Today in Georgia's Tenth Congressional District, voters will go to the polls to elect the successor to the late Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-GA). The 65-year-old member of the 1994 "Republican Revolution," who died at his Augusta home on February 13 of this year, was a solid Republican and a conservative icon, having earned a 96% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. Dr. Norwood was respected and liked by voters on both sides of the aisle -- a fact which was demonstrated by his electoral performance in the district. Despite redistricting in 1996 and 2002, he never received less than 52.3% of the vote (in 1996), and received more than 60% five times, including twice surpassing 70%. Between his popularity and his solid conservative stance on the issues, Norwood left some very, very big shoes to fill.
The race to fill that open seat was an entertaining free-for-all involving ten candidates (six Republicans, three Democrats, and one Libertarian). The slate presented to voters in the special election last month (June 19) consisted of a prominent Republican grassroots activist, a medical doctor, a former lineman for the Georgia Bulldogs, a Yahoo! executive, an Iraq war veteran, and several other marginal candidates.
State Senator Jim Whitehead, a 65-year-old Republican from Augusta who is a relative newcomer to politics, having been elected to his first public position (Columbia County Commission) in 1994, was the clear frontrunner in the special election. The question going in that day was whether the other nine candidates would combine for enough of the vote to prevent Whitehead from reaching 50% -- and, if that happened, which challenger would finish in second place overall, and thus gain a spot in a runoff election.
Whitehead received 43.5% of the vote in the special election, with Athens Republican Paul Broun, Jr. coming in second with 20.7% (only 198 votes ahead of Atlanta Democrat and former Yahoo! executive James Marlow). With that, the race to fill the Georgia's 10th CD became a glorified primary, with two Republicans squaring off in a largely GOP district, each trying to outdo the other to win over the voters.
Jim Whitehead, a former Georgia football player, Methodist churchgoer, and current small business owner, is a conservative Republican who just finished his third year (one and a half terms) in the State Senate. His beliefs line up with most Republicans in the district: he is for improved border security, against amnesty for illegal aliens, in favor of local control of education, and against pork barrel spending.
A humble man who is fully aware of who and what he is running to replace in the 10th CD (and who astutely hired most of Norwood's staff onto his campaign), Whitehead's catchphrase this election season has been, "I can't be Charlie Norwood -- but I can be Jim Whitehead, and I am running to protect and continue Charlie's legacy of conservative leadership." Whitehead comes across in person as a man who is selling nothing but himself; however, whether that will be good enough to win today's runoff remains to be seen.
Whitehead's only major potential pitfall in this and future elections is his penchant for sometimes speaking first and thinking later. This mark of someone who is not a professional politician has gotten him into trouble from time to time, especially with the editors of the fairly liberal Athens daily newspaper; however, it did not hurt him enough to put his June 19 victory in doubt, and likely will not hurt him too badly today, either.
Paul Broun, Jr., the underdog in today's runoff election, is an Athens physician. His father was a state legislator for 38 years, albeit as a Democrat; however, his name endures in the Athens area, as the main highway circling the city is known as the Paul Broun Parkway. The Paul Broun running in this election, though, is light-years apart ideologically from his more liberal father. A self-described "strict constitutionalist" who is committed to "restor[ing] government according to the Constitution as our Founders intended," Broun has said that he, like Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), will "always carry a pocket Constitution" on his person while in Congress, and will "apply a four-way test to all legislation" (in essence, is each piece of legislation constitutional, moral, needed, and affordable?).
Broun is a proponent of private property rights, an opponent of illegal immigration, and a supporter of the FairTax, or national sales tax (as well as the abolition of the IRS). He is a member of the National Rifle Association and president of the local affiliate, the Georgia Sport Shooting Association. Further, he is pro-religious freedom, and is very outspoken against "the ACLU and Activist Federal Judges," who he says are "destroying America's heritage of religious freedom and religious expression."
Most of these positions fit relatively well with the overall position of the district. However, Broun is at a natural disadvantage in the race, which stems from the fact that he is from the area within the district that is home to the most liberal segment of the population, and the fact that his past positions (which have included supporting the eradication of "unconstitutional" programs like Social Security and Medicare) are as far out of the mainstream of that area as one can get.
The 10th CD is mainly comprised of Augusta, which is home of the Masters golf tournament and of Georgia Medical College (where Broun earned his MD), and of Athens-Clarke County, which is home to the University of Georgia and is the most liberal county in the northeastern part of the state. Broun's campaign strategy reflected this reality from the beginning of the runoff; while trying to convince voters at the Augusta end of the district that he is a staunch conservative who will "let the Bible guide" him in all he does, Broun has been trying to rally the Athens Democratic machine to his standard as well, in hopes of gaining enough votes from both ends of the spectrum to beat out the more moderate (by comparison) Whitehead. However, in recent days and weeks, his attempts to play to both sides of the district have increasingly backfired, leading to moves of increasing apparent desperation, including his wife Niki sending out an email to people within the district, which she requested be "forward[ed] to REAL Christians," in which she (astoundingly) alleged that "the enemy" and their "opponent" were ganging up on her and her husband, and called into question "Jim Whitehead's spiritual condition."
Georgia political blog Peach Pundit's breaking the story of this email's existence, which was picked up by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, caused Broun to write a harshly worded email to the paper regarding its failure to "accurately" report about the email in question, saying that it never originated from his "campaign" and that his wife "never meant for her email to be for wide spread distribution."
Regardless of intent, this situation -- which Peach Pundit referred to as a "Paul Broun Melt Doun" -- highlights the issues that the Broun campaign has had in the final weeks of this runoff election with its initial position as an underdog, and with necessary strategy of trying to attract polar opposite ends of the political spectrum to the same standard.
Compounding Broun's difficulties are past problems that Whitehead has been able to use to his advantage -- the fact that Broun was allegedly campaigning for Norwood's seat as far back as two years ago, when the late Congressman was ill but still in office, the fact that he stakes his professional name on being a physician even though he was recently fined for practicing without a license, and the fact that he has run for national office several times previously, in different parts of the state.
Given the combination of disadvantages being experienced by Broun, the only question today -- at least on paper -- seems to be what margin Whitehead will win by. However, given the fact that elections are played out in the real world, not on paper, and that few expected Broun to make the runoff in the first place, it would be foolish to write off the professional candidate completely.
Regardless of outcome, though, at the end of the day Georgia will have kept its 10th Congressional District Republican, and will have another vocal conservative on Capitol Hill. Anything more than that, as they say, would be a bonus.
Jeff Emanuel, a special operations military veteran, is an Athens, GA resident and an administrator of Georgia political weblog Peach Pundit. In addition, he is a columnist and a director of conservative weblog RedState.com.