Amid the elections on the ballot this November, Georgia voters will be faced with one peculiar contest. Called a “jungle primary” or a “nonpartisan blanket primary,” the election would determine who gets to claim—or keep—the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Republican Johnny Isakson at the end of 2019.
Essentially, a jungle primary is an election sans primary—something of a battle royale. The unorthodox model—only Louisiana has fully embraced it, although other states have used it, too—allows any candidate who pays their filing fees to duke it out in a race for elected office. In Georgia’s case, there are four major candidates: two Republicans and two Democrats.
Today, the Senate seat in question is held by Republican Kelly Loeffler, a businesswoman and political newcomer perhaps best known as a co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA team, the Dream, and the former CEO of Bakkt, a subsidiary of the Intercontinental Exchange, a company founded and run by her husband Jeffrey Sprecher.
In December, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp tapped Loeffler to succeed Isakson, who left office due to health problems, including worsening Parkinson’s disease. Some staunch supporters of President Donald Trump were outraged by Kemp’s pick; the president had called for the governor to give the seat to Georgia Congressman Doug Collins, the current representative of the state’s Ninth District and a devoted Trump defender.
Loeffler, another avowed Trump supporter, is pitted against Collins in a bid to keep her new job. Collins, who announced his candidacy in late January and shot down the prospect of claiming a national intelligence gig in Trump’s administration, is vying for the gig as his Congressional term comes to an end. University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock tells Atlanta magazine that the congressman—like just about any other House representative—is eyeing the Senate spot to boost his political influence.
“There are only 100 senators and 435 House members. As a senator, you run every six years; as a House member, you run every two years,” Bullock notes. “You have more influence as one of 100. You get involved with a wider range of policies as a senator than as a representative. If you asked [most House members] if they’d rather stay where they are or move to the Senate, probably every hand would go up to move to the Senate.”
Loeffler and Collins, both white, are competing against two prominent black Democrats. In late January, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, became the first Democrat to enter the race. Warnock has no political experience but boasts name recognition due to his religious influence in metro Atlanta and beyond—he led the prayer service at former President Barack Obama’s second inauguration—and was mentioned as a potential opponent in 2016, when Isakson last ran for office. Warnock claimed the support of Stacey Abrams almost immediately.
And on February 20, Ed Tarver declared his candidacy. A former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia under Obama and an ex-state senator representing Augusta in the 2000s, Tarver brings with him political experience, but perhaps not the same popularity as Warnock, Bullock says. Outside of the Augusta area and politically involved circles, Tarver might be considered an unknown.
Also on the ballot: expect businessman Matt Liebermann and UGA professor Richard Winfield, both Democrats, as well as former Office of Federal Student Aid chief operating officer Wayne Johnson, a Republican. Businessman and Vietnam-era Air Force veteran Al Bartell is the only person in the race running as an Independent.
The November election might be a battle royale, but it’s unlikely to be winner-take-all. To win a jungle primary, a candidate has to secure the majority, not a plurality, of votes. With so many credible candidates, a runoff is likely between the two top candidates next January. Bullock assumes those two would likely be a Democrat and a Republican.
With a galvanizing and polarizing presidential race at the top of the ticket in November, the election could bring the highest voter turnout the state has seen to date since the 2016 election, when some 4.1 million Georgians pulled the lever.
Bullock anticipates Warnock and Tarver will split the black vote at the polls, and Loeffler and Collins will fight over Trump supporters. The voter bloc everyone should be gunning for, he says, are white suburban women. On that front, Bullock says, Loeffler certainly has the edge, thanks to “descriptive representation”—an innate itch to elect someone who looks like you.
In fact, the Democrats should be wary of the prospect of Loeffler scoring votes from left-leaning women. Some might say, “We need more women in the senate,” Bullock says. After all, save for Loeffler, there isn’t a single woman who holds statewide office in Georgia today. On the other hand, Warnock’s Christian background could woo some of the state’s conservative voters who are turned off by Trump.
But, as Bullock puts it, this is an “all-comers primary,” so the seat is up for anyone to take.