The last time Garrett Michael Hayes ran for governor, he won 2.3 percent of the vote. That was four years ago.
This year, Hayes -- again the Libertarian nominee -- is polling more than three times that level, and Georgia's political cognoscenti are abuzz with two questions: Why would a Libertarian policy nerd come close to breaking double digits in the polls? And what does it mean for this year's governor's race?
There's the "Man from Uncle Theory," held by pollster Matt Towery of Insider Advantage. It's based on a ubiquitous TV ad in which the handsome old actor Robert Vaughn plugs "Gary Martin Hayes," an Atlanta attorney. Towery argues that the lawyer's name is similar enough to the Libertarian's name to confuse some voters.
Hayes (the candidate) laughs off that theory, pointing out that Hayes (the lawyer) was running his ads four years ago, back when the Libertarian couldn't top 3 percent.
Then, there's the "Disgruntled Flaggers" theory: Southern heritage enthusiasts still feel burned by Gov. Sonny Perdue, who on his way to winning the 2002 race told them he'd back a referendum to put the Confederate battle emblem back on Georgia's flag. Perdue tiptoed away from that issue once he was elected, which ticked off the flaggers. They've since peppered rural Georgia with thousands of "Sonny Lied" signs. A staunch backer of referendums, Hayes seems an obvious alternative to Republican Perdue and Democrat Mark Taylor, who favored changing the flag in the first place.
But his soul-searching on abortion and his feds-first approach to illegal immigration make it seem unlikely that Confederate-rights types will see Hayes, a native Californian, as the next coming of Robert E. Lee. "We share a lot of ideas with the Libertarian Party," admits Steve Harris, vice chairman of the Southern Party of Georgia. "But they're really not guided by any principles." Harris' party isn't endorsing anyone in this year's governor's race.
Hayes' own theory for his popularity boost is that, after years of government failures, Libertarian ideas finally are gaining traction. But he also acknowledges the most likely reason: The lack of popularity of Perdue and Taylor. Or, as veteran political analyst Bill Shipp puts it: "A lot of voters are disenchanted with the other two choices."
No kidding. Battling controversy over his Florida land deal in a year that dozens of other Republicans nationwide have been tainted by corruption, Perdue is only hovering around 50 percent in the polls -- not good for a supposedly popular incumbent. Taylor, meanwhile, has polled as low as 28 percent.
A recent Zogby poll pegged Hayes at 8.1 percent, and an Insider Advantage found his support at 9 percent. On Oct. 23, Strategic Vision, another Georgia pollster, placed him at 5 percent.
Political strategists are now suggesting that Taylor's only hope is to push Perdue into a runoff, which would reverse the race's momentum and invigorate Taylor's Democratic base.
Shipp figures that's not going to happen, because Hayes' numbers are likely to drop before the Nov. 7 election. For one thing, his policy proposals -- limiting government involvement in education to health and safety, for example -- are way out of the mainstream. For another, "he's not really a charismatic candidate," Shipp says. "And what experience does he have?"
Whatever support Hayes has been able to muster will drift away as Sonny and the Big Guy reel out their big-money attack ads, and as voters begin to focus on casting votes for one of the candidates who could possibly win, Shipp says.
Hayes counters all those negative ads will turn voters off even further from the two big-party candidates. Besides, he says, he has his own advertising planned for the closing days of the campaign. In their Sept. 30 campaign-finance statements, however, Perdue reported $6.5 million in the bank to Taylor's $1.1 million, while Hayes had just $1,900.
"Of course, I don't have the money they do," Hayes notes. "But I have a message."
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