Sabato's Crystal Ball

Notes on the State of Politics

UVA Center for Politics July 17th, 2014

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Reaction to third-party piece

In an article on the topic last week, we asked readers to chime in with other races where they thought third-party and independent candidates might have an impact on some statewide races. We got a lot of e-mails and tweets about the gubernatorial and Senate contests in Georgia, but multiple readers also mentioned the Connecticut gubernatorial race. Some thoughts on those three races are below.

GA-Gov: With ethics troubles making his life more difficult, Gov. Nathan Deal (R) may not be able to win in November; that is, he might have to win in a December runoff. Deal’s problems, which also include lingering frustration with the state’s response to ice storms this past winter, might push some voters toward Libertarian Andrew Hunt, a former tech company CEO. In a June SurveyUSA poll, Hunt garnered 7%. Hunt could send the race into overtime, so to speak, if he helps keep either Deal or his opponent, state Sen. Jason Carter (D), from winning a majority. Should that happen, a Dec. 2 runoff looms. Nonetheless, unless Deal’s problems get even worse (which they could), he would likely be positioned to win that runoff, which would almost certainly feature lower turnout than the November general election.

It should be noted that no Georgia gubernatorial general election has ever gone to a runoff, at least one featuring a popular election. The only time in modern Georgia history that no candidate achieved a majority in a gubernatorial election was in 1966, when Republicans seriously challenged for the governorship for the first time since Reconstruction. In that race, segregationist Lester Maddox (D) faced off against Rep. Bo Callaway (R), with write-in votes for former Gov. Ellis Arnall (D), who lost to Maddox in the Democratic primary, keeping either major-party nominee from winning a majority. Although Callaway won a 3,000 vote plurality, at that time the state legislature decided elections where no one polled a majority (a system Vermont still has today for general elections). Because the legislature was almost entirely made up of Democrats, Maddox won the vote 182-66 and the governorship.

GA-Sen: Just like the gubernatorial contest, the possibility of a runoff exists in the Peach State Senate race as well. There, Libertarian Amanda Swafford could have a similar impact to that of her fellow party member Andrew Hunt, winning enough of the vote to throw the contest into overtime. In fact, Swafford, a former town council member in suburban Atlanta, polled at 6% in that same SurveyUSA poll where Hunt pulled 7%.

Interestingly, the timing for a runoff in the Senate race would be different from that of the gubernatorial contest. Whereas state and local races necessitating runoffs take place on Dec. 2, federal runoffs don’t happen until Jan. 6. Yes, you read that right, a Senate runoff in Georgia would not take place until 2015, and it would happen three days after the 114th Congress begins its initial session.

This coming Tuesday, July 22, Republicans will decide their nominee in a primary runoff between Rep. Jack Kingston (R, GA-1) and businessman David Perdue (R). The winner will start as a small favorite in the general election against former non-profit executive and political scion Michelle Nunn (D), and in a runoff if it comes to it. Much like in the gubernatorial race, a runoff probably favors Republicans to some degree because of lower turnout. There have only been two Senate general election runoffs in Georgia history, in 1992 and 2008 (both presidential years), and Republicans won both. In 1992, Sen. Wyche Fowler (D) won a plurality in the general election, 49.2% to 47.7%, against Paul Coverdell (R), but the incumbent fell short of the majority requirement. In the runoff, turnout fell markedly, going from 2.25 million votes to just 1.25 million, a 44% drop, and Coverdell won with 50.6% of the vote. Six years ago, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) was forced into a runoff for this very Senate seat when he won 49.8% against Jim Martin (D), who was almost certainly boosted by black turnout for Barack Obama. However, Chambliss survived, crushing Martin in the runoff by about 15 points with 57.4% of the vote, with turnout falling 43%, from 3.75 million to 2.14 million. Would turnout in a hypothetical runoff in Georgia this year fall by around 40%? Tough to say, as both prior examples were during presidential years with their typically higher November turnout. But if control of the Senate were to ride on such an election, perhaps it wouldn’t fall that much. In fact, we just saw turnout rise dramatically from the primary to the runoff in the recent Mississippi Republican Senate race. A turnout bump remains historically unlikely, but cannot be ruled out, either, if interest in the race is high.

CT-Gov: Four years ago, now-Gov. Dan Malloy (D) won by about 6,400 votes, a little more than half a percentage point margin against former ambassador Tom Foley (R). Now Foley is running again and looks likely to make it to a November rematch against the incumbent. A May survey from Quinnipiac pegged Malloy’s approval/disapproval at 48%/46% and found him tied with Foley at 43% apiece. Complicating matters further for Malloy is the candidacy of Jonathan Pelto, a former Democratic member of the state legislature who is running as an independent in November. Having a left-leaning independent candidate on the ballot might give some Democrats and Democratic leaners who are dissatisfied with the incumbent an alternative choice on Election Day. That could potentially help Foley in a hypothetical rematch, though Pelto’s impact might be neutralized by another independent candidate, conservative former West Hartford councilman Joe Visconti. Should both Pelto and Visconti qualify for the ballot via petition (the filing deadline for independent candidates is Aug. 6), they will further muddle what is already an unclear picture in the Nutmeg State.

A note on runoffs

While there are no regular federal primaries scheduled for July, there are a few primary runoffs, including two for open Safe Republican seats held Tuesday night.

In AL-6, Alabama Policy Institute co-founder Gary Palmer (R) defeated state Rep. Paul DeMarco (R) in a race for the seat of retiring Rep. Spencer Bachus (R). This was a win for the Club for Growth, the outsider conservative group that often battles the GOP establishment, though it is worth noting that the group backed a different candidate in the initial primary before rallying to Palmer. This is one of the most Republican districts in the country.

There was an upset in NC-6, the other GOP runoff: Baptist Pastor Mark Walker (R) beat Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr. (R) decisively in the runoff there. Berger is the son of Phil Berger Sr., the state Senate president pro tempore who earlier in the cycle considered a run for U.S. Senate (Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state House, is the Republican nominee in that race).

Walker shouldn’t have too much trouble winning in this district where Mitt Romney won 58% in 2012, but it’s possible that the Democratic nominee, Laura Fjeld, a former general counsel for the University of North Carolina system, could make this a race. Naturally, observers have looked at NC-2, where former American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken (D) is running an uphill race against Rep. Renee Ellmers (R), as a potential Tar Heel State surprise, but it’s possible that this NC-6 race will be closer. The retirement of Rep. Howard Coble (R) created the open NC-6 race.