The shrinking odds of a runoff in Georgia's race for governor

ATLANTA -- The odds that Georgia's 2018 race for governor will move into an unprecedented four-week runoff just got a little slimmer.

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Jim Galloway
, Cox Newspapers

ATLANTA -- The odds that Georgia's 2018 race for governor will move into an unprecedented four-week runoff just got a little slimmer.

This may sound counter-intuitive. Is it still possible that the contest won't end until Dec. 4? Sure. We have three candidates on the ballot, not two.

More importantly, a final poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News shows Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp whisker-close to each other, but has neither clearing 50 percent, as Georgia election law requires.

So whether the gubernatorial contest actually moves into overtime could depend largely on Edward T. "Ted" Metz, the Libertarian in the contest. And he's had a run of bad luck. The latest blow was the abandonment of a second televised debate among the three candidates.

The scheduling of an eleventh-hour GOP rally in Macon, headlined by President Donald Trump and held late Sunday afternoon, resulted in Kemp pulling out of the broadcast.

Kemp, Abrams and their allies have spent millions on this contest. Metz has raised only a few thousand dollars -- much of it his own money. The collapse of the Channel 2 Action News debate robs the Libertarian of a last affordable chance to make his case before a mass audience.

A frustrated Metz likes to think that the snub was deliberate. "Apparently, the other two mainstream parties are afraid of what I have to say," he said.

Both Abrams and Kemp would disagree with that, but each has excellent reasons for wanting to avoid extra innings.

Democrats have lost the two major, statewide electoral runoffs we've had so far. Runoff voters tend to be older, and thus more Republican.

For Kemp, a runoff would be a sign of political weakness that no new Republican governor would want on his resume going into a January cage-match with the state Legislature.

A resident of Mableton and chairman of the state Libertarian party, Metz has a compelling personal story. Late last year, a tumor was found near his left ear and he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma. He's had surgery to remove that ear and surrounding tissue. "I lost the side of my head," Metz said.

But third-party candidates are a driven lot.

His surgery was on Jan. 30. When no one else raised a hand, Metz went to the state Capitol on March 6 and signed up to run for governor. Radiation and chemotherapy began the next month and didn't end until July.

Something like that will put a dent in both fund raising and personal appearances.

But the Libertarian in this contest has more working against him than the failure of a debate to launch and his personal health -- though Metz says he's now cancer-free. There's pot and polarization, too.

First, some background: The impact of Libertarians in Georgia general elections has always been felt at the margins, within single digits.

In 1992, Libertarian Jim Hudson's 3.4 percent forced a runoff in a U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Wyche Fowler (49.2 percent) and Republican challenger Paul Coverdell (47.7 percent).

In 2008, the 3.4 percent of the vote collected by Allen Buckley was enough to force GOP incumbent Saxby Chambliss (49.8 percent) into a runoff with Democrat Jim Martin (46.8 percent).

Georgia has never had a general election runoff for governor, though in 1966, a write-in campaign by former Gov. Ellis Arnall, a Democrat running as an independent, drew 7 percent of the vote that November -- which resulted in neither Republican Howard "Bo" Callaway (46.5 percent) nor Democrat Lester Maddox (46.2 percent) earning a majority.

But as election law stood at the time, that shifted the final decision to the Democratically controlled Legislature, which put Georgia's last segregationist governor into a new mansion on West Paces Ferry Road.

Another odd facet of Libertarian candidates: They generally poll better than they run, and down-ticket Libertarians often fare better than those at the top.

Last week's AJC/Channel 2 Action News poll measured Metz support in the race for governor at 1.6 percent.

Four years ago, Libertarian Andrew Hunt polled at 5 percent in a gubernatorial election that featured GOP incumbent Nathan Deal, seeking re-election, and Democrat Jason Carter. But on Election Day, Hunt drew 60,185 votes (2.4 percent), and Deal avoided a runoff.

Metz was further down the 2014 ballot as a candidate for state insurance commissioner. He attracted 86,427 votes (3.4 percent). And that was surpassed even lower down by Robin Gilmer, a Libertarian candidate for the state Public Service Commission who received 122,326 votes (4.9 percent) in a contest won by Republican incumbent Lauren "Bubba" McDonald.

In other words, the less familiar a voter is with a statewide contest, the more likely he or she may be tempted to pick the Libertarian.

In the last three months, more than $12 million has been spent on TV ads in the governor's race, by candidates and their allies. Few voters are undecided.

Metz points to a September poll by the Gallup organization in which 57 percent of Americans polled said there is a need for a third major political party.

But we are at what could be the end of a fierce identity election. It's us-or-them, with-us-or-against-us. Both Abrams and Kemp have emphasized the need to vote a straight party ticket. Libertarians could be squeezed out of that equation.

Then there's the topic of marijuana, which has long served as the trademark issue of the Libertarian party in Georgia. Metz promises to de-criminalize marijuana in Georgia. But so does Stacey Abrams.

And Republican lawmakers in the state Capitol have backed -- within limits -- the use of processed, medicinal marijuana for thousands of Georgians. Kemp has endorsed this.

At the one televised debate attended by all three gubernatorial candidates earlier this month, Metz emphasized his support for the growing of industrial hemp in Georgia -- for both its fiber and oil. Hemp is of the same species as marijuana, and is now prohibited, despite its low THC.

But this summer, a GOP-backed House study committee held its first hearing on the introduction of hemp as a permissible cash crop for Georgia farmers.

It's not the same, Metz argued.

"It's about how to regulate it, how to tax it, how to make money out of licensing fees. It's not about free-market agriculture," the Libertarian candidate said.

But there's no doubt that a shifting attitude on pot means that Libertarians no longer hold the sole patent on an issue that has defined them for decades.

Couple that with a red-versus-blue fight that allows little room for Libertarian yellow, and hundreds of campaign workers and volunteers may be eating turkey at home this Thanksgiving.

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