Five Things Columbia County Learned from the 2014 Primary

Political junkies love data, and the 2014 primaries generated reams of it. While it will take a while for the more nuanced lessons to be learned, five things about Columbia County are impossible to overlook.

Five Things Columbia County Learned from the 2014 Primary

District 4 isn’t like the rest of Columbia County

In many ways, the Republican primary for commission chairman was a battle between the old and new. Challenger Jim Bartley, a long-time critic of incumbent Chairman Ron Cross, never backed down from the fact that he doesn’t like the way the county is growing, and nowhere is growth more of an issue than District 4, which stretches from the lake all the way down to Harlem and Grovetown.

“People didn’t come here to have a Walmart on every street corner or a McDonalds on every street corner,” he said. “They came here because it was rural. You can’t make it into something it’s not.”

That message and the relentless drumbeat of Bartley’s criticism of Cross’ 12 years in office seemed to strike a chord with the voters of District 4. Though Bartley lost the overall race, garnering just over 40 percent of the vote to Cross’ 59.6 percent, he actually beat Cross in District 4, taking four precincts: Kiokee Baptist Church, Harlem Baptist Church, Bessie Thomas Community Center, Grovetown United Methodist Church and Eubank Blanchard Community Center.

County-wide, Cross lost nine precincts by a combined 74 votes.

In the 2010 primary, Cross lost District 4 to Brett McGuire by 364 votes.

Bartley fared far worse in the more populated parts of the county, particularly District 1, Cross’ home district, which more or less follows Furys Ferry Road to the state line while moving inland toward Evans. Bartley took a little over 35 percent of that vote. Not only is District 1 more populated than District 4, it turned out in greater numbers.

In District 1, 3,154 voters went to the polls, while just 1,606 turned out in District 4.

Though it’s four more years before District 4 will factor in another race for chairman, its unpredictable nature could still have an impact on November’s District 4 commission race, which will once again pit incumbent Bill Morris against Democrat Vernon Thomas.

Both ran unopposed in the primary.

In the May 2011 special election to fill the seat vacated by Scott Dean, who is now serving 20 years in prison for child molestation, Thomas received 28 percent of the vote to force a runoff with Morris, then a political newcomer, who topped a field of five with 40.66 percent.

In the special election runoff, Morris beat Thomas by just 23 votes, which is a surprising number considering that the county as a whole is overwhelmingly Republican and Morris faced no real controversy nor did he make any glaring missteps.

In other words, Columbia County was less than two dozen voters from having an African-American Democrat on the Board of Commissioners, which only emphasizes the fact that District 4 is just not like the rest of the county.


Jim Bartley is no Brett McGuire

Bartley brought a combative reputation to the election and a history of battling Cross and the county’s elected establishment from behind the scenes, which caused many political wonks to wonder if the conditions might finally be right to unseat Cross. However, in spite of his volatile personality and a long history with the local Republican Party, which has historically had little time for Cross or the other Republicans currently on the commission, Bartley earned seven percent less than Brett McGuire, Cross’ 2010 challenger.

McGuire ran on a similar outsider platform, criticizing Cross’ water bill insert and claiming the 5-percent across the board spending cuts Cross implemented in response to the recession were not targeted enough. Critical of the county’s debt and skeptical about its improving bond rating, McGuire built his campaign around the idea that the fiscal sky was falling.

Four years later, Bartley made many of the same arguments, but to less effect. Maybe he didn’t articulate them well enough, maybe his skeletons were too near the front of his closet or maybe Cross’ opposition has cried Chicken Little so many times that the electorate just isn’t listening anymore. Whatever the reason, Bartley’s sound and fury didn’t exactly signify nothing, but it certainly polled weaker than McGuire’s.


Voters didn’t care

In spite of the attention-grabbing grudge match between Bartley and Cross and significant Republican races for the 12th Congressional District and the Senate, turnout in Columbia County for the 2014 primary came in at a weak 19.8 percent.

“I was surprised because the first three weeks of early voting we voted actually more than the three week period in 2010, which was kind of a similar ballot,” said Elections Director Nancy Gay. “We voted something like 300 people more this go around than four years ago, so I was hoping we would get at least 25 percent.”

In 2010, the primary turnout was 24 percent.

According to Lynn Bailey, executive director of Richmond County’s Board of Elections, turnout in Richmond County ended up at 30.02 percent after the provisional ballots were tallied.

Gay said she isn’t sure how to account for the low turnout.

“I don’t know if people weren’t aware of it because it was in May instead of July or if there were too many people on the ballot, because some of those seats had seven to nine candidates, and that can get overwhelming,” she said.

The Republican ballot for Senate had nine candidates, the 10th Congressional District had seven and the 12th Congressional District had five.

Whatever the reason, Gay said it made for a strange Election Day.

“Election Day came and it felt like it was a runoff day,” she said. “The phones would ring, but they weren’t ringing off the hook.”

Gay said that while they do their best to be prepared for anything, it’s up to the candidates to motivate the electorate.

“We, as in the election people, can’t get out and make the voters get out to the polls and vote,” she said. “I don’t know if the candidates didn’t engage them enough, didn’t advertise or didn’t reach out to them — I don’t know. But my mailbox didn’t really have an excess of political campaign ads this time around. It was really an unusual cycle.”


Voters want a say in who gets to build the hospital

Both parties used their nonbinding ballot questions to gauge voter sentiment regarding the hospital proposed for the county.

In March, commissioners voted to allow the Georgia Department of Community Health to choose between the three parties interested in building a hospital in Columbia County — Doctor’s Hospital, University Hospital and Georgia Regents Health System. On the ballot, Republicans were asked whether or not voters should be advised of the obligations and costs of a hospital and then vote on whether to approve it, and 89 percent responded with a yes. Following that, 75 percent said the citizens should then vote on which entity would be given the approval.

Democrats proposed a slightly different question, asking whether voters supported a referendum to choose the public or private entity that would build and manage a hospital, and 80 percent voted yes.


Party stereotypes are just as strong in Columbia County as everywhere else

Just under 95 percent of Republicans supported mandatory drug testing for individuals receiving public assistance and almost 88 percent felt contractors and builders should be required to demonstrate compliance with E-Verify for permits and licenses.

Among Democrats, nearly 68 percent felt general contractors on state, county and municipal projects should be required to set aside 5 percent or more for minority contractors, while almost 84 percent felt the state of Georgia should increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour.

When it came to education, 85 percent of Republicans wanted to suspend the implementation of Common Core State Standards, while 82 percent of Democrats supported a state-level Constitutional Amendment making the education budget Georgia’s first funding priority.

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