Primaries better than baseball

Circle July 18 on your calendar. Voting in that day's primary election, Democratic or Republican, may be the most important political act you will perform this year. So don't forget to cast your ballot. You'll be among the elite if you do.

In bygone times, voting in the primary was a snap. You didn't have to worry about choosing a party ballot. That had been done for you. It was a Democratic ballot, provided courtesy of the only show in town and the only party offering a primary. Winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to winning the general election. That quaint situation vanished three decades ago. Still, what goes around nearly always comes back, especially in politics.

Georgia may not be far away from seeing a return of the primary to its former status, except this time, it will be the Republican primary that counts most.

Back to the present. Remember, in Georgia, you have to pick your party when you cast your primary ballot. Doesn't matter whether you have been talking like a big-shot Republican all year - or moaning like a sorehead Democrat. Primary day is put-up-or-shut-up time. Sorry, pal, you can only vote in one party's primary, but you do get a choice.

"If the primary is so important, why do we hold it on July 18 in the middle of summer and vacation season when so few voters are likely to turn out?" you may ask. No, that is not a dumb question. You have broken the code. Party professionals from both sides of the aisle like the little-noticed, low-turnout primaries. In such an environment, the pros control the vote and the outcome. Incumbents and special interests rule. For us, the governed, the news is not so cheery.

There's no shortage of interesting contests in this year's primary. For purposes of this piece, however, let's take at look at two headline races - the Republican joust for lieutenant governor (Ralph Reed vs. Casey Cagle) and the battle for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination (Mark Taylor vs. Cathy Cox).

In an odd sense, Democrat Cox and Republican Cagle are fighting for the same turf to push their respective careers to the next level. To win, both candidates need a larger-than-usual turnout of nontraditional primary voters.

Cox is hoping that voters who usually skip the primary - or even who vote in the Republican one - will heed her call and ask for a Democratic ballot on July 18. She believes those outsiders, particularly women, can deliver for her the margin of victory to defeat traditional Democrat Taylor. Then she can take on incumbent Sonny Perdue in the Nov. 7 election.

(Perdue faces token primary opposition from Ray McBerry of Norcross, who is still angry about Perdue's failure to hold a referendum on the state flag.)

In contrast to Cox's outreach strategy, Taylor hopes to energize the customary Democratic base to lock up the nomination.

That may sound easy, but it is certainly not. Predicting snowfall is easier than keeping Democrats from jumping the traces in a primary, or from keeping the entire process from going awry. Remember 2004? Congresswoman Denise Majette, declaring that she was taking orders directly from God, dove into the Democratic U.S. Senate primary to defeat wealthy businessman Cliff Oxford. A no-chance nominee, Majette, in effect, forfeited the Senate seat to Republican Johnny Isakson.

Then there was the 2002 primary. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney expected to win with ease until she was swamped by Democratic primary voters who were incensed at her perceived anti-Semitism and outrageous remarks regarding 9/11. Those voters - a staggering 32 percent of whom had never voted in a primary before - handed over her House seat to an untested, unknown named Denise Majette. Yep, that's the same Majette who messed up the 2004 Senate primary and is now running for state school superintendent.

The more interesting race this summer may be on the Republican side. Ralph Reed appears ahead for the lieutenant governor's slot. Reed has money, talent, national appeal and an apparent lock on the activist Christian conservative vote - the bedrock of the state Republican electorate. To be sure, not all people of faith are enamored of Reed. Yet many believe the constant media smears connecting Reed and bad-guy lobbyist Jack Abramoff are part of a larger liberal plot to purge Reed and his kind from the political landscape.

So the mission of state Sen. Casey Cagle, Reed's opponent, is this: Expand the Republican primary base by 1) energizing anti-Reed Republicans and 2) persuading independent and some Republican voters to forgo Democrat Cathy Cox and join him in stopping Reed in the Republican primary.

If you love politics as much as I do, the contests don't get much better than Reed-Cagle and Cox-Taylor. Too bad that the battles are occurring in the middle of summer when so few watch - or care.

Bill Shipp's column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.