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If you’ll pardon an off-season sports metaphor, we’ve entered the red zone of the Republican primary season.
With only a dozen days before final ballots are cast, the temptation to make risky plays for hardcore voters becomes ever stronger. Opportunities for fumbles, whether forced or unforced, likewise increase.
If a dominant theme can be assigned to this nerve-wracking, inside-the-20 yard-line period, it’s likely to be the effort among some Republicans to keep November in mind, and put a lid on the extreme language once encouraged as necessary to rally the troops.
On Tuesday, video surfaced in which Bob Johnson, a surgeon and conservative, viable congressional candidate to replace U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah, declared he would “rather see another terrorist attack — truly I would” than endure pat-downs at airports.
“They’re indoctrinating generations of Americans to walk through a line and be prodded and probed by uniformed personnel, agents of the government, like sheep,” Johnson theorized – ‘way back in February.
Give the man credit for recognizing an unwinnable situation. “I said something stupid and should have chosen my words more carefully,” Johnson quickly confessed.
Not that a Democrat has a chance in Georgia’s coastal First District. But there’s growing GOP recognition that, in a Twitter-fed, YouTubed world, crazy talk in one race will reflect on other, more important ones. Contests for U.S. Senate and governor, for instance.
In the realm of rhetorical excess, the Affordable Care Act has been the most dependable vein for of emotional hyperbole.
Only Monday, a Tennessee state senator wrote that “Democrats bragging about the number of mandatory sign-ups for Obamacare is like Germans bragging about the number of [mandatory] sign-ups for ‘train rides’ for Jews in the ‘40s.”
But a close second has been Common Core, the voluntary multi-state academic standards for public k-12 students.
John McLaughlin, the pollster, is well known in Georgia. His data gives guidance to Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Kingston. But on Monday, McLaughlin was working for a pro-education group called Collaborative for Student Success.
He unveiled a poll that tested Common Core’s reception among general election voters – and advised Republicans across the nation to temper their denunciations. Otherwise, he said, the education issue is likely to bite them in the fanny come November.
All right, maybe he didn’t say “fanny.” But he came close:
“All the dangers that come from being associated with the national Republican brand – being exclusive, Anglo-only, anti-woman, anti-Hispanic – are in play here and Republicans would be wise to think of this issue in a broader context,” McLaughlin said in a written conclusion.
“The anti-Common Core positions may be inviting in the short-term, but looking to November, supporting state standards that elevate school achievement have far more upside.”
Specifically, McLaughlin’s poll described two general election candidates. One maintained that “Common Core state standards are supported by 75 percent of the teachers and will help students learn more and be better prepared when they graduate high school.”
The other candidate declared Common Core was “developed in secret by the Obama administration and … imposed on kids without input from parents and local school boards.”
In McLaughlin’s hypothetical November match-up, the conspiracy theorist loses by a 2:1 ratio.
Still, the primary dynamics are tempting. More than a third of GOP primary voters preferred the “developed in secret by the Obama administration” scenario. The McLaughlin survey also shows that the intensity – always important in getting voters to the polls — is on the anti-Common Core side of the argument.
Those who “strongly” oppose Common Core outnumber “strong” proponents by that same 2:1 ratio.
Which explains why Common Core will continue to be an issue in Georgia’s nine-candidate, Republican race for school superintendent, where a small, cohesive slice of the electorate could give any candidate a berth in an all-but-certain runoff.
But the above poll could also help explain Governor Deal’s decision not to debate his GOP primary opponents. Last Saturday, at a breakfast meeting of the Cobb County GOP, one of his rivals, former Dalton mayor David Pennington, described Common Core in stark, Cold War terms. “Centralized power and authority doesn’t work,” he said. “That’s why the Soviet Union fell apart. Why are we going down the same road?”
In a red-zone debate, Deal might be tempted to match that language. But the Republican governor knows he has Democrat Jason Carter waiting for him on the other side of May 20.
And Carter has picked education – not guns, not health care – as his chosen battleground.