Former state Sen. Jim Whitehead’s campaign headquarters was in a state of panic Tuesday afternoon, with senior officials shifting staffers from victory-party preparations to last-minute turnout operations.
By yesterday evening, it was apparent that the Republican front-runner’s late efforts were for naught. Physician Paul Broun, also a Republican, was headed for a major upset in Georgia’s 10th congressional district special-election runoff.
The result stunned Whitehead’s supporters, who expected their candidate to sail to victory on the strength of backing by party leaders and a large fundraising advantage.
“There was a decision made early on to, basically, tell Athens to shove it and ignore them,” the operative said. “We didn’t go to their debates; we got in a big confrontation with The Athens Banner-Herald. In retrospect, those things were a big mistake, because it really galvanized the Athens area against Jim Whitehead.”
Broun led the heavily favored Whitehead by 373 votes out of more than 46,000 votes cast yesterday evening, with 98 percent of precincts reporting.
Broun’s margin of 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent means the race is probably headed for a recount, which is triggered if the difference is less than 1 percentage point.
Only military, overseas and provisional ballots remain to be counted.
As of press time, Broun had not declared victory and Whitehead had not conceded. Whitehead looked ready to wait for the result to be certified, which could take more than a week.
Broun, the son of longtime Democratic state legislator Paul Broun Sr., is the only doctor in Georgia whose practice focuses almost entirely on house calls. To make up for a large fundraising gap between himself and Whitehead, he spent more than $200,000 of his own money on the campaign.
Last month, he narrowly made the runoff with 21 percent, edging a Democrat by less than half a percent. Whitehead took 45 percent of the vote, shy of the 50 percent needed to avoid the runoff.
Whitehead hails from Augusta and had the backing of former Rep. Charles Norwood’s (R) staff and supporters, who wanted to keep the campaign office in their area. Norwood died this year, leaving the seat vacant.
Broun won both Athens-based Clarke County and nearby Oconee County with nearly 90 percent of the vote. But he also managed to get more than 25 percent in both of Whitehead’s strongholds — Augusta-based Richmond County and Columbia County.
Those four counties accounted for more than half of ballots cast Tuesday.
Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said a number of campaign gaffes cost Whitehead dearly.
Bullock referred specifically to the handling of Whitehead’s past joke about bombing the university because it was so liberal and his statements that he would be the congressman from Augusta, as opposed to the whole district.
“The more he talked, the more people he alienated,” Bullock said.
Sherry Barnes, chairwoman of the Richmond County Republican Party and a Whitehead supporter, said Whitehead voters might have become complacent after he won such a big percentage in the special election last month.
“We were very shocked, very surprised,” Barnes said. “We think it was because the turnout was low, because it was in the summer and a runoff. Because Jim Whitehead did so well originally, I think people weren’t concerned about it.”
Early turnout worries shifted the Whitehead campaign’s focus from victory to survival. Staffers who had been dispatched to work on the victory party were called back to the office for last-minute turnout efforts, campaign sources said.
A spokeswoman for the Georgia secretary of state said turnout was 13.5 percent. Turnout in last month’s special election was 16 percent.
Past special elections have seen higher turnout.
Broun’s campaign manager, Joshua Evans, noted that turnout was strong in Columbia County, and Broun still won.
“It was actually a 20 percent voter turnout in Columbia County — [Whitehead’s] strongest area,” Evans said. “To say that there was low voter turnout in his strong area just would not be correct.”
Evans attributed the win to the campaign’s work to communicate a strong and sincere message and a large grassroots-turnout operation. In particular, it reached out to black voters, Democrats and independents in the weeks before the runoff.
Broun tried to convince Athens-area Democrats that they had a stake in the election and should vote for him.
Both men are staunch conservatives.
If Broun does become the newest member of Congress, he might have another tough race on his hands in the coming months. Those close to the race expect some of the candidates who failed to make the runoff to run again, potentially setting up a primary in 2008.
Whitehead is not expected to be a candidate. His campaign could not be reached for official comment yesterday.