We’ve mentioned the fact that this year’s statewide Georgia elections are going to produce a lot of new faces.
The domino tumble began with the governor’s race, where two-term incumbent Sonny Perdue is term-limited. The lure of the state’s top job has drawn 14 candidates, seven from each party, including a U.S. House member (Nathan Deal), a state Senator (Jeff Chapman), attorney general (Thurbert Baker), secretary of state (Karen Handel) and insurance commissioner (John Oxendine), among others. That leaves each of those positions without an incumbent up for re-election.
Another state officer, Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, is running for the U.S. Senate. And the state school superintendent, Kathy Cox, left her post and possible re-election for a post in Washington, even after she qualified for the July 20 primary ballot.
With other officeholders running for Congress, state legislature seats and the open state offices, we’re looking at a whole new group of leaders taking over in January.
For voters weary of incumbents and eager for fresh answers in trying games, this is a welcome sight. Even if it means some of the same faces just get shuffled around, at least there are choices to be had on the primary ballot.
But in a few of these races, the shadow of incumbency has again crept into play, and in two instances not because of any choice the voters made. In fact, it is Perdue, the guy whose exit from the stage started the whole shebang, who is having an impact on the races a month out.
It started at the end of 2009 when Handel resigned her post as secretary of state to focus on her run for governor. By rule, Perdue had to appoint an interim secretary to fill in for the remainder of the year. He chose Brian Kemp, who already was mounting his own Republican campaign for the post.
Now Kemp is able to run as an incumbent in the primary and beyond against one Republican foe, followed by a Democratic nominee in November.
Then earlier this month, Perdue appointed an interim school superintendent to replace Cox. He chose Brad Bryant, a member of the state Board of Education from DeKalb County. This time, the governor picked a temporary department head who wasn’t already seeking the office, leaving three Democrats and two Republicans vying for the full-time seat.
But hold on. Now it appears Bryant now may run for the seat in November as an independent, since it’s too late for him to qualify for the party primary ballot. If he does, it would put three candidates on the fall ballot. A three-way split could lead to someone earning less than 50 percent of the vote in the general election, and a runoff three weeks later.
In the 9th District U.S. House seat Deal left for his campaign, Tom Graves came out on top in a special election, then a runoff. Thus he carries the title of incumbent into the primary, but in this case, with the district’s voters making the choice.
Such was also the case in filling the seat of former state Sen. Eric Johnson, who stepped down last year to make his bid for governor.
The downside of special elections is that they create extra expense during tough budget times, and even more potential ballot confusion. During one two-day stretch in early June, voters were able to vote early in the primary, then go vote in the same House race in a runoff hours later.
So what is the best way to fill these posts when officeholders choose to leave their term early: Special election or governor’s appointment? You can make a strong case either way, and both methods have flaws. Certainly when in doubt, it is best to let the voters decide.
Yet in posts such as secretary of state or school superintendent, it is better to fill them easier and cheaper rather than send voters to the polls for another special election. By leaving it to the governor, though, we wind up with a political choice, someone from his own party with whom he has close ties. And in making those picks, he influences two campaigns.
This is not to say the leaders he chose are not qualified or capable. And voters certainly are free to ignore them and select one of the other candidates. In a year when being an incumbent may be more of a burden than a blessing, that could happen.
But these particular posts are contested by candidates who are not household names. In a year with high-profile races for governor, Congress and the state legislature, it’s a lot to ask of voters to delve deeply into their backgrounds and those of their foes. As a result, many may make the easy choice and select the most recognizable name.
That’s too bad. The election process is best served when candidates are forced to share their ideas and campaign aggressively to earn your support.
One possible compromise that would take both special elections and the governor out of play would be to let each elected department head appoint a chief deputy who automatically would be designated to take over in case of a vacancy until the term is complete. That person would be well-versed in how the department operates and likely no better or worse than an appointed or elected candidate from the outside. The interim chief then could decide whether to run for re-election when the term is up.
Ultimately, voters can still make the best choice in each of these posts. Come November, each Georgia resident has one vote that counts as much as any other, despite the fact that Sonny Perdue already has cast two of his own.