Kyle Wingfield: Should Georgia Republicans fret over the upcoming jungle primary?

Kyle Wingfield

The hottest story in Georgia politics is the emerging GOP-on-GOP contest between Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to replace Johnny Isakson in the U.S. Senate, and Doug Collins, who wanted the job and now plans to challenge Loeffler in November.

Among other things, the race is highlighting a peculiar facet of state election law: the so-called jungle primary.

Normally, Republican and Democratic candidates for state and federal office in Georgia run first in a party primary, then in a general election. But in special elections, such as this one, all comers are thrown together to start. If no one wins a majority, the top two vote-getters — regardless of party affiliation — advance to a runoff.

That means two Republicans can make a runoff. Or two Democrats. (Or, in theory, two independents or members of a third party.)

Hence, a number of Georgia Republicans fear Collins’ candidacy could jeopardize their party’s hold on the seat by allowing a Democrat to exploit the intraparty division and slip through. There’s even a proposal in the Legislature to force a primary this spring.

Are the fears justified?

Set aside for a moment whether partisan lenses are the right ones for viewing such an election, and assume for the sake of argument that it’s bad if a jungle primary allows a candidate from the presumed minority party in the district or state to win a seat.

What do the results of these special elections show us?

I looked at all the special elections in this cycle so far, as well as the three previous cycles dating back to the end of the 2012 general election. I looked only at special elections with candidates from more than one party, including those who ran as independents. Here’s what I found.

There were 29 such races over the past seven years. In 24 of them, the seat stayed with the party that previously held it.

What about those other five?

Two of the five produced runoffs between one Republican and one Democrat — the same outcome as if there had been party primaries. The fact that those seats flipped owes mostly to lower turnout, common in special elections; both flipped back to the original party in the next general election.

Two others flipped during the jungle primary, without a runoff. Both were state House seats in the Athens area contested in November 2017. The conventional wisdom is that Republicans lost due to higher turnout by liberal voters supporting a transportation tax on the ballot in Clarke County. Indeed, Republicans recaptured both seats in 2018.

That leaves us with one example, and it’s the main one that has so many Republican brows furrowed.

State Senate District 6, which covers parts of Fulton and Cobb counties, was a jumbled jungle on that same November 2017 day: Five Republicans and three Democrats ran to succeed a GOP senator. A slight majority of the votes (50.7%) was split among the Republicans; two of the Democrats shared almost all of the other votes and stunned the political world by both advancing to the runoff. Jen Jordan won the seat, and then held it in 2018.

That’s the kind of outcome Georgia Republicans fear from the Collins-Loeffler fight. It’s only really happened the one time, although one of those Athens seats featured some similar dynamics. Even then, that’s twice out of 29 times, less than 7%.

That’s a small likelihood. Of course, both parties realize how important the race is, with control of the U.S. Senate possibly at stake.

One other observation: It’s not entirely clear what benefit jungle primaries offer. Based on the data, they don’t create much more partisan competitiveness. They also don’t usually settle elections in one step instead of two, which would at least reduce the cost of staging the elections. In 20 of the 29 contests, a runoff was required anyway.

In the end, it’s hard to say who the jungle primary is truly good for — except maybe those who talk (and write) about such things.

Dalton native Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (www.georgiapolicy.org).

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