still some races left to be decided.
Georgia law requires a candidate to get more than 50% of the votes in a race to be declared the winner; otherwise, the top two vote getters head to a runoff. A new Georgia law also shortens that runoff period to just four weeks after the first round of voting, instead of nine. So we’re already halfway to June 21.
The Atlanta Press Club, in conjunction with Georgia Public Broadcasting, hosted a number of runoff debates this week to help voters better understand their choices in a number of races, ranging from the Democratic bid for secretary of state to several competitive Republican congressional contests.
In the newly drawn 6th Congressional District, frontrunner Rich McCormick and Trump-endorsed Jake Evans battled over who could be the most conservative.
“This is exactly what you get with a failed politician who's been running for 38 consecutive months and bought out by liberal special interests," Evans said of his rival. "We are in a serious state of affairs in our country. We have to elect bold, unafraid conservatives that aren't compromised and cannot be trusted by the people.”
Evans said McCormick, who narrowly lost in the old 7th Congressional District in 2020 to Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, was merely pretending to be a conservative because he received support from groups like the American Medical Association. McCormick is an emergency room doctor.
Meanwhile, McCormick said Evans had flip-flopped on support for Donald Trump and used a law review article Evans wrote several years ago to imply he did not support law enforcement.
“We are sick of fake politicians who will do or say anything to get elected — fake politicians like Jake Evans," he said. "This is a guy who said he backs our police but writes a manifesto about defunding them because they're racist. He says he's for religious freedom, but then cheers when the religious liberty bill is defeated. He's on record trashing President Trump, praising Abrams and Pelosi, and advocating for troops in Ukraine and then denies it. These are his words, not mine.”
Both candidates have pushed false and misleading claims about Georgia’s election system — and both agree on many issues.
On the topic of abortion, McCormick said he would support a total abortion ban with no exceptions, while Evans said only if the life of the mother is in jeopardy should it be potentially allowed.
There was some substantive debate, too. McCormick said the current Democratic administration’s plan for prescription drug pricing was not enough to lower costs.
“When it comes to making drugs and pricing protections, we have a big problem — we have a middleman problem, too," he said. "That's where the big part of inflation is happening, in medical health care costs. We need pricing transparency across the board, including with health care centers, with the access to medicine."
The next debate wasn’t much more civil.
Trucking executive Mike Collins had the most votes in the first round of Georgia’s 10th Congressional District Republican race, and Trump-endorsed Vernon Jones finished second. Much of the debate interestingly revolved around the two ultraconservative candidates accusing each other of being Democrats and not really pro-Trump.
Jones brought up Collins’ dad, former U.S. Rep. Mac Collins — who started his political career as a Democrat before spending decades with the GOP — and also accused Collins of asking for Democratic votes the last time he ran for Congress.
“He mailed two mailers to Democrats telling Democrats to cross over and vote in a Republican primary," Jones said. "It was reported widely because he is a RINO and he needed Democrats to help him get elected. If you want to run as a Democrat, I would suggest my friend run as a Democrat, not as a Republican.”
Collins denied those claims, pointing out his dad’s long Republican credentials, and hit back by pointing out that Jones, who switched political parties in January 2021, was a longtime Democratic lawmaker and CEO of DeKalb County, one of the most Democratic parts of the state.
“I really don't have another question for Vernon Jones, other than the fact that he has spent his entire life as a Democrat," Collins said. "His entire life he has been a corrupt career politician.”
Both candidates fall on the end of the conservative spectrum closer to controversial figures like Trump, Matt Gaetz and Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. Both have campaigns centered around bashing liberals, championing Trump’s policies and calling out the more moderate wing of the party.
And both are fighting hard for this runoff, since the district is so heavily Republican that the winner this month is all but guaranteed to win in November.
The final congressional primary runoff debate that aired Monday is important in its own right, too. That’s Georgia’s 2nd Congressional District, where Republicans Jeremy Hunt and Chris West are hoping they can ride a national wave and unseat longtime incumbent Democrat Rep. Sanford Bishop.
“I know I'm the only candidate in this race who can defeat Sanford Bishop once and for all," Hunt said. "Thirty years of Sanford Bishop, this Democratic incumbent, has been in office who has not done anything for our district.”
But the focus of this debate was more on who knew the district enough to best represent it in the race against Bishop. West, an attorney with multigenerational ties to Southwest Georgia, said Hunt wasn’t from the district, pointed out most of his fundraising came from outside of Georgia and suggested his background wouldn’t resonate enough with voters in the district.
