One of Georgia’s most fascinating primaries this year boils down to a question of strategy: Is the best way to represent the state’s most conservative congressional district through negotiation or unyielding ideological purity?
The dynamic colors almost everything in the five-man Republican primary in the 9th Congressional District, a deep-red enclave in northeast Georgia that stretches from suburban Athens toward the southern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
All five candidates are framing themselves as the truest conservative in a district that one political journal ranked as the third-most-conservative in the nation.
The four tea party-tinged GOP challengers are seizing upon the anti-Washington groundswell that’s dominated the presidential race to varying degrees of success. They’re framing two-term incumbent Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, as a politician who has strayed from constitutional principles in several of his recent votes and is too close to the Republican establishment on Capitol Hill.
Collins, a gangly Army chaplain with a fast clip who has spent his whole life in the district, has been put on the defensive. He fiercely defends his credentials on red-meat issues such as abortion, and he has framed his appeal in terms of what he’s been able to accomplish for northeast Georgia on Capitol Hill.
Collins holds a distinct financial advantage in the race, but what’s still unclear is how this year’s anti-establishment tsunami affects him in a congressional district that’s long been dissatisfied with the federal government.
“People want Washington to get out of their life,” said Mark Wolchko, the chairman of the Towns County Republican Party. “They want their taxes lowered. They want this foolishness to stop with all the government regulations and government interference. We don’t like Obamacare here. How does that translate to voting, I honestly don’t know.”
Collins’ most prominent challenger is former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun. The four-term congressman earned the nickname “Dr. No” during his time on Capitol Hill for his uncompromising vision of limited government and social conservatism, one that often came at the expense of his relations with GOP leaders. He represented about half of the counties in the current 9th District before state lawmakers redrew the congressional lines in 2012.
Broun has grasped onto Collins’ vote in favor of a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill in December that did not zero out funding for Planned Parenthood or the Affordable Care Act, as well as his past support of John Boehner and Paul Ryan for House speaker.
“What I’m seeing across the 9th Congressional District is a reflection of what’s going on in the presidential race — people are just fed up with politicians, and I am, too,” Broun said in a recent interview.
The three other challengers in the race, Roger Fitzpatrick, Bernie Fontaine and Mike Scupin, all have connections to the Lanier Tea Party Patriots and have largely struggled to differentiate themselves from one another.
Of the trio, Fitzpatrick has the highest name recognition. The teacher and school administrator ran against Collins and conservative talk show host Martha Zoller in the 2012 GOP primary, coming in third with about 17 percent of the vote.
This time around, he’s focused his campaign on the national debt.
“If we don’t get that in order, we’re not going to be able to sustain as a country,” Fitzpatrick said in a recent interview.
For his part, Collins has focused nearly all of his fire on Broun.
Collins said Broun voted for Boehner and past spending deals before he was against them and achieved few legislative accomplishments during his time in Congress. He’s also highlighted ethical clouds that have continued to hang over Broun and his former office staff.
“Nothing we said against Paul Broun is not documented and factual,” Collins said.
Broun has maintained that he has nothing to hide ethically and that he’s cooperated with federal investigators.
“Doug Collins is making all these false accusations, trying to make me guilty for something that I haven’t done,” Broun said.
In campaign appearances, Collins has painted himself as a lawmaker who deeply understands the district and its needs. During a recent lunchtime campaign stop at a Clarkesville restaurant, Collins highlighted recent work on rural broadband access and water rights, which he said is one of the main reasons he voted for the government spending bill being highlighted by his opponents.
“All politics are local, and we’ve done a lot for this district and we’ve also been a part of this district,” Collins said.
The road ahead
Given the large number of challengers, it may be hard for any candidate to secure the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff on July 26. The winner of next week’s contest will win the seat, since no Democrats are running in the district that Mitt Romney won with 78 percent of the vote.
Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party, predicted Collins would win without a runoff.
“The people who want 100 percent, there’s only 10 percent of those people out there,” he said, referring to voters who prefer candidates who strive for ideological purity.
Meanwhile, Wolchko, the Towns County GOP chairman, said Broun is resonating with voters.
“People are definitely responding to Paul Broun,” Wolchko said. “He was a very, and I do mean very, popular congressman here, and that ties into the anti-Washington feeling we’ve had here for many, many years.”
Several voters interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said they were still undecided.
“I want to see some people who’ve got some guts to say ‘here’s what my constituents want,’ ” said Frank Bean, a college instructor from Rabun County. “They’ve got to learn how to negotiate. It means standing up strong on your principles but finding in the situation elements where you can have both sides win.”
John Smith, a business owner from Toccoa, said he likes Collins “in many ways.”
“He’s very personable, but I’m having a real problem with him voting for that omnibus bill and not standing with some of the other ones up there,” Smith said. “… In reality, will Paul Broun be any different than that if he gets back up there? Probably not.”
“My frustration is not so much with the individuals as the Republican establishment,” Smith added. “I’m fed up with them.”
Primary just days away
Voters will go to the polls May 24 to select party nominees for legislative seats across the state. As the vote nears, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will give you a look at how key races are shaping up and what issues are having the greatest impact.