Monday February 8th, 2016 1:54PM

2014 to be a major election year in Georgia

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) -- Four years after Republicans claimed every statewide office in Georgia, voters will have the chance to weigh in on whether the state is on the right path or changes are needed at the top.

It will be a major election year with all statewide officials, including the governor, facing re-election. There also will be a hotly contested race for Georgia's open U.S. Senate seat with Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss set to retire at year's end. In addition, all 56 state senators and 180 state representatives will be on the ballot.

While the general election isn't until November, key primaries worth watching will be held early this year after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit saying Georgia wasn't allowing enough time for military members and others living overseas to return absentee ballots in federal runoff races.

As a result of that case, the U.S. Senate primary is scheduled for May 20. And state lawmakers gathering for the legislative session this month are expected to quickly change the date of the statewide primary so both can be held the same day, sparing the costs of separate elections.

The earlier primary dates will mean a compressed campaign season, putting pressure on state lawmakers to get in and out of Atlanta. During the session, set to start Jan. 13, elected officials are prohibited by state law from raising campaign money. So there will be an extra incentive to move swiftly on their legislative agendas.

Lawmakers have 40 calendars days to work with, but those are usually spread out over the course of roughly four months. Some observers predict the session could be over by late March, but that depends on how budget deliberations and other key issues progress.

A major question will be how the governor and state lawmakers handle growing state revenues after the lean years that followed the recession. Will state employees see a pay raise? Will education funding significantly increase?

Gov. Nathan Deal has indicated he wants to spend about $7.4 million in state funds to shore up the Department of Child and Family Services, after the deaths of two children with whom the agency had contact. The money would be used to hire more employees.

One of Deal's Republican primary opponents is state schools Superintendent John Barge. He has been critical of the governor over budget cuts he says have resulted in two-thirds of school districts reducing classroom days below the 180-day limit set by law. Barge will likely cast any proposed education funding increases as election-year politics.

Meanwhile, Deal's other Republican primary challenger is Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who's eager to woo tea party and fiscal conservatives with his message of smaller government. Pennington, who argues that the governor has failed to reduce taxes and cut spending, will likely use any budget increases as another line of attack on Deal.

And then there is state Sen. Jason Carter. His decision to run for governor energized Democrats who are hoping that changing demographics - increases in minorities and residents moving in from other states - will transform Georgia's political landscape despite tough odds. Most state Democrats had been looking to 2018, but Carter and Michelle Nunn, who's running for U.S. Senate, think they can move the electorate now and see hope with their early fundraising.

Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, has decided to remain in the Senate for the session, forgoing an opportunity to gain some ground in fundraising. He may be banking on the fact that he's not expected to face a primary challenger while Deal's two opponents will force him to spend money.

By staying in the Senate, Carter also will benefit from being the most visible opponent to Deal's legislative agenda and will look to challenge the governor on education issues and the decision not to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law. Deal will continue to make the case that his focus on economic development has bolstered the economy, producing jobs.

Other issues likely to arise in the legislative session include an effort to toss out the Common Core academic standards, a push for medical malpractice reform and a call for more criminal justice reforms with an emphasis on improving rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. One lingering question from last year's legislative session is what lawmakers will do with a proposal, still active, to expand gun rights on public college campuses.

And while some attention is focused on the Capitol, a crowded field of Republicans vying for Georgia's open U.S. Senate seat will be traveling the state and looking for any advantage heading into the May 20 primary. Major GOP candidates include U.S. Reps. Paul Broun of Athens, Phil Gingrey of Marietta and Jack Kingston of Savannah, along with former Secretary of State Karen Handel and former Dollar General CEO David Perdue.

Kingston and Gingrey already have more than $2 million each in the bank, while Perdue has put up $1 million of his own money. All three are likely to spend the cash on TV ads and mailers to boost name recognition among Republican primary voters. Meanwhile, Broun will work to rally support from tea party and social conservatives and Handel will tap her grassroots network, built during her previous campaigns.

Expect health care to remain a major topic as the GOP candidates look to position themselves as the strongest opponent of the federal law. Broun has already attacked Kingston for signaling a willingness to make changes to the law while seeking to repeal it. Given the crowded field, a July 22 runoff is expected.

Among Democrats, Nunn is considered the front-runner in the U.S. Senate race. The daughter of former Democratic U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, a moderate who represented Georgia for 24 years, she will campaign on her experience leading Points of Light, one of the nation's largest volunteer organizations. Look for Nunn to try to keep her distance from national Democrats as she argues her independence and pragmatism is what's needed in Washington, and for Republicans to try to portray her as lock-step with President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

After the Nov. 4 general election is over, much will be known about whether Georgia remains a reliable Republican stronghold or if the state might turn a little blue.
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