Parties use primaries to winnow their fields and choose their nominees. In addition to advancing nominees to the final round that will be held on November 3, June’s primaries may contain hints as to who will win the championship faceoff and assume office in January.
Official results will not be available from the Office of the Secretary of State for a while, but the unofficial turnout figures show Democrats out numbering Republicans for the first general primary since 2008. From 2010 – 2016, more than 60 percent of the primary votes came from Republicans. In 2018 Republicans continued to outnumber Democrats but the GOP’s share of the vote dropped to 52.4 percent. The 2020 Democratic edge shows a remarkable shift from 2012 when more than two-thirds of the votes came from Republicans. Democratic turnout, at over a million, may be the largest ever and might have been greater except for long lines in some urban precincts that dissuaded some from waiting hours to cast a vote. While fewer Republicans than Democrats voted, it was a record for the GOP at over 950,000, but almost 150,000 less than the Democratic figure.
The greater interest in the Democratic than the GOP option may indicate an enthusiasm gap favoring Democrats. People who show up for primaries are more politically involved than those who sit it out. Primary voters will be sure to return in November.
The enhanced performances registered by Democrats in 2018 when they flipped the 6th Congressional District, 14 House and 2 Senate seats in metro Atlanta and reduced the GOP statewide margin from 200,000 votes in 2016 to 55,000 has fueled Democratic dreams of further gains in 2020. The Democratic wish list includes the presidential and Senate contests, the 7th Congressional District and flipping 16 seats in order to secure a majority in the state House.
If the Democratic primary turnout advantage extends to the general election, it bodes well for their aspirations.
If we focus on state House contests, on June 9, more votes were cast in Democratic than GOP primaries in 13 districts currently held by Republicans. In nine of these districts, the Republican won less than 55% of the vote in 2018. In some districts the vote for the two parties was roughly equal with the closest being in House District 47 where 5,072 votes were cast for Speaker Pro Temp Jan Jones while her Democratic challenger, Anthia Carter, received 5,126 votes. Elsewhere, far more people voted in the Democratic than GOP primary. Four GOP incumbents saw the participation to choose their opponent exceed the Republican vote by more than 2,400. In HD 106, incumbent Brett Harrell got 4,698 votes while 8,538 votes were tallied on the Democratic side.
If Democrats managed to flip all of these districts, they would still need three more takeaways to become the House majority. There were four other districts that Republicans currently hold and in which slightly more Republican than Democratic votes were cast in the primary. One of these is the open seat in HD 110 (parts of Butts, Henry and Newton counties) where about 200 more votes were registered in the GOP than the Democratic primary. In the Americus area Mike Cheokas, who lost in 2016 but returned to the House in 2018, got 115 more votes than his Democratic opponent.
Republicans have hoped to reclaim some of the 14 House and 2 Senate seats they lost in 2018. The partisan turnout in the primaries provides little to bolster GOP prospects as in every district more Democratic than Republican votes were tallied with 1,070 the closest margin.
The state Senate is not thought to be in play in 2020. Currently Republicans have a 35 – 21 advantage in the upper chamber. While the GOP majority seems secure, in four districts more voters took Democratic than Republican primary ballots. In the largest disparity, Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Senate District (SD) 9 in rapidly changing Gwinnett by 59– 41%. The narrowest margin saw 600 more Democrats than Republicans show up to select Renee Unterman’s replacement.
In another two districts, the Republican advantage in turnout was less than 1,800 votes. SD 23 lacks an incumbent and that always makes it easier for the challenging party to flip a district since there is no personal vote for an incumbent. (A personal vote is a vote cast for incumbent by individuals who identify with the opposition party
The open Seventh Congressional District election will be on both parties’ national radar. The primary was contested on both sides. Here, again, more Democrats than Republicans voted with 20,000 more Democratic preferences tallied. Ultimately, the contests in the parties were equally competitive so no difference on that item encouraged more turnout in one party. To the surprise of many, Rich McCormick beat Sen. Unterman by 37 percentage points for the GOP nomination. On the Democratic side, Carolyn Bourdeaux beat Brenda Lopez Romero by 38 points.
Interpretation of turnout in the primary should be treated like public opinion polls. Both are indications of current conditions. The patterns that they reveal may or may not come to fruition in November. The lack of a challenge to Sen. Perdue may account for lower GOP than Democratic participation. However, the high point in the GOP share of the primary vote came in 2012 when Johnny Isakson had only token opposition. Prompting GOP turnout this year were three congressional districts that had high-stimulus GOP primaries compared with only one on the Democratic side.
The 2020 primary vote encourages Democrats to believe that they can make major gains in November. Vote totals for unopposed candidates underestimate the level of a party’s support and almost all of the GOP incumbents ran unopposed. However, a number of the Democratic challengers also had no opposition so in those instances, contestation cannot explain disparities in turnout. The primaries send an early warning to the GOP that Georgia is no longer a red state and may not even be pink. Even if the primaries do not foretell major Democratic gains in the fall, they signal that this fall will feature an unprecedented level of partisan competition.
Charles S. Bullock, III, is the Distinguished University Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. He is co-author of Georgia Politics in a State of Change now in its third edition.