"Mama grizzly" Karen Handel conceded a vitriolic Georgia Republican gubernatorial primary fight Wednesday to former US Rep. Nathan Deal, notching a razor-thin victory for a long-time establishment politician against a self-proclaimed outsider who vowed to take on entrenched party politics in this solidly red Southern state.
On the national stage, Ms. Handel's loss, after she was catapulted into the frontrunner spot by an endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, will likely be read as a sign of the limitations of Ms. Palin's "tea party" message – even in some of the most conservative corners of the country. But perhaps the big story in the Handel-Deal runoff was Tuesday's turnout. More than half a million Republicans – nearly quadruple the average turnout for an off-year election – came to polls to vote in temperatures hitting the high 90s.
That number is likely to put Democrats across America on notice that they'll face an invigorated GOP base in the general election on Nov. 2.
"What this election will really tell us is how passionately people care about things locally and nationally, and that's a pretty good snapshot of how those people are going to behave in the general election," says Mary Stuckey, a political scientist at Georgia State University.
Mr. Deal led Handel by a mere 2,500 votes after Tuesday's vote. Their contest had been seen by some analysts as a proxy war for potential presidential candidates who waded into the Georgia battle. Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, rode endorsements by Ms. Palin and Mitt Romney into first place in the July primary. But Deal, backed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, closed the distance in the days before Tuesday's runoff.
To many observers, the Deal-Handel contest pitted an insurgent "tea party"-flavored wing of the party, epitomized by Handel's more centrist views on abortion and her push to slash state spending, against Deal's reputation as a traditional conservative Republican. According to election maps, Handel on Tuesday ruled among Republicans in Atlanta and along the Georgia coast. Deal, endorsed by the National Rifle Association and supported by some "tea party groups," won the majority of rural Georgia.
Handel had to fight off perceptions that her attacks on Deal as a "corrupt relic of Washington" had gone too far; likewise with her characterization of the GOP-dominated state legislature as a nest of "sex, lies and lobbyists." Deal had to endure Handel's attacks focused on a House ethics probe that led the 18-year House veteran to step down. He, in turn, pinpointed Handel's lack of a college education and ties to unpopular Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), for whom she once served as chief of staff.
A recent Mason-Dixon poll found 75 percent of Georgians concerned about job security and their household economy, with a majority expressing frustration with politicians in Atlanta and Washington.
But other issues may have played a role, too, in driving so many Republicans to the polls on Tuesday. Count illegal immigration, ethics reform, and government spending among them.
"All of these people in Georgia feel like they've been working hard and playing by the rules, and things don't seem to be getting better. So when people are worried, the first thing you do is blame government," says Ms. Stuckey at GSU. Thus, issues such as illegal immigration have resonated even in a nonborder state like Georgia, she says. "There's a sense that somebody must be cheating, because if there weren't cheaters, the rules would be working, and I would be OK."
The election margin was narrow enough for Handel to have demanded a recount. But she conceded in the interest of GOP unity, opined Jim Galloway of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, after a campaign that had devolved into name-calling in its last days.
The Democrats' gubernatorial nominee, former Gov. Roy Barnes, is already running campaign ads, and some national Democrats predict that Georgia could be a "pick-up" state for them amid a divided Republican electorate.
Democrats quickly put their own spin on Deal's victory.
“A vicious runoff and the narrowest of margins produced the worst possible nominee in Georgia: a corrupt Washington insider,” Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, said in a statement.