Shocker in Georgia's 10th Congressional District

Georgia’s 10th Congressional District was turned upside down this week, as a 9-to-1 frontrunner — and conventional wisdom — fell victim to the less-predictable-than-originally-thought voting public. In an all-Republican runoff to fill the seat left open by the late Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.), conservative physician and professional candidate Paul Broun, Jr. of Athens rocked the political boat by pulling off a 50.4% to 49.6% victory — a 394-vote margin — over heavy favorite Jim Whitehead, a state Senator and small business owner from Augusta. Whitehead was the expected winner after coming out on top of the ten-candidate June 19 special election with 43.5% of the vote to Broun’s 20.7%. 

Broun, by conventional thinking, should have lost. He was at a natural disadvantage based on the demographics of the district. The 10th CD is mainly comprised of Augusta, which is home of the Masters golf tournament and of the Medical College of Georgia (where Broun earned his MD), and of Athens-Clarke County, is the most liberal county in the northeastern part of the state, and home of the University of Georgia, where Whitehead once played football. Being from Athens — while his opponent was from Augusta — meant that in order to win, Broun needed not only to pick up conservative votes in the more rural areas outside of the two major cities, but to gain Democrat votes in far-left Athens and pick off enough support from Whitehead’s end of the district to make the votes from any of those other areas matter.

Trolling for votes in Athens was the touchiest part of his campaign, given the fact that Broun’s past positions, which have included the eradication of  “unconstitutional” programs like Social Security and Medicare, are pretty far out of that area’s mainstream as one can get.

In the days and weeks leading up to the runoff, though, Broun’s strategy appeared to be faltering. The situation culminated in an incident involving his wife Niki, who sent out an email to friends within the district, which she requested be “forward[ed] to REAL Christians,” in which she alleged that “the enemy” and their “opponent” were ganging up on she and her husband, and called into question “Jim Whitehead’s spiritual condition.”

Georgia political blog Peach Pundit’s breaking of the story of the email’s (which was picked up by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution), caused Broun to write a harshly worded email to the paper regarding their 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” — made it appear that Broun was sinking in the final weeks of the campaign.

Further compounding Broun’s problems were a list of other Broun weaknesses that Whitehead should have been able to use to his advantage: (1) 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; (2) Broun  stakes his professional name on being a physician despite the fact that he was recently fined for practicing without a license; (3) Broun created an embarrassing scene by strong-arming a local party on his end of the district to rescind their pre-election endorsement of his opponent; and (4) Broun ran for national office several times previously, in different parts of the state — basically serving as a professional traveling candidate for Congress.

Given Broun’s disadvantages and the fact that the entire Republican delegation in the state Senate had endorsed Whitehead, the only question — at least on paper — seemed to be by what margin Whitehead would win. Real elections, though, are played out at the ballot box, and not on paper, as the voters in GA 10 (and the pundits who were watching, confident of a Whitehead cakewalk) saw on Tuesday.

While most critics and pundits were hung up on Broun’s disadvantages — and while the Whitehead camp sat idly by, treating the runoff election like a mere formality — the underdog simply executed his strategy, and it paid off beautifully. He managed to take nearly a third of the votes in Whitehead’s home county, and in Athens he hammered Whitehead by an unthinkable 5,122 to 601 (or 9 to 1) vote margin. In the district as a whole, Whitehead received 455 fewer votes in the runoff than he did in the June 19 special election (from 23,555 to 23,100), and Broun increased his vote total by over one hundred percent, from 11,208 to 23,473.

How did such a dramatic turnaround happen — especially in a state where, when the leader going into a runoff earned more than 30% of the vote in the initial election, the odds in his favor are nearly 9-to-1?

It didn’t take long for the finger pointing to begin inside the Whitehead camp; however, the mistakes made are more cut-and-dried than they appear at first glance — in essence, it was a case of writing off the runoff election as a formality, and started picking out furniture for the DC office.

Specifically, Whitehead hired on the late Rep. Norwood’s old staff early in the campaign, a smart move for somebody looking to project the continuation of an administration most in the district had been overwhelmingly happy with for years. He also retained one of the top political consultants in the state, Joel McElhannon, to actually run his campaign. To quote an insider, the Norwood holdovers “were quite happy letting Joel call shots during the primary, but once it was over and they had such a commanding lead, they shoved the in-state consultant, Joel, aside, and prepared for the swearing in ceremony.”

During the three weeks of the runoff, the Whitehead campaign did next to nothing, sitting in Augusta and eschewing any temptation to spend money on mailings or television spots, or effort on walking from door to door. The only action taken was a small number of appearances by the candidate — and in one of these, he exercised his main weakness: his penchant for sometimes speaking first and thinking later. In this case, he said in essence that the election would determine whether Augusta or Athens was the city that mattered in the 10th CD — and true to his word, the campaign completely wrote the western end of the district off for the duration of the run-up to the election.

Paul Broun did not. He worked in Athens, telling the people there that Jim Whitehead, if elected, would ignore them (a fact borne out by Whitehead’s treatment of the town during the campaign); he worked in Augusta; and he worked in between. The airwaves, newspapers, and people’s mail boxes were flooded with the message and likeness of Paul Broun, while Jim Whitehead simply let his opponent have the initiative — and it came back to bite him, hard.

Regardless of the election’s outcome, Georgia’s 10th CD — and Congress — would have gained another conservative Republican. With Paul Broun’s victory, the GOP has gained aself-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-Tex.), 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 Fair Tax, 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.”

He came from behind to make a runoff for Rep. Norwood’s open seat. He came from behind to win that runoff, and to make it to the US House of Representatives. All pride and petty quibbles aside, Georgia Republicans have to feel good about having a staunch conservative with that kind of work ethic representing them in Congress for many years to come.