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September 21, 2013

Change in primary date will affect political campaigns

A federal judge has moved Georgia’s primary for all federal offices ahead two months, compressing the campaign season and perhaps leaving many incumbents at an unusual disadvantage.

The primary had been scheduled for July 15 of next year, but U.S. District Judge Steven Jones ruled that did not give military service members and others living abroad time to receive and return ballots for an Aug. 6 runoff if one was required in any of those races.

Earlier this summer, Jones moved the primary to June 3. But Secretary of State Brian Kemp said that date would require the state to hold advance voting during the Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend and requested Jones move the date up even further. Jones has now set the date for May 20. That will be the earliest primary in state history.

Jones’ ruling does not affect the primary for state and local races, which is still set for July 15, so one of the first decisions the Legislature will have to make when it comes back into session in January is whether to move that primary to May 20 as well or to hold two primaries eight weeks apart.

State Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, says he expects the Legislature to consolidate the state and federal primaries.

“I believe there is a general consensus that it would be a bad outcome to have two primaries, each with its own early voting schedule and its own runoff schedule. It would be a waste of dollars, and it would be confusing,” said Bethel.

Qualifying for state and local offices is currently set for late April, but if that primary is moved to May qualifying would be moved to mid-March.

An earlier primary could create some hurdles for members of the Legislature and for those who hold statewide office. State law bars them from raising campaign money while the Legislature is in session.

The Legislature starts its session in January and typically runs into March. But in some years the session has extended into April, leaving incumbents with the prospect of not being able to raise any money in 2014 until just a few weeks before the election. That could put them at a disadvantage with any primary challengers.

“There was some discussion this year about whether that ban (on fundraising) should be extended to everyone, incumbents and challengers,” said Bethel. “The argument is that even if you are a challenger you shouldn’t be in a position where you could influence a vote by your campaign position and raise money. That didn’t make it into the campaign laws we passed last time, but I would expect to see that discussion come up again.”

But there is pressure on incumbents now to speed up their fundraising this year, before the Legislature comes back into session.

“It really changes our calculations and our timeline,” said Brian Robinson, deputy chief of staff for communications for Gov. Nathan Deal. “We basically have from now until the first weekend of January to fund our primary. The governor has had to focus more on those efforts than he has in recent times because of those time restraints. That’s going to be true for all statewide office holders and all legislators.”

Robinson said the early primary presents a particular challenge for the governor.

“The session isn’t even the busiest time for the governor. The real crunch will come during the 40-day bill-signing period (after the session) when the governor has to decide whether to sign or to veto all of the bills passed by the General Assembly. We will still be in that very hectic time, in all likelihood, when the primary day comes up,” he said. “The governor is going to have a lot of balls up in the air at the same time.”

This year, the Legislature passed almost 200 bills, not counting local legislation.

“They all have to be checked for conflicts with other state laws, conflicts with federal laws. They all have to be reviewed to make sure they are policies the governor wants to see enacted,” Robinson said. “It is an arduous process.”

While challengers may not face the fundraising restrictions that incumbents will, they will also face a shorter campaign period than they have been planning on and have less time to get their names and messages out.

But Dalton Mayor David Pennington says he doesn’t expect the change to have much of an impact on the campaign for governor. Pennington will challenge Deal in the Republican primary.

“We still have plenty of time to get our story out, and we are about four months ahead of where we expected to be at this time anyway,” Pennington said.

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