A Brief History of Georgia Gubernatorial Primary Runoff Collapses

Every first-place finisher who won more than 38 percent of the initial Georgia gubernatorial primary has been victorious in the runoff

Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle’s (pictured) apparent struggle to retain the advantage he held over Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp following the state’s GOP primary two months ago puts him at risk of becoming yet another first-place finisher in the initial Georgia gubernatorial primary to lose in the runoff.

But a Cagle loss on Tuesday would still be noteworthy in the annals of Peach State electoral politics.

A Smart Politics analysis finds that of the five previous Georgia Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates who led after the first round of voting but lost the runoff, none had amassed as much support as Cagle’s 39.0 percent in the initial primary:

  • 1926: Former Democratic Georgia House Speaker John Holder won 37.3 percent of the primary vote in a four-candidate field – 2.2 points more than former state Senator L.G. Hardman (35.1 percent). But Hardman won the runoff by 14.6 points with 57.3 percent. [Note: At this point in Georgia history the primary winner was determined by which candidate won a majority of ‘county unit’ votes].
  • 1966: Democratic Governor Ellis Arnall won 29.4 percent in a six-candidate primary and advanced to the runoff against restaurant owner and former Atlanta mayoral candidate Lester Maddox, who trailed by 5.8 points with 23.8 percent. Maddox won the runoff by 8.6 points with 54.3 percent.
  • 1974: Former Democratic Governor Lester Maddox won 36.3 percent in the primary in a state record 12-candidate field with longtime state Representative George Busbee 15.5 points back at 20.8 percent. Maddox gained less than four percentage points in the runoff (40.1 percent) and lost to Busbee (59.9 percent) by 19.8 points.
  • 1982: Five-term Democratic Congressman Bo Ginn won 35.1 percent in the 10-candidate primary with nine-term state Representative Joe Frank Harris 10.3 points back in second (24.8 percent). Harris won the runoff by 10.0 points with 55.0 percent.
  • 2010: Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel led the seven-candidate GOP primary field with 34.1 percent to run 11.2 points ahead of 10-term congressman Nathan Deal. Deal narrowly won the runoff by 0.4 points with 50.2 percent.

Of these five comeback runoff victories, only Busbee’s 15.5-point deficit in the initial primary to Maddox in 1974 was larger than Kemp’s 13.4-point deficit to Cagle in May.

In each of the other seven Georgia gubernatorial primary runoffs, the popular vote leader after the initial primary election was victorious in the runoff:

  • 1920: Former Democratic U.S. Senator Thomas Hardwick (42.9 percent, initial primary) defeated former state Attorney General Clifford Walker (39.2 percent) with 55.3 percent in the runoff
  • 1930: Democratic state House Speaker Richard Russell (27.3 percent) beat Secretary of State George Carswell (25.2 percent) with 67.9 percent in the runoff
  • 1970: Former Democratic state Senator Jimmy Carter (48.9 percent) defeated former Governor Carl Sanders (37.8 percent) with 59.4 percent in the runoff
  • 1974: Republican Macon Mayor Ronnie Thompson (41.0 percent) narrowly beat construction company owner Harold Dye (22.7 percent) with 50.6 percent in the runoff
  • 1990: Democratic Lieutenant Governor Zell Miller (40.3 percent) easily defeated former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young (28.8 percent) with 61.8 percent in the runoff
  • 1994: Republican Businessman Guy Millner (47.9 percent) beat former Waycross Mayor John Knox (28.5 percent) with 59.4 percent in the runoff
  • 1998: Democratic state Representative Roy Barnes (49.2 percent) crushed Secretary of State Lewis Massey (27.9 percent) with 82.9 percent in the runoff

Russell is the only runoff winner who placed first in the initial primary with less than 40 percent of the vote. A Cagle victory would make him the second.

Overall, just two of the aforementioned 12 runoffs for the office were competitive – decided by less than 10 points. Both of these were on the GOP side: Thompson’s 1.2-point victory over Dye in 1974 and Deal’s 0.4-point win over Handel in 2010.

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4 Comments on "A Brief History of Georgia Gubernatorial Primary Runoff Collapses"

  1. Would George Carswell, the Georgia Secretary of State who lost to Russell, be any relation to George Harrold Carswell, Nixon’s unsuccessful Supreme Court nominee, who was born in Georgia?

  2. 1. “…primary runoff collapses” Defeats of Initial Primary Vote Leaders at Runoff Stages? Or, better yet, Reversed on Runoff Appeals? (the header could be misconstrued to signify vote fraud, or some lesser irregularities in certain runoff contests themselves; at any rate, far from the most well-crafted report title!?)
    2. 2010: Had Handel managed to fare just a bit better with the supporters of the third-place contender (and others, too), she more likely than not would be finishing out her tenure as governor today – rather than being a back bencher in the House (and, no, John Osoff would still not likely have become a Member thereof).
    3. 1966 & 1974: Aside from the adage ‘What Goes Around, Comes Around’, Maddox simply was not the (alternative) choice of those other than the true believers, the diehard disciples; he was just damn lucky the first time around. Also, he was in fact the elected incumbent LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR at the time of his return bid!
    4. 2018: Is Cagle struggling because their former opponents have coalesced around Kemp, or perhaps the main reason is because Cagle has placed himself on the wrong side of the party’s business wing, with his demagogic assault on Delta Air Lines (still, as of now, based in the state)?

  3. John Chessant | July 25, 2018 at 12:06 am | Reply

    Update: Brian Kemp has won the runoff with 69.4% of the vote to Cagle’s 30.6%. Moreover, Cagle not only received a smaller percentage than he did in the first round, but he also received fewer votes (178,877) than he did in the first round (236,987). A runoff collapse indeed.

    While Kemp’s victory was to be expected given the latest polls (though the margin of victory was somewhat surprising), what transpired in the lieutenant-governor GOP runoff contest was more stunning. Former Senate President pro tempore David Shafer (who placed first in the first round with 48.9%, narrowly short of a majority) was defeated by state Rep. Geoff Duncan by a margin of 0.4 p.p., or fewer than two thousand votes.

    Shafer’s 48.9% mark would be difficult to surpass, as he could not non-negligibly increase his base at all between the first round and the runoff. A comparison that springs to mind is Jon Ossoff’s performance in last year’s special election in GA-06; Ossoff received 48.1% in the first round and 48.2% in the runoff.

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