“I'd just like for you to demonstrate to the audience that you do, in fact, know this district, and tell us which three counties that the city of Jakin lies in the city of Brinson lies in, and the city of Mauk. What counties are those?”
Hunt, for his part, was not deterred.
“Thank you, Chris, I'm happy you brought those up because I don't think you've visited any of them," he retorted. "And I'm thankful that I won 22 of 30 counties in the primary and I came in second and the remaining eight.”
While Sanford Bishop has comfortably won reelection for several years now, a tough environment for Democrats plus formidable challengers have some people thinking he could be vulnerable. Regardless of the outcome of that race, how both parties approach campaigning in the district could have an outsized effect on how the statewide elections end up.
Another race where a fall opponent loomed large over the debate is the Democratic secretary of state contest, where incumbent Republican Brad Raffensperger’s name was uttered nearly once every 60 seconds.
“The reason why a portion of Republican voters believe that the election was stolen in 2020 is because Republican leadership enabled this to happen," state Rep. Bee Nguyen said. "We currently have a secretary of state who upheld the law, but he's running his campaign based on conspiracy theories”
Nguyen came into the runoff with the most votes, but former state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler had a strong showing in South Georgia.
"One of the reasons why he defended the voting machines and the integrity of the vote is because he hired some of his friends to do that job, and so he didn't want to have egg on his face," Dawkins-Haigler said, "either in the position of the secretary of state bringing them on with the Dominion machines, as well as the people saying that those results were not accurate."
Both called out Raffensperger for his calls to stop non-citizens from voting even though there is no evidence this is happening and offered nearly identical responses to most policy issues, including why they think Georgia’s election laws need to be changed.
"In addition to backing Senate Bill 202, the 98-page voter suppression bill that criminalizes handing out a bottle of water to voters waiting in line, he recently came out and stated he wants to end automatic voter registration," Nguyen said of Raffensperger. "He supports ending no-excuse absentee ballot voting. And it is important for us to tell Georgia voters exactly who Brad Raffensperger is, and he is not a friend to our democracy.”
There was a little more contrast in the Democratic debates for lieutenant governor and insurance commissioner … if only because candidates failed to show up.
Charlie Bailey, the 2018 nominee for attorney general, eviscerated an empty lectern representing former Atlanta City Council member Kwanza Hall.
“So my question is, why did you do that, Mr. Hall?" Bailey said. "Why did you take that money illegally? Why did you compare yourself to a rape victim when you were caught? And why do you have so little respect for the voters of this state? Now, he can't answer that question because he's not here. But I would say him not being here is also a pattern.”
And Janice Laws Robinson had the stage to herself after Raphael Baker declined to show up for the insurance commissioner debate.
“If Mr. Baker were here, I would ask him, 'What are your plans for this office?' However, the empty podium says it all. He does not take this position seriously, and he has no plans for Georgians. He is not showing up for a debate and he will not show up for you.”
The final debate of the day saw two Democratic candidates share their vision for what the state’s labor department should do after the pandemic exposed major issues with how unemployment benefits were handled.
“We are still waiting four to six months for people on average to receive their unemployment benefits," Nicole Horn said. "Part of this is a people problem. We're completely understaffed at the Department of Labor. Only 4% of phone calls are answered; that's unacceptable. There are also broken processes there. 80% of people who apply for unemployment are initially turned down.”
State Rep. William Boddie said he would also boost staffing.
“This department was never set up to handle claims on a daily basis without a pandemic or economic recession," he said. "So we need to staff up. Also, we need to modernize the technology as well. So I'll make sure that we have the best staff.”
The winner of that runoff will go on to face state Sen. Bruce Thompson in the fall.
There are several bigger-picture items to look at with this runoff beyond who wins or loses. On the Republican side, will Trump’s influence carry two people to Congress in a low-turnout race? For Democrats, will endorsements by Stacey Abrams secure the rest of the general election slate — and what happens if her hand-picked candidates lose? From an election administration standpoint, how does conducting a runoff so soon after the general election impact procedures like early voting, absentee ballot processing and certification?
We’ll keep track of all these and more in the coming weeks as we head towards the November 2022 midterms.
Battleground: Ballot Box from Georgia Public Broadcasting is produced by me, Stephen Fowler. Our editor is Josephine Bennett. Our engineer is Jake Cook and Jesse Nighswonger wrote our theme music. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.