National media outlets identify Georgia as a “lean Republican” state, which means that polling and turnout demographics suggest GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney starts out as the favorite in Georgia. The only other race that will be on all Georgia ballots in November is the race for the 3rd District Public Service Commissioner and even to astute political observers, the duties of the Public Service Commission (PSC) may be foreign.
To the general public, the PSC oversees and regulates the telecommunications, transportation, electric and natural gas industries in Georgia. To political operatives, PSC races serve as barometers for political party support because it generally appears near the end of the ballot and are generally low key races. Most voters have no idea who they are voting for in the PSC race, so the vote is usually a good indication of a voter’s political party preference.
In the 2008 general election, the Democratic candidate got 48% of the vote in the contested PSC race. He ultimately lost the race in the runoff to the Republican, but the percentage of votes for the Democrat indicates how close Georgia was to electing a Democrat statewide. In 2010, the tables turned and the Democrat only got 41% of the vote.
The difference between the outcomes of the two elections tracks with the national political mood at the time of the election. In 2008, President Obama ran the perfect campaign and the weak economy led to Democrats winning the presidency, House, and Senate. However, 2010 was much different. The country was still struggling from the remnants of the great recession and the Democrats were, in our opinion, unfairly shouldering most of the blame.
What will the PSC race look like 2012? It’s too early to tell, but Democrats appear to have fielded a strong candidate in Steve Oppenheimer who is a retired dentist who has spent the last decade working on energy and energy security issues. Oppenheimer recently reported raising almost $100,000 for his campaign during the first three months of 2012, which while not enough to run a statewide campaign, is a significant haul for a challenger in a PSC race.
Oppenheimer’s opponent will have the benefit of incumbency, but Oppenheimer will probably run a good race appealing to the Democrats and independents who seek a voice on environmental issues, such as clean air and alternative energy. Also, some voters may understand the need for balance on the Public Service Commission, since all are Republican and White males (Oppenheimer doesn’t address the last two demos, but that’s a story for another day). Nevertheless, political observers are watching this race as an indicator of statewide races to come. Oppenheimer’s win would open the door for other Democrats to win statewide races in 2014 and 2016.
Most economic indicators denote the economy is on the rebound and Obama has seen his favorability and re-election numbers improve in 2012. These factors should encourage Oppenheimer. But, the PSC race will come down to voter demographics. Will Black voters eclipse their historic high turnout numbers of 2008? Will Republicans in the South be energized to vote for a Republican nominee whose religious beliefs may not be line with their own? Or will the Libertarian candidate garner enough voters to allow the Republican to squeeze by? And the biggest question mark of all, how will Republicans missteps on women’s issues effect their support among White woman?
It’s too early to answer these questions, but we believe the PSC race, and the presidential race in Georgia will be closer than many predict.