How a springtime primary in bright-red Georgia could tip power in US Senate

A state judge on Monday allowed Georgia to hold its primary May 20, the earliest in state history. The move could stave off far-right candidates whom some fear could cede a safe Republican Senate seat to the Democrats.

David Goldman/AP/File
US Rep. Paul Broun (R) of Georgia, here speaking in Atlanta on Feb. 6, is running in a divisive GOP Senate primary that could help determine whether Republicans win control of the US Senate in 2014. Georgia is considered a rock-solid Republican state, but if the candidate who emerges from the GOP primary is seen as too extreme for a general election race, Democrats could pull off an upset.

Federal Judge Steve Jones on Monday agreed to move Georgia’s primary date to May 20, the earliest in state history, chiefly to accommodate military and overseas voters in the case of a runoff election.

But for Georgia's Republican establishment, the ruling also packs a political punch: They’re hoping that an earlier primary season will increase turnout, especially among mainstream voters, and help thwart a repeat of embarrassing losses last year in Indiana and Missouri, where tea-party-style candidates –Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin – flamed out and lost elections that would have moved the GOP closer to taking majority control of the US Senate.

Democrats now hold the Senate and the White House, with the GOP in control of the House of Representatives. To win control of the US Senate, Republicans must pick up six seats in 2014, while holding onto what they’ve got, which they failed to do in 2012.

Pushing the primary date ahead of summer is expected to boost turnout and give candidates more time to campaign in an expected runoff.

The upshot, writes Jim Galloway, a veteran political columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is that the date change “has been eyed by many Republicans as a means of reducing the influence of hard-core conservative activists and tea party elements in the GOP.”

While the tea party movement has cooled off since its 2010 heyday, its impressive state primary strategy continues to pay off for right-wing conservatives and to vex mainstream Republicans. The two wings of the party are, basically, engaged in a civil war for the future of the party.

This dynamic has played out in Congress for several years, as Republican leadership tries to hold the line on spending, tax hikes, and regulations proposed by Democrats, yet avoid appearing to be merely obstructionist.

Just this week, tea party advocates, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, kicked off a campaign to defund Obamacare, only weeks before the new health insurance law begins to take effect. The plan aims to avoid a government shutdown by passing a stopgap spending measure to fund government that excludes all funding for Obamacare. House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, worried that such theatrics will only further alienate mainstream America from the party, has opposed the tea party plan.

Georgia Republicans hope to avoid such an all-out conservative schism by tinkering with election rules.

Whether rejiggering a primary date will actually garner more moderate votes is an open question, says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. Typically, political scientists make the case that only the hardest-core partisans tend to turn out for primary elections and that higher turnout tends to produce a more moderate electorate. But some polls show that a majority of Republican voters wants the party "to be more conservative, not less conservative," he says.

“The party establishment may want one thing, but that seems to be going against the views of most Republican primary voters, who tend to be the most engaged Republican voters," he adds.

An untested Democrat with a big name – Michelle Nunn, daughter of storied former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn – could challenge the powerful Republican establishment alone, but Republicans, including Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, have fretted that she could get a big boost if a primary or runoff candidate turns out to be someone like US Rep. Paul Broun, a hard-liner from Athens, Ga., who once denounced the theory of evolution as a lie “from the pit of hell.”

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