A judge recently moved up Georgia's Senate primary date. It might seem like a minor housekeeping adjustment, but it has the potential to leave a mark in the battle for the Senate.
Why? Because it could alter the way the Georgia Senate campaigns are run, change turnout models, and in the eyes of some Democrats, boost their chances of pulling an upset in the Peach State -- all against the backdrop of a shrinking Senate map and a race for the majority that looks increasingly close.
First, some background on where things stand. District Court Judge Steve Jones ruled Thursday that Georgia's federal primary date must be moved up to June 3 from its usual mid-July placement. The rationale is to allow enough time for military personnel and others living overseas to return their ballots, should a runoff election be triggered.
Under prior law, Georgia's runoffs were slated for three weeks after the primary, a timetable at odds with a federal law requiring that military and overseas residents be given 45 days to return ballots. The Justice Department sued. And Jones ruled in its favor, deciding that an Aug. 5 runoff would follow a June 3 primary.
With the GOP field as crowded as it is, the possibility of a runoff is alive and well. The field includes Reps. Paul Broun, Jack Kingston and Phil Gingrey, and former secretary of state Karen Handel, so the odds that none of the candidates will eclipse 50 percent are pretty good.
Why does the prospect of an elongated runoff matter? Democrats are heavily courting Michelle Nunn (daughter of Sen. Sam Nunn) to make a bid. Many strategists believe Nunn, who appears to be closing in on a final decision, could clear the field.
If she runs and does clear the field -- neither of which are sure bets -- she would potentially have a bigger window (about two months) to prepare for the general election fight while two Republicans beat each other up.
"This validates the reason why Democrats in Georgia must rally behind a consensus candidate to avoid a costly runoff," said Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson.
Republicans would also have to mind their campaign cash differently. They would have to spend money in the primary in such a way that they don't leave themselves cash-strapped for a longer-than-usual runoff campaign.
Republican strategist Joel McElhannon says he isn't worried about the downside of the new calendar for the GOP, since it doesn't change the date of the runoff.
"In my view, the ruling doesn't change much," he said. "Georgia Republicans face a brutal primary regardless because we have multiple quality candidates running. Our eventual nominee is going to emerge battle scarred regardless of any calendar change. The runoff date is still the same, so the eventual nominee will not be decided until late in the game, which makes the general election even more of a challenge."
Turnout is another variable. As noted on the blog of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jim Galloway (who is one of our favorite political reporters), July turnouts are typically very low. Moving the election up to June could mean more voters show up to the polls, which could help the better-known, more established GOP candidates.
Georgia is a Republican-leaning state. But Demographic trends and a crowded primary that includes problematic candidate Broun have given Democrats hope during a cycle in which they hope to expand their pickup opportunities with open race pickups in Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota looking pretty good good for the GOP, which is expected to have to net six seats in 2014 to claim the majority.
Jones's ruling may not be the last word in Georgia. The state could appeal. And the state legislature, McElhannon said, could also weigh in.
"I think there's a good chance that the schedule will be extensively debated in the session next January and there may even be a debate on eliminating runoffs all together," said McElhannon